Today “Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe” opens at the Brooklyn Museum. The show explores the historical and cultural significance of heels from the 17th century to now, and includes over 160 heels, from early Italian chopines and embroidered silk Chinese Manchu platforms to the Balenciaga block heel, a pair of red, studded, knee-high Louboutin boots, and even Marilyn Monroe’s own Salvatore Ferragamo stilettos.
“Platform shoes go back almost 2,000 years — even before the Renaissance,” explains Lisa Small, who curated the show. “They’ve been around since the first century B.C., if not earlier. There are these amazing little statues of Aphrodite wearing these enormous platform shoes.” What’s interesting, Small says, is that while styles and traditions have changed — in some cases, drastically: when high heels were first introduced to Western fashion in the 16th century, they were worn exclusively by men — their cultural significance has remained fairly consistent. “Historically and sociologically, they’ve always been associated with notions of privilege, status, and power.”
Throughout the ages, high heels have also been something of an engineering conundrum. “Even in the 18th century, there were points where heels were getting to be, like, five inches or so — but it was always a challenge to get heels that high that were also somewhat stable,” Small says. “Stilettos were almost willed into existence — it wasn’t until 1950 that they would make a reliably strong stiletto heel, with extruded steel in the heel itself.”
Yet despite these practical obstacles — paired with the fact that high heels have never been particularly conducive to movement — they’ve never seemed in any danger of disappearing. “There’s always going to be that power, that aura,” says Small. “With fashion cycles, it seems like everyone is always like, ‘It’s all about flats this season’ — but high heels aren’t going anywhere.”
In addition to the shoes themselves, the exhibit also features six short videos commissioned by the museum especially for the show — all loosely inspired by high heels — by a diverse set of filmmakers, including Nick Knight, Steven Klein, Marilyn Minter, and Rashaad Newsome. (You can preview Newsome’s video, “Knot,” here.) Click through the slideshow for a preview of the shoes on display, ranging from conceptual designs by Rem Koolhaas to Vivienne Westwood’s “Super Gille” to evening slippers by Christian Dior.