When you hear the phrase “killer heels,” what do you think of — hot, sexy footwear or torture devices?
The title of the Currier Museum of Art’s latest exhibition, “Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe,” offers multiple interpretations, and curator Lisa Small traversed them all while putting it together.
The show, originally at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, hits on empowerment, objectification, practicality (yes, that’s right), beauty and fashion. It details high-heel history along with its display of about 150 shoes — wedges, stilettos, platforms — from old-fashioned to futuristic, brand-new to 300 years old. Some are made by designers you might never find in the stores you frequent, like Prada, Alexander McQueen, Christian Louboutin and Jean Paul Gaultier.
The aim of the exhibition is not to validate heels as appropriate footwear, Small said, but to encourage people to look at them as fantastically designed and constructed cultural objects, mini sculptures that just happen to fit on feet.
“Some people love them. Some people hate them. The high-heeled shoe is one of the most contentious objects we have ever designed in the history of Western culture,” said Manchester furniture artist Vivian Beer, who made a heel-inspired lounge for the museum in honor of this show. “But that’s one of the things that’s beautiful about art in general. … It gets to have many meanings to many different people.”
Creating “Killer Heels”
“Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe” is a traveling show, first configured by Small, curator of exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Her former director, Arnold Lehman, proposed the idea after a conversation he’d had with filmmaker Zach Gold (whose film would eventually be one of six in the show), reportedly saying to her, “Lisa, you wear high heels. You’re going to do this show for us.”
The exhibition she devised is made up of six themes: “Revival and Reinterpretation,” “Rising in the East,” “Glamour and Fetish,” “Metamorphosis,” “Architecture” and “Space Walk.” Pieces come from the Brooklyn Museum, the Bata Shoe Museum, in Toronto, Ontario, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and many individual designers.
Breaking up the footwear are six films about high-heel culture by Gold, Marilyn Minter, Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh, Nick Knight, Steven Klein and Rashaad Newsome.
The first home for “Killer Heels” was the Brooklyn Museum of Art, from September 2014 to March 2015. From there, it traveled to the Albuquerque Museum until August, the Palm Springs Art Museum in California until January, and it’s in Manchester Feb. 6 through May 15.
“The staff started considering the exhibition in early 2013. It seemed like a step in a new direction for the Currier, and when we look for exhibitions from outside our collection, we want to find ones that would be of interest to the communities we serve and that stretch us a bit,” Steve Konick, Currier director of PR and marketing, wrote in an email. “What really sold us was that this is a really well-conceived exhibition and included multiple perspectives on the history and cultural role that high heels have played, and continue to play. The six videos in the show provide even more depth on those subjects.”
Skeptical about a show featuring high heels? You’re not alone.
“It’s a room full of shoes. But when you’re in the exhibition, all the shoes are so different from one another. There’s also a variety in terms of chronology. Some of the older shoes go back 300 years,” said Samantha Cataldo, assistant curator at the Currier. “Footwear is an extension of fashion, and fashion is an extension of all material culture — things we make, decorate our lives and living spaces with. And those things are indicative of our culture as a whole.”
Before you can get to the “Killer Heels” show — which begins behind double doors plastered with a vinyl poster of red thigh-high boots — you have to walk through a small installation of dancing art called “Fancy Footwork,” which contains about 20 photos and paintings from the Currier’s collection, everything from famous dancing celebrities, like Fred Astaire, to dancing scenes, like the painting, “The Rehearsal,” by Peter Milton.
Assistant curator Samantha Cataldo offered a walk-through about a week before opening, when text panels were still in their paper form, splashed on walls with blue tape, and people with ladders and power tools were constructing the mini-movie theaters to show the short films.
But all the shoes were there, starting with those in the “Revival and Reinterpretation” theme, where pieces of similar styles spanning generations sat beside one another. In some cases, the age differences are hardly noticeable, as in the very first glass box, where “Cammeo Baroque” by Miu Miu and “Marie-Antoinette” by Christian Louboutin are nestled beside a shoe from the 1700s, one that King Louis XV of France might have worn.
Another case housed sky-high platform heels — one, made by Casuccio e Scalera in the ‘70s, had a wedge resembling a rainbow quilt, and beside it was a violet stiletto, “Rose N’Roll,” made by Roger Vivier in 2012.
Cataldo said her favorite collection of footwear is the “Rising in the East” portion because of its variety. Here you’ll find 19th-century stilt-like Syrian sandals with dangling black beads standing alongside Eastern-inspired footwear designed by Project Runway winner Christian Siriano. Some of them, like “Atom,” made by Noritaka Tatehana in 2012, hardly even look as though they could fit feet inside them — this one’s made of faux black leather and looks like a foot standing tiptoe on a leather block.
Men in heels
Show viewers not well-versed in art history may be surprised to learn high heels weren’t always sexualized objects created to provide height, elongate legs and tone calves in women.
“Heels today are only worn by women and are thought of as extremely feminine and very sexualized, but that’s just what it means to us now. There was a time in history in which heels were worn primarily by men,” Cataldo said.
Elevated shoes were actually first seen in Eastern civilizations, according to the curatorial research. Greek male actors wore raised-sole boots to give the appearance their characters were powerful, though the shoes also offered practical purposes. Persian cavalrymen wore them to help keep their feet in stirrups during combat, while others wore them to keep their feet above pooling water in bathhouses or to raise them above the mud in city streets. (Speaking of men in shoes, the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto has a show, “Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels,” on view now through June 2016. Boston-based shoe designer Zack Lo, who visits for presentation to go along with “Killer Heels” in April, is working on concepts for high-heeled shoes for men.)
King Louis XV of France popularized the high heel during his reign in the mid-1700s, making it fashionable to secure high-heel shoes with ornamental straps or buckles, and he also established red heels as a feature of male courtiers’ dress.
“One of the things that surprised me was seeing how something that started out as so practical … turned into something very impractical. I don’t think anyone thinks of heels as practical shoes. They’re not rain boots, not sneakers. They don’t have a specific purpose. Their purpose is to be beautiful and interesting, and all those things,” Cataldo said.
Drama and transformation
Drama and high heels go hand in hand, particularly in the exhibition’s “Glamour and Fetish” portion. Here you’ll find thigh-high, glittery and studded heels. One, “Stocking Shoe” by Beth Levine, has fishnet stockings already attached, and another heel, an enormously high boot, has little gold men climbing up — this is the “Lady Gaga Shoe” by Rem D. Koolhaas.
One of Cataldo’s favorite cases in this section has a danger theme. It contains a shoe by Iris Van Herpen that literally had horns encircling the heel’s inside, and another by Giuseppe Zanotti decorated with a gold scorpion buckle. Another case has a pair of Christian Louboutin pumps that wouldn’t fit anyone except a ballerina, with heels that force feet perpendicular to the ground.
“There’s also this historic allure to shoes — they transform how you walk, how you carry yourself, and they also transform how you present yourself to the outer world,” said Kimberly Alexander, a UNH Durham professor of art and architectural history who is also a shoe expert — she curated “Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850,” on view at the Portsmouth Athenaeum last spring.
You take up more space when you wear heels, and why women wore them also relates to why it was once fashionable to sport gigantic gowns and big, impractical hairstyles. They forced you to take up more space, thus implying you were important. If you were wearing heels, it meant you weren’t part of the working class, because of course they weren’t practical.
If you wore heels, “You were a lady of leisure. You didn’t work. You had people help you walk, which reflected well on the family,” Alexander said. “The idea behind the shoes was to create this whole theatrical image. … And it becomes a very suggestive manifestation as well. You’ll see all these prints of, in the 18th century, a boy looking in a window at a girl putting on shoes or taking them off.”
Transformation is most evident in the show’s “Metamorphosis” segment, which starts with different styles of Cinderella glass slippers. Here, you’ll see shoes that become teacup handles, flowers, animals and faces and teeny-tiny shoes worn by Chinese women with bound feet in the 19th century. There are heels with googly eyes and designs that look like tree roots, and one shoe has a goal to transform not the wearer, but the land surrounding her — “Healing Fukushima,” with flowers adorning its heel, actually plants seeds into the ground as you walk.
Modern high heels
Lots of shoes in the show, including those within its “Architecture” and “Space Walk” segments, couldn’t exist in any other period because of their structural and material requirements. They’re made with plastic, plexiglass, screws and metals never considered in shoemaking before the 20th century.
The architectural influence is obvious in “Eiffel Tower Pump” by Jean Paul Gaultier, which is adorned with Eiffel Tower heel sculptures, and in Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid’s “NOVA,” which looks like a wonky metal Slinky bent in all the wrong places, not at all like something you’d fit a foot into.
In others, it’s less so — those from the 1950s look like ordinary high heels, but they actually represent some of the world’s first stilettos.
“Shoes have to be engineered and designed a certain way to be able to stand up,” Cataldo said. “That super-thin heel — they weren’t really able to make that until the ‘50s because that’s when extruded heels were possible.”
One case contains a few shoes that appear to have invisible heels, like “Eamz” by Rem D. Koolhaas and “Project 3” by Finsk. The orange and black “Blade Heel” by Chau Har Lee looks like something Maleficent would wear, offering incredible height, Halloween colors and a stainless steel, knife-like heel.
These pieces represent things possible in the 20th century, the age of race cars and rockets, nylon and plastics. A pair of Pradas in this section has a back that looks like a race car, with bright orange lights. They represent an age in which design possibilities are endless. It’s an exciting field to be looking at, Alexander said.
“And with 3D printing going on, there’s a chance to change the forms, materials and accessibility of shoes,” Alexander said. “They can reach a much larger expanse of people, even in countries where the affordability of shoes is a challenge.”
Not just for fashionistas
There’s been a lot of anticipation for the “Killer Heels” stop in New England. Maybe it’s because of pop culture — fashion magazines, plus shows like Sex and the City and Project Runway certainly help — but people, women especially, seem to have affection for shoes that they don’t really have for other kinds of clothing, Alexander said.
“How many pairs of shoes have you never gotten rid of? You have associations with shoes, with graduations, weddings, special occasions,” Alexander said. “And I think when you look at heels and how they’ve been re-interpreted over time … there’s a lot more consistency than you might think. Only recently have things started to change so much with the abilities of technology.”
Alexander has been waist-deep in the subject for a few years now, having also served as curator at the Strawbery Banke Museum, but she’s noticed shoe history in particular has gained a lot of traction worldwide. She mentioned another show she attended in London this summer, “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain,” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which will travel to the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts in November.
“It’s a funny thing, when you work in a subject for a long time. You start to notice certain trends are heading your way. There have been a number of books out on shoes the last 10 years, particularly as fashion has become so incredibly popular,” Alexander said.
Kevin Wery, managing partner at Boston-based design company Zack Lo Shoes, said they’ve found that high-heels continue to have mass appeal, as do fashion exhibits worldwide.
“We are excited to see the exhibit come to New England, to where shoes were manufactured for many, many years until the labor was outsourced to China,” Wery wrote in an email. “There is a big desire now to have designer shoes that are handmade or bespoke, that don’t look like they are mass-produced in a factory. Those details differ slightly in each pair, making each unique.”
Konick said people at the museum weren’t worried about limiting audiences to “shoe people.”
“In truth, these objects aren’t just about women’s fashion, they’re also about art, architecture and engineering. Those are subjects that should be gender-neutral, in my opinion. That said, I have the suspicion that there will be a lot of men in the galleries who will easily get pulled into this fascinating show by the amazing high-heel shoe designs that have been conceived over the years,” Konick said.
Clayton said he’d be stopping in.
“Speaking from the perspective of a man, there’s something about the high-heeled shoe that’s inherently sexy. Men can say that because we don’t have to wear them,” Clayton said.