A Comparison of the Brooklyn Museum’s Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe And the V&A’s Shoes: Pleasure & Pain

By Carolina Reyes

Christian Louboutin heels with metal spike stiletto. The stiletto got its name from a Sicilian knife according to the Killer Heels exhibition.

Christian Louboutin heels with metal spike stiletto. The stiletto got its name from a Sicilian knife according to the Killer Heels exhibition.

Shortly after my arrival to London in mid-September, I was surprised to see advertisements for the V&A’s latest fashion display Shoes: Pleasure & Pain (June 13, 2015 – January 31, 2016). After all, it had only been a year since I had seen a similarly titled exhibition, Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe (September 10, 2014 – March 1, 2015) at the Brooklyn Museum, and it seemed unusual for two world-renowned institutions to put on exhibitions with such striking parallels within a short span of time.

Roger Vivier heels. Vivier designed shoes for Christian Dior from 1953 to 1963 and a pair of his creations for Dior is pictured above. They show how Vivier experimented with form in the curves of the heels.

Roger Vivier heels. Vivier designed shoes for Christian Dior from 1953 to 1963 and a pair of his creations for Dior is pictured above. They show how Vivier experimented with form in the curves of the heels.

 

Indeed, the advertisements featuring high-fashion model Nadja Auermann in crutches struggling up a set of stairs in a pair of sky-high and needle thin stilettos which surely test the acceptable limits of sensible footwear (even if for fashion’s sake) prepares the viewer for an exhibition more closely resembling Killer Heels – one that explores solely the high heel as a status symbol, fetish object and source of power throughout human history – than the one actually encountered.

The viewer quickly realizes that Shoes does indeed live up to its name, and whilst high heels and their association with fetishism and sexuality are certainly explored throughout the lower-level of Shoes, the wider range of artefacts, including pieces of footwear designed for men such as David Beckham’s “Brooklyn” football boots, provides the viewer with a more nuanced and holistic appreciation of the history and cultural significance of shoes.

David Beckham’s ‘Brooklyn’ football boots in action. These design were worn by Beckham from 2000-2001 and can now be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition.

David Beckham’s ‘Brooklyn’ football boots in action. These design were worn by Beckham from 2000-2001 and can now be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Shoes Pleasure and Pain exhibition.

Furthermore, the exhibition’s examination of the shoe as a commodity and collectible item throughout the upper-level was an important theme, which I felt had gone unexamined in Killer Heels. And, by more closely scrutinizing the impact of globalization on the industry of shoe production, I found it fascinating to learn in this section that in 1986 China produced just eight per cent of the world’s footwear, whilst today it is estimated that six out of ten pairs of shoes in the world are made there.

However, although Shoes’ stark displays of footwear fanatics’ collections in this segment did showcase society’s irrational obsession, Shoes and Killer Heels alike, could have taken more critical stances on our perhaps excessive preoccupation with designer footwear. Instead, both exhibitions seemed to pander to our fixation to possess couture shoes and their connection to celebrity culture. For example, Shoes justified the inclusion of a pair of Jimmy Choos because Carrie Bradshaw (a shoe fanatic in her own right) of Sex and the City exclaimed that she had “lost my Choo,” and greatly elevated the eponymous designer’s profile.

There were many similarities between Killer Heels and Shoes. Most notably, their utilization of documentary-style films to chronicle the creation of shoes from design to development, in addition to use of movie clips to draw connections between shoe styles and epochs.

Both Killer Heels and Shoes were beautifully curated and certainly each worth a visit (or a look at their videos online, see source links) as they provided the viewer with various, fascinating perspectives on iconic footwear from all over the world.

Sources:

https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/heels/

http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/shoes-pleasure-and-pain/

Shoes: Pain and Pleasure Review

Heels by HM Rayne

Heels by HM Rayne

Adidas sneakers collection

Adidas sneakers collection

As the title  – Shoes: Pleasure & Pain – indicates, the V&A’s latest exhibition aims to grab the viewer’s attention. If not through the appeal of footwear itself, then by the suggestion of eroticism that is underlined further by the choice of Helmut Newton’s provocative image ‘High & Mighty’ of 1995 as both catalogue cover and poster. This photograph shows supermodel Nadja Auermann awkwardly scaling steps in shoes that are so vertiginous she needs not just crutches, but two burly male helpers to make it to the summit.  This photoshoot has been controversial – since its first publication there has been comment about its use of imagery of disability for a fashion spread. By using this as publicity the museum is therefore courting media attention and aligning the show with sex and fetish as key themes.  This may entice visitors, but what of the content and curation itself?

From the displays focusing on eroticism and shoes

From the displays focusing on eroticism and shoes

The exhibition is split into two parts – and that difficult central space in the Fashion Court is put to good use. Completely reimagined, the downstairs area is clad in deep purple – velvet drapes and deep pile carpet soften the interior and mute sound. It is a sensory experience to walk through the dimly lit galleries, conscious of the feel of the fabric, even if one may not touch. This is heightened by the contrasting bright red of some of the displays – and gives the effect of a louche boudoir, or peep show. In turn, the themes focused upon explore consumers’ and wearers’ desire for shoes, and span a wide historical and geographical period to underline persistent connections between shoes and sexuality.  It is no surprise that risqué lingerie brand Agent Provocateur was part sponsor of the exhibition: its ad campaigns and underwear mirror the sensory overload here.

Climbing the stairs, the mood changes completely, the visitor enters a clinical realm of brightly lit white space, that signals the exhibition’s shift from emotional connections to shoes, to focus on designing and making, before it twists back again to look at obsession, via several avid shoe collectors’ most treasured footwear wardrobes.

Manolo Blahnik discusses his work.

Manolo Blahnik discusses his work.

This area shows everything from the shoes’ component pieces, to digital 3D designs and intriguing insights into functional, sports shoe design versus heel prototypes for fashion shoes.  If downstairs reinforced the idea of shoes as items of lust and myth, then here, one is opened up to the process of creation, with videos showing key designers, including Manolo Blahnik explaining their approach.  The fact that Sex and the City raised Blahnik’s name to international notoriety denotes another aspect of shoes’ status in recent years – as a staple media-trope of female desire and excess. And while this exhibition certainly plays to this idea, it makes clear men’s interest in shoes too, in relation to sexuality, but also obsessive collection and fetishisation of another kind – as demonstrated in one man’s collection of box fresh sneakers.

As with many of its fashion shows, entertainment plays a prominent role, and the exhibition is not short of spectacle. However, this is underpinned by a strong foundation of research and a desire to provoke visitors, not just to be dazzled by the array of beautiful objects, but also to think about their creation and cultural meanings.