Killer Heels : Fashion, Obsession, Beauty

In his 1701 portrait, Louis XIV of France wears red-heeled shoes.  While it seems like a minor detail, especially given the opulence of the king’s robes, the poppy red shade sends an instant message–status. Louis XIV even passed an edict limiting red heels to the wardrobes of nobility. Today, red soles are the trademark of Christian Louboutin, whose stiletto pumps cost upwards of $700. Not much has changed since the 18th century with regards to red heels and their mesmerizing effect.

shoes

The themes of status, fetish and fashion are explored in an exhibit “Killer Heels” hosted by Brooklyn Museum. “As fashion statement, fetish object, instrument of power, and outlet of artistic expression for both the designer and the wearer, throughout the ages the high-heeled shoe has gone through many shifts in style and symbolism. Deadly sharp stilettos, architecturally inspired wedges and platforms, and a number of artfully crafted shoes that defy categorization are featured among the more than 160 historical and contemporary heels on loan from designers,” explains the catalog.

The exhibit includes work of renowned designers such as Christian Louboutin, Alexander McQueen, André Perugia, Prada, Elsa Schiaparelli, Noritaka Tatehana, Vivienne Westwood, among many others. It also traces mentions and depictions of heels in paintings and sculptures, some of which date as far back as the 12th century.

Even if you can’t make it to the exhibit, please take a look at the video on the Brooklyn Museum site.

Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe
Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, NY 11238
Robert E. Blum Gallery, 1st Floor
September 10, 2014–February 15, 2015

Image: Louis XIV of France by Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701 (a detail).

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49 Comments

  • Michaela: Very nice idea! I like the video very much, I admit I’d wear today some of the heels over there. Red shoes, also.
    Interesting. I had no idea Louis XIV wore red heeled shoes and he decided only noble men should do so. I find the king chose to pose in a very uncomfortable position for this portrait. He should have stood this way for hours and hours until he got painted. Beauty calls for some sacrifice. January 22, 2015 at 7:32am Reply

    • Victoria: I love read shoes, and I have 3 pairs. One is a simple ballet flat, and one time when I was wearing them, an elderly gentleman commented, “Mademoiselle, your shoes light up the whole street.” It was a grey, rainy afternoon in Paris. January 22, 2015 at 10:28am Reply

      • Michaela: Very sweet comment! January 22, 2015 at 10:34am Reply

        • Victoria: It was unexpected and very charming. January 22, 2015 at 3:27pm Reply

      • euphrosyne: I love what he said to you! So charming! Made me smile… January 22, 2015 at 10:16pm Reply

        • Victoria: It was a charmingly delivered compliment. January 23, 2015 at 2:51pm Reply

  • Marsha: I do not claim to be a fashionista in any way, and do not live where shoes similar to these are seen on a regular basis, so I cannot really appreciate shoes like this. Some of them remind me of Chinese foot-binding. I remember seeing an article about Christian Loubouton when his shoes were really becoming popular. In the article, he remarked rather scornfully that he didn’t make his shoes to be comfortable. If I have to wear a pair of sky high stillettoes for a man to find me sexy, then I ask issue him this challenge: Find some in your size and you walk around in them for a few days. I can appreciate that some of the shoes shown in the video look like works of art. And works of art belong on the wall or on a shelf. (Victoria, please forgive my nasty comment, but shoes have always been articles of torture to me because I have a hard size to find and an extra high arch. And the fact that women might want to wear these awful things is just beyond me.) However, I can appreciate the exhibit very much. January 22, 2015 at 8:18am Reply

    • Michaela: Brilliant idea! I can imagine a man wearing high stilletto heels for you! January 22, 2015 at 8:36am Reply

      • Victoria: Yes, that would be fun!
        I once took a ballet class with a former dancer from Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an all male troop that dances en pointe. A size 10 pointe shoe in pink satin was a sight to behold! 🙂 January 22, 2015 at 10:40am Reply

        • Hannah: Rick Owens came out with heels and wedges for men, but no stilettos. January 22, 2015 at 1:31pm Reply

          • Victoria: I just googled them, and they’re beautiful! January 22, 2015 at 3:22pm Reply

    • Victoria: Yes, one need not wear high heels to enjoy the exhibit. I don’t wear high heels often, but I appreciate the artistry of the examples and the long history behind them. As for Louboutin, the whole notion of wearing something (high heels, specific type of lingerie or perfume) to attract men seems silly to me. If one manages to attract a guy solely through such things, then he’s not a guy worth attracting. So, I also don’t see why someone who doesn’t find high heels comfortable should wear them. January 22, 2015 at 10:37am Reply

      • Hannah: I feel like men are rarely interested in what women think. I’m really into lingerie so I was looking at the Agent Provocateur website and I asked the guy I was seeing what he liked the most so I could judge his taste and he just thought most of it was weird. January 22, 2015 at 1:37pm Reply

        • Victoria: I think that it’s more like men are less interested in some things than women think. 🙂 And also, many women enjoy fashion, makeup and other things just because they like them, not because they want to attract men. January 22, 2015 at 3:25pm Reply

          • Hannah: Yes, I worded the first sentence strangely because I often have trouble typing what my brain is thinking.
            I think most people who truly like those things aren’t concerned about male attention. I know my makeup obsessed friends aren’t (actually, none of them are heterosexual). However, when girls/women are told to do or wear certain things, the answer is usually “because boys/men will like it”. But for makeup and fashion, it’s usually advertising and not based on what men actually like. It doesn’t make much sense to dress for men anyway, though. I dress for myself and whoever will appreciate it, which is usually women. I want to attract men to some extent, but only those who like how I dress or what perfume I wear.
            My stance isn’t the old “don’t wear blue eyeshadow; men actually hate it!!”, sorry if my comment came across that way! January 24, 2015 at 4:20pm Reply

            • Victoria: I agree. I was talking about it with a girlfriend yesterday, and we were commenting that compliments from women on our appearance or perfume are much nicer than compliments from men. 🙂 January 24, 2015 at 4:24pm Reply

    • Austenfan: It’s funny your mentioning Chinese foot-binding and Louboutins. They are invariably linked in my mind as well. I haven’t worn heels in ages, mainly because I can’t walk on them at all these days and I’m plenty tall enough without.

      When I still worked as a registrar in Radiology I remember looking at x-rays of some woman’s feet where the whole anatomy had been very distorted by the too frequent wear of very high heels. Judging from those x-rays she could barely walk at all. January 22, 2015 at 3:52pm Reply

      • Victoria: My friend is an orthopedist, and he’s been fuming about ballet flats, which are just as bad for feed as very high heels. High heels, on the other hand, are hard on the Achilles tendon, and if you have a naturally short one, you won’t find high heels comfortable. January 23, 2015 at 2:36pm Reply

        • Austenfan: That’s an interesting point, thanks for bringing it up. I think with heels it also depends on how high the heels really are. The gorgeous ones sported by Louis XIV are I think probably quite harmless but todays killerheels are anything but.
          I need to think on how ballet flats harm the feet. But most “sensible” ( bless the English for finding such a great word!) shoes have a bit of a heel. One of my favourite brands Wolky actually uses a fairly thick heel in their sturdy shoes and they are extremely comfortable. So there must be a point to their doing so.
          Come to think of it, my hiking boots have a heel as well.

          When I was a student I could actually run on my “high” heels these days I resemble a stumbling elephant and nearly limp the next day, so my dislike might be prompted by mere jealousy 😉 January 24, 2015 at 2:31pm Reply

          • Victoria: Another reason many women find heels more difficult as they get older is because of the loss of muscle tone and flexibility in the feet. Our feet have lots of little muscles, and we generally don’t exercise many of them. I became aware of it when I quit dancing en pointe. The good news are that it’s not too difficult to develop, even just doing simple releves, rising to the balls of the feet. January 24, 2015 at 4:21pm Reply

            • Austenfan: For me it is partly that and partly that when wearing high heels you increase your lumbar lordosis. Which means that the next day my back aches.
              It’s difficult to find any really good articles but the general consensus is that if the foot is well supported and the heels are not higher than 5 centimeters one is fine. So I am guessing Louis XIV was fine!

              But I agree that with a dress or a skirt high heels look that much nicer! January 25, 2015 at 6:02am Reply

            • Marilyn Stanonis: Victoria, thank you for bringing up the simple foot exercises. I was never a dancer, but my first job ever was playing piano in a dancing studio on Saturday mornings. During the warm-up and exercise part of each lesson the teacher would talk on the telephone and I would conduct the lesson, while the students were at the barre, calling out what they were to do next. After many, many years I still remember the moves, and the positions of the feet, and have begun to do them again, myself. They are helping me already. Thank you for suggesting the exercises, and for reviving an old and dear memory! Marilyn Stanonis February 5, 2015 at 8:17pm Reply

              • Victoria: Even doing something simple like pointing toes or doing circles with your feet makes a big difference. I often do these exercises whenever I’m sitting down to write. It feels so good. February 9, 2015 at 7:47am Reply

        • Rowanhill: I can only confirm your friend’s point of view. Mind you, I have a significant collection of high heels but also an army of ballet flats, the shoe of choice for everyday errands, which in fact were the culprit of a hair fracture on one of the metacarpals, not the high heels. Took ages to heal. 🙂 My 12 cm Louboutins heels are mainly for sitting down and looking pretty. :- D January 29, 2015 at 6:01am Reply

          • Victoria: That’s a nasty injury, because it takes such a long time to heal. Ironically, ballet flats were also the only shoes that ever made my feet hurt for days. In one instance, it was because a model had a high back that rubbed against my Achilles tendon (I was in such pain that I dropped into a cheap shoe store to buy any random pair just to get home). In another, the shoe had little support and I ended up with lots of pain in my arches. January 29, 2015 at 11:43am Reply

  • Brenda: Thank you for introducing such an interesting topic. My comment will be about heels. Like most women, I own flat heels and high to higher heels. I have observed many times over what a difference my footwear choices make as to how people interact with me…and I will say that a higher heel always seems to gain a more positive affect. When I wear a flat shoe, or boot, regardless of colour, I appear to be much less noticeable…taken less seriously. I often wear a heel of some sort…..only because I am of a short stature. This observation has always fascinated me, and it is an equal reaction from males and females….colleagues, sales or service personnel. I wonder if this in fact dates very far back in history when stature…height….put a person in a higher social standing. How silly if this is so! I stick to my point, however, and am amazed at how often I observe this in my day to day life. Today it is slippery and I will wear flats….and have decided to wear Roma perfume…it is a cold and cloudy winter day in Canada! January 22, 2015 at 11:29am Reply

    • Hannah: I work in a job where almost no one sees me so I can’t compare how people interact with me in professional settings, but whenever I wear heels, I just notice more sexual harassment. I’m 5’0″ by the way.
      I wear Adidas daily (I think I’m going to get Onitsuka Tigers next, though) and it doesn’t seem to get negative responses. I’m actually complimented on my style kind of often. But I have kind of a sporty chic, kind of like Rihanna at times, style. It kind of annoys me when people (generally speaking) associate heels with caring about fashion. January 22, 2015 at 1:29pm Reply

      • Victoria: It’s really fascinating to see how many strong responses heels can evoke! January 22, 2015 at 3:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: I remember reading The Economist article discussing the statistics and showing the over the past couple of decades CEOs have been getting taller and taller. And that the height can be a good determinant how far you can get up the corporate ladder. At least, this holds for men; I don’t remember whether their data included women. January 22, 2015 at 3:18pm Reply

      • Austenfan: Generally speaking tall people tend to be more successful. I remember being taught this at University; can’t even remember during which course. I also don’t remember whether that survey included women. January 22, 2015 at 3:48pm Reply

        • Victoria: The Economist article was careful to point out that height was no corollary of success for CEOs; no statistically significant relationship between height and success seems to exist. January 23, 2015 at 2:27pm Reply

          • Austenfan: Unfortunately I can’t remember enough details from that course to make any real claims, all I remember is that there were some rather tentative observations about correlation between height and success. I wish I could remember what course it belonged to so I could look it up. But I can’t. I suppose it may depend on what workfield you are in.

            http://m.timothy-judge.com/Height%20paper–JAP%20published.pdf

            I found this quite interesting. January 24, 2015 at 2:24pm Reply

            • Victoria: In grad school, we, being true statistician geeks, enjoyed running regression analyses on a bunch of data and see what kind of funny correlations we came up with. His use of data reminded me of that, so yes, interesting but ultimately not so convincing. January 25, 2015 at 3:14am Reply

              • Austenfan: I used to know a little about statistics but haven’t used that knowledge in a looong time. So I skipped the stats and just read his observations 🙂 What I liked about the article is the link they discuss about self-esteem and height. So if a short person has good self esteem his “lack of height” would not hinder him/her.
                On a pure physical level; some medical professions demand slightly more creativity if you are very short or lack physical strength. (think of putting in a new hip or repositioning a dislocated hip. That isn’t just skill but also demands some brute strenght!)
                Or have very short fingers ( OBGYN for instance).

                Please don’t think that I’m convinced that shorter people can’t be successful! Or tall ones unsuccessful.

                On a whole other level really tall people often tend to suffer more from back problems, and I think that for a lot of purely physical professions like dancing, gymnastics, height is a disadvantage. January 25, 2015 at 5:54am Reply

                • Victoria: I guess, his line of reasoning just didn’t make much sense to me. January 25, 2015 at 8:20am Reply

  • Karen: I smiled to myself when I saw this posting earlier, because shoes definitely seem to be a very hot- button topic for women! And I wondered if I was a little crazy because to me, the shoes in the Louis XIV portrait looked so beautiful. In the video showing some of those on exhibit, it was fun seeing some of the totally outrageous ones that did not even look like shoes.

    On another blog dedicated to fashion, she periodically will have items from the 1800’s, and I remember a pair of thigh high lace up boots that looked more 20th century. So it appears that women have been wearing all kinds of footwear for ages!

    The old style women used to wear in Turkish hamams look so impossible to stand in, much less walk in – but they did, and solely (ha ha) in the company of other women.

    Love the red ballet flats story! January 22, 2015 at 6:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: I always notice shoes in paintings, because while other items of clothing can seem utterly foreign and exotic, shoes haven’t changed dramatically. But yes, the styles worn by Venetian ladies, Kyoto women or in Turkish hamams seem a bit hard to wear today. They’re so high! January 23, 2015 at 2:44pm Reply

  • Ariadne: Ahhhh yes! The only wardrobe item that captivates me more than perfume is shoes…..any height or style. I have feet altered by ballet training and hereditary bunions but still pursue “the next great pair”. It’s a rush …as I am sure this exhibit is! January 22, 2015 at 6:06pm Reply

    • Victoria: It is! I don’t buy shoes often, but at least one pair enters my wardrobe each year. The right fitting shoe can do so much for elongating the line of the leg and just adding that special touch to the look. January 23, 2015 at 2:46pm Reply

  • solanace: Thank’s for the link, Victoria. Since I can’t be in NY, this is the next best thing! I like shoes, but I like walking all over the city even more, so end up wearing flats or tennis all the time. Other than that, all my ‘me budget’ ends up spent in perfume, fancy food and make up, lol. Great eye candy, though. January 23, 2015 at 6:53am Reply

    • Victoria: In the city, I also don’t wear heels often, because they don’t seem practical and I like to walk really fast (a habit from NYC I can’t seem to break). But whenever I go out, my high heels come out. 🙂 January 23, 2015 at 2:52pm Reply

  • marlene: Interesting video,thanks for sharing as I will not get to the shoe exhibit. Great comments too. I love high heels,they make me feel very feminine. I am a painter and I did a piece with my favorite black heels with a string of pearls spilling out of them. Looking at it makes me remember my mother and how in awe of her I was when she wore her heels. A nice memory. January 26, 2015 at 11:42pm Reply

    • Victoria: I like that more and more museums do these kind of videos to accompany their exhibits. It’s such a great way to get a glimpse into the collection, even if one is far away.

      Heels are such a potent symbol! You say, black heels and pearls, and I already have such a strong vision of elegance and glamour. January 27, 2015 at 11:17am Reply

  • Chilloften: I’ll take, beautifully kept, barefooting feet with splayed toes as the most attractive to my eye. January 31, 2015 at 10:44am Reply

  • Joy: I love red shoes, but in a very different implementation than the Loubouton style. I have a pair of red, suede, Keens with red laces. For dress up I often wear a red pair of Soffts with a slight chunky heel based on the Mary Jane style. I worked in the construction field for many years and with engineers. Fancy shoes would not have been allowed. In fact, I often had to change into steel toed work boots before I went onto a job site. My red Soffts I wear to the symphony. Once a fellow noticed me coming out of a row of seats at the end of a performance and said to me, “anyone with such a beautiful pair of red shoes should go first”. Hee! I guess he did not notice how orthoepedic they were! I also have the most beautiful pair of black, leather Mafistas. They have a slight heal and elegant rounded toe. I feel so well shod when I wear them. I keep them polished to a high gleam.

    My feet have very high arches and I have never been able to wear high heels or ballet flats. I agree with you Victoria, ballet exercises are great for flexibility for the feet. Also writing the alphabet with the toes is a great exercise. I work on foot/ankle joint flexibility daily.

    Although I very much enjoy the artistry of such shoes as the Loubouton, they are not for me. I wonder how a photograph of them would look juxtaposed on a construction site with heavy equipment, concrete, and construction workers? January 31, 2015 at 2:12pm Reply

    • Victoria: The chunky heels are the most comfortable for me too, and I love the Mary Jane style, because I need to have some support around the ankle. One of my favorite pairs is black patent leather Mary Janes with a small platform. They’re quite high, but the platform makes them comfortable.

      I love the story about your red shoes! February 1, 2015 at 11:22am Reply

  • Joy: I should also have said that the video was fascinating. I would never have seen it except for your including it here. Many of these shoes are an engineering feat! How creative, no matter how painful and impossible, to take an appendage of the human body and enclose it in such artistic/bizarre confinement. I think in past times female and even male movement was not the point; display of wealth was the point. “I have so much wealth, that I can afford to purchase these one of a kind artistic shoes”. I guess nothing much has changed. January 31, 2015 at 2:52pm Reply

    • Victoria: I have to thank my friend who lives in Brooklyn and who mentioned this exhibit to me. I don’t feel tempted to wear any of those shoes, but oh boy, they’re stunning. February 1, 2015 at 11:23am Reply

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