The high heel has long been a symbol of fantasy, eroticism, and beauty within the western psyche. Indeed, we can all picture the quintessential stiletto with its black leather finish and spike heel, but as a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum attests, the history and diversity of this storied shoe spans far beyond the western world and the basic black pump. Entitled Killer Heels: The Art of the High Heeled Shoe, the exhibit provides an expansive look at the style, with more than 160 pairs of shoes from antiquity to the present. But the show does more than simply take you through time chronologically, and the objects presented are more than just shoes.
The show opens with a fashion-centric, pop-art-esque video called “Spike” by American artist Zach Gold. This is the first of six short films sprinkled throughout the exhibit, which were all specially commissioned and inspired by high heels. The films invigorate the show, making a case for the many facets of the high heel, as well as the legitimacy of the contemporary styles – of which there are many – asserting the shoes’ artistry by placing them alongside contemporaneous makers of a different medium.
The best of these is Steven Klein’s “Untitled, 791,” which features three vignettes. In the first, a woman destroys the hood of a red car with the metal rods of her immaculate patent leather stilettos, scratching off the paint in long, shrieking streaks. The second employs a similarly dominatrix vibe, in which a woman’s feet, clad in fishnets and black ankle strap pointy toed platforms, are pestered by an electric toy car. The toy bumps against her legs repeatedly, perhaps like a cat-caller might with his words. She destroys it, ramming her heels into the tiny car until it is in smithereens. The third vignette features two half-naked men on the ground, blindfolded. A woman enters wearing massive, clear plastic platforms and proceeds to step on the second man’s chest. Together, the three provide an aesthetic and clear expression of the themes of female empowerment achieved through high heels threaded throughout the show.
In addition to video, the exhibit also incorporates paintings and other decorative arts like furniture and ceramics to illustrate the regurgitation of ideas and the breadth of inspiration that is so central to the fashion system. In the first gallery, a pair of gold embossed evening sandals by designer Andre Perugia dated between 1928 and 1929 is juxtaposed with a pair of nude patent leather with carved gilt platforms from Miu Miu’s F/W 2006 collection. These are both placed next to a French table from 1845 with the same gilt carved wood floral motif found in each pair of shoes. In the same room, Salvatore Feragamo’s iconic 1938 rainbow suede platform wedge with gold leather upper is placed adjacent to a child’s stacking toy from the same year. In a later gallery, an indigo printed patent leather wedge with carved wood heel made by Rodarte in 2011 is shown next to a porcelain china vase. Other pairings include a sinewy wood table base by Vladimir Kagan with Nicolas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga sandals, as well as Rem Koolhaas’ united nude heels and a Charles Eames wire chair.
These juxtapositions continue with eastern styles of antiquity and their modern interpretations. Red silk platforms with floral bottoms from Prada 2013 are shown with Manchu woman’s shoes from the Qing Dynasty, which resemble intricately embroidered ballet flats atop rounded, rectangular pedestals. In fact, these pedestals are the platform soles. A bright moss green silk Turkish evening slipper from between 1865 and 1885 is shown alongside white, pearl encrusted Roger Vivier evening slippers from nearly 100 years later. Japanese Geta from the 20th century are paired with Maison Martin Margielia split toe pumps inspired by the socks, called Tabi, traditionally worn with the Geta. The list goes on.
Other highlights of the show include two takes on Cinderella’s glass slippers, one from the 30s by George Sakier and another from 2014 by Georgina Goodman; a 1955 pair of Rapaport Brothers “Satellite” Jumping Shoes; Celine 2013 Trompe L’oeil pumps; Elsa Schiaparelli’s famed Shoe Hat; ThreeASFOUR 3-D printed wedges; four-inch-long “Lotus Shoes” for bound feet from the Qing Dynasty; and Iris Schieferstein “Horse Shoes” with real hooves forming the toe box. Curator Lisa Small makes a moving and inspiring case for the artistry of the heeled shoe, both historical and contemporary, and the show is as incredible as it is huge. The show is open through February 15, 2015, and is free with General Admission for anyone 19 years old or younger. Take a friend and go on the weekend—I promise you won’t regret it.