Killer Heels

The fascinating – and sometimes chilling – history of high-heeled shoes

By Robin Jay

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Vivienne Westwood. “Super Elevated Gillie,” 1993. Courtesy of Vivienne Westwood. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Fifth Avenue window shoppers who marvel at the striking high-heel shoe styles of the season witness far more than trendy fashion statements – they’re taking in a history lesson – or at least the latest chapter in the ever-evolving chronological tale. The legacy of the high-heeled shoe bestows a tangible display of the metamorphosis of culture, architecture, social status, identity, sexuality and power through the ages.

No one is more familiar with this ‘podiatrical’ fashion legacy than Lisa Small, curator of Killer High Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe at the Brooklyn Museum, which runs through February 15, 2015.

“The high heel, an object as well as symbol, is an icon in popular culture,” Small said. “There’s a lot of great history there to explore, as well as an opportunity to look at some really innovative and visually interesting designs.”

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Chinese. Manchu Woman’s Shoe, 19th century. Cotton, embroidered satin-weave silk. Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Museum Collection, 34.1060 a, b. Brooklyn Museum photograph, Sarah DeSantis, photographer

The Dawn of the High Heel
Historians agree that heels present an oxymoron – they aim to enhance the illusion of movement by actually hindering it. Heels shorten the length of a woman’s stride, while giving the false appearance of speediness. But despite this deception of perception, both impractical and sensible use of heels dates back to ancient times.
Since 3500 B.C., Egyptian murals depict shoes as a distinction of class. Poor people went barefoot, while women and men in upper classes sported shoes made of leather straps that, to them, represented ‘Ankh,’ or life. Ironically, Egyptian meat cutters strapped on heels for quite the opposite purpose: to keep their feet from touching blood-soaked floors.

Domination and Restraint
Eventually, shoes went from a statement of class stature to use as a means of restriction. The rise of cork and wood platform overshoes called chopines rooted in Turkey in the 1400s – sometimes elevating women more than two feet taller than their natural height. The craze spread throughout Europe. Venetian women wore chopines to exemplify their social status. However, some visitors viewed them as comical and demeaning. According to fashion history author Colin McDowell, one tourist surmised that platform shoes must have been “invented by husbands who hoped the cumbersome movement entailed would make illicit liaisons difficult.” Historians like David Kunzle say high-heeled shoes were mandated among Turkish and Chinese concubines to keep them from escaping their harems.

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Christian Louboutin. “Printz,” Spring/Summer 2013–14. Courtesy of Christian Louboutin. Photo: Jay Zukerkorn

Innovating High Heels for Fashion
Fast-forward in history books to the 16th century and you’ll discover that 14-year-old Catherine de Medici is credited for formally inventing elevated shoes for fashion (and self-esteem-building) purposes. Standing less than 5 feet tall, the young girl was betrothed to marry the Duke of Orleans, soon to be crowned King of England. Becoming the Queen was intimidating to the somewhat homely Catherine, who was well aware that the King’s mistress stood much taller than she. To enhance her height and command a more attractive stance, Catherine wore two-inch heels at her wedding.

Her fashion plan worked. By 1580, French society equated high heels with wealth and privilege. And not just for women. Heels also assuaged the egos of French men. King Louis XIV in the 1700s donned ‘Louis Heels’ adorned with combat scenes. Narcissistically, he declared it illegal for civilians to wear shoes with heels higher than his, and that only royalty could be seen wearing heels painted red.

Fetishism of the Foot
A keenly arched foot, prompted by the ornamental rococo style of the 18th century, motivated shoemakers to design more narrow heels as a complement to a woman’s figure. As a result, according to Kunzle, women started ‘sculpting’ their feet to look more refined and aristocratic – taping them tightly to restrict growth. Across the pond, however, the sexual connotation associated with high heels led Puritans in Massachusetts to declare it illegal for women to wear them.

The Socialism of Shoes
Politically, shoes could make statements far more impacting than written slogans. During the French Revolution in 1791, Napoleon banned former King Louis’ high heels in attempt to make shoe wearing more equitable among the classes. Marie Antoinette, as her final snub in 1793, walked to her execution location wearing shoes with two-inch heels. Any wonder why the use of heels declined dramatically?

It wasn’t until the 1860s, with the invention of the sewing machine, that the renaissance of high heels revived. Victorians once again felt the exaggerated arch of the foot, enhanced with high heels, symbolized the desired shape of a woman’s body. And besides being physically attractive, shoe marketers advertised that wearing high heels offered health benefits, as well – such as back pain relief. Subsequently, growing consumer demand led to the opening of the first American high heel factory in 1888.

Yet the roller coaster of historical shoe trends – and differing opinions about them – continued. During the Depression of the 1930s and throughout the period of limited luxury during WWII in the 1940s, the trend in heel design became wider, thicker and lower. It wasn’t until the post-war 1950s when fashion designer Christian Dior consulted with French shoemaker Roger Vivier to create the ‘stiletto,’ a heel with a skinny, tapered blade-like shape named after the Italian term for dagger. The sexy nature of stilettos led some regions to outlaw wearing them in public.

Nevertheless, popularity of high heels soared through the 1970s, reaching an epitome of popularity when John Travolta hit the silver screen wearing thick-heeled platforms. The cultural changes of the 1970s caused sub groups to vie for attention, with both women and men seeking shock value in heels with wild swirls, shapes, patterns and colors. Simultaneously, however, a growing group of feminists and hippies protested by wearing comfortable flats and flip-flops. Shoes may not be able to talk, but they certainly have made clear statements throughout the ages.

Tour The Fascinating History
Through a tour of more than 160 artfully crafted historical and contemporary high heels from the 17th century to the present, the Killer Heels exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum examines the mystique and transformative power of the elevated shoe and its varied connections to fantasy, power, and identity.

“Killer Heels will be of interest to people who recognize that fashion is a form of material culture that can reveal quite a bit about the personal, social, and cultural concerns of the era it comes from. Hopefully, visitors will come away from the exhibition with a sense of the history of the high heel and its significance in the collective cultural imagination.”

Killer Heels