I visited the Brooklyn Museum on Friday afternoon. Got some coffee and headed on in to explore the deep. I knew that I would visit Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party -always do- but had no solid plans about the rest of the adventure. I found my way to the Killer Heels exhibit towards the end of my trip. When I exited through the gift-shop, bright and shiny as are all museum gift-shops, I felt as though I’d been spit out of some scary lair of Underworld. It’s an intense show. The sounds- of intrigue and of pain- are haunting and halting. The visuals shock and stun: four inch slippers made for crushed and moulded Han ladies feet, horse hooves and fur with zippers and heels seamlessly attached, glass slippers fit for bubbly drinks than arches and toes, and beautiful, danceable golden shoes from the flapper era. Sculpted and painted images of women from centuries ago are set alongside the shoes most recently crafted by designers today, drawing parallels between the inordinate expectations society holds of females and their bodies, apparently regardless of time or nationality. Whether feet are shaped by tight bandages for doll-sized slippers or the slippers shape the feet, as in the case of common foot deformities like bunions and corns (!), the wearer of the appendage and dressing are affected without much regard. By showcasing the tools of allure and pain, the curators and artists question the value of these effects on society. I’ll keep wearing boots!
When the Manchu invaded Han China, they brought with them these stilt-like double platform slippers, the shoes of their noblewomen. Unlike the Han, the Manchu did not practice foot-binding, though they did value small feet above others. Instead, the ladies balanced high on these platform sandals, which produced a halting gait similar to the Han women’s graceful hobble, but at least it was only their experience whilst they were wearing the shoes and their feet were still of use barefooted.
* You can read more about the last women with bound feet, here, and see images of the women who suffered the practice, taken by Jo Farrell.
In other parts of the world, women wore heels and platforms that forced them to walk in service to the materials their shoes were made of: on wooden platforms, arch less sandals, and shoes without any back heel, which the woman would need to practice wearing- almost like a performance. From the First Century A.D. (example in the second image below) female bodies in the most scholarly societies have been documented wearing preposterous footwear.
Today, there are shoes being made to showcase this kind of absurdity that we still (literally) uphold in the form of high heels and stilettos. Cat Potter, is an award-winning fashion artist who’s work focuses on “blurring the lines between footwear and artefact.” In her series “Pernilla” every pair of sculpted wood shoes “trace[s] the silhouette form of the foot on the inside, diffusing its profile on the outside.” They are also impossible to walk comfortably in, and that’s part of what Potter is interested in showing viewers. How do we bridge artefact and use-object? How do we wear expectation? She isn’t putting models through hell, but merely crafting extreme versions of what has been done to the feet of women around the globe for thousands of years.
There were some very wearable shoes in the exhibit from an era where women were physically freed for a short time from the binds of corsets as well as the expectations of marriage and family. The “flapper” era revolutionized a generation of young women, even the ones who didn’t exactly participate in the roaring side of the 1920’s.
Today, women mostly wear the shoes they can afford to wear, both for their lifestyle and with their paychecks. Sandals, Converse, support sneakers, and, yes, still heels for many. Still, this exhibit puts into perspective the long and widespread history of expectations of femininity in the context of footwear, and it is mostly a history of women being all but incapacitated by what they were expected to wear on their feet. Women still wear heels to fulfill these expectations, and technically they do it by choice…but what effect does not making this kind of choice have on women and their place in society? Are we free from the expectations just because we aren’t forced to abide by them? The Killer Heels exhibit begs those kinds of questions.