I have always been one to smirk at the word “shoe-gasm”—until I experienced several this past weekend at the Brooklyn Museum’s newest long-term exhibit, Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe. The exhibit, which opened on September 10th and will remain until February 15th, takes museum-goers through the history of the illustrious history of the iconic shoe, from its very inception in the days of 16th century court life, to its most recent manifestations on celebrities and runways alike. Sure, the display is more than educational—it explains that heels were first worn by Persian men, as a way to prevent their shoes from slipping out of their stirrups. Fascinatingly enough, the heeled shoe spread to Europe as the ultimate masculine accessory. But the heel quickly evolved into a symbol of status and nobility, and of course, soon women took over the trend. The rest, as you know, is very fashionable history.
Some of the oldest shoes at the exhibit included several delicate pairs of chopines from the Italian Renaissance—platform shoes initially created to help women keep their skirts off the dirty streets (some chopines could reach the incredible height of 20 inches. Fierce.) Along the same vein, the exhibit also has several pairs of heels from Eastern and Asian countries, including Chinese platform slippers from the 19th century, miniscule heeled slippers for bound feet, geta (Japanese wooden flip-flops with a platform made of two vertical boards), and a curious pair of Persian sandals on a foot-high platform, meant for wear in bath houses to avoid getting the feet wet.
But at some point the educational aspect stops—and you’re simply exposed to the most jaw-droppingly beautiful pairs of shoes ever created. Jeweled heels, incredibly sharp stiletto points, bulky platforms, lace and feathers and silk and beads… It’s a feast for the eyes that includes both the whimsical and the practical, the architectural and the sexual. At some point, the heel becomes eroticized, fetishized—a highlight of the exhibit is definitely a video of Betty Page walking in a pair of heels so high that she looks as if she’s on pointe (conveniently, a similar pair of ballerina heels by Louboutin is displayed in a nearby glass case).
Overall, the exhibit is a gem filled with gems—Marilyn Monroe’s signature black Ferragamo pumps reside next to a pair of black leather boots with golden figures climbing on it (custom made for Lady Gaga’s fragrance release). Glass slippers are in the same room as a pair of heels made from actual horse hooves and a pair of heels so agriculturally aware that the heel has a mechanism that releases plant seeds into the ground as you walk. Manolo Blahnik is neighbors with Prada and Chanel; Roger Vivier and Vivienne Westwood both have groundbreakingly modern takes on the heel.
Ultimately, the girl’s best friend becomes more than just the best part of her closet at Killer Heels—the high heel simply becomes a work of art with a rich history of distinction, experimentation, and deep devotion from its adoring cult of fans.
All photos from The Brooklyn Museum
by Sasha Henriques