If the shoe fits: the history of the high heel

A new exhibition exploring our obsession with shoes opens today at the V&A. Suzanne Harrington ditches the heels and takes a look.

If the shoe fits: the history of the high heel

THE exhibition poster says it all — a haughty, glamorous woman in haughty, glamorous shoes being helped up concrete steps by two faceless men in suits.

The model, a long-legged and platinum blonde, Nadja Auerman, is on crutches — her shoes are crippling her, but she doesn’t care, because they are fabulous. Or she is being abducted, and can’t run away, again because of the shoes.

The clothes are Dolce & Gabanna, the photographer Helmut Newton. It’s an arresting image of empowerment and disempowerment. It’s all about the shoes.

The exhibition, opening today, at London’s V&A museum, is also about the shoes. ‘Shoes: Pleasure and Pain’ is a splendid collection of all kinds of footwear, mostly women’s, 250 pairs of shoes from all over the world, from ancient Egyptian sandals covered in gold leaf to an Imelda Marcos pair to stately Kate Middleton courts.

There are iconic shoes — a glass slipper on a red cushion, made by Swarovski for the Cinderella movie; beautiful, red ballet slippers from the 1948 movie, The Red Shoes, and the most famous movie shoes in the world — here on film, because the real ones are in a temperature-controlled vault in America — the ruby slippers worn by Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

None of these famous shoes are slippers. Slippers are flat, comfy friends. No, these are cripplers.

This is the essence of the exhibition: how we continue, long after corsets, bustiers, whalebone, and other forms of self-inflicted feminine torture have become obsolete, to wedge our feet into towering creations of great beauty, which restrict our movement, pace and comfort, mess up our posture, and play havoc with our feet.

From the blue Parakeet shoes by Caroline Grove (made with what looks like real parakeets) to the futuristic, sculpture Nova shoes by architect, Zaha Hadid, there are shoes worn by Marilyn Monroe (you can still see her footprints in them), Lady Gaga, Kylie Minogue, Queen Victoria, and that most famous shoe queen of all, Sarah Jessica Parker.

Parker’s on-screen character, Carrie Bradshaw, was mugged for her Manolos, and is so devoted to high heels, she once declared, “I’ve destroyed my feet completely, but I don’t care. What do you really need your feet for, anyway?”

Bradshaw’s sentiments are echoed in the disturbing collection of what look like little, silk baby booties, until you realise they are what some Chinese women used to wear in the name of beauty, their feet — and their ability to walk — deformed beyond recognition.

Presumably, they were carried everywhere. As must have been the Indian prince’s shoes, which had such extended pointy toes that you could have poked yourself in the eye.

“Shoes are one of the most telling aspects of dress,” says exhibition curator, Helen Persson.

“Beautiful, sculpted objects, they are also powerful indicators of gender, status, identity, taste, and even sexual preference. Our choice in shoes can help project an image of who we want to be.”

Looking down at my own shoes, the only thing I want to be is comfortable. It’s summer, so I’m wearing FitFlops — in terms of powerful indicators of gender, I am a grade A lady-fail, but I have the happiest feet in all of South Kensington. There is not a single high heel in my wardrobe, not even for mincing about indoors.

“The high heel makes no practical sense whatever,” writes William Rossi, in The Sex Life Of The Foot And Shoe.

“It has no functional or utilitarian value. It’s an unnatural fixture on a shoe. It makes standing and walking precarious and tiring. It’s a safety hazard... Men are still uncertain whether the greatest of all inventions was the wheel or the high heel.”

Many of the shoes on show at the V&A thrust a woman forward, accentuate her lady bumps, lengthen her legs, and, if the shoes are cruel, project an aura of dominance.

Yet male and female feet are identical, other than in size and hairiness — so why, Converse and trainers aside, the vast difference in male and female footwear?

“There is no reason whatsoever why men and women should wear shoes that are markedly different from each other — after all, feet are feet,” writes Rossi.

The difference is sexual, he says, “an insignia to designate the separation of the sexes.”

Sexologist Havelock Ellis wrote, in 1926, that foot and shoe fetishism was the “most frequent” type of fetish he had encountered.

In men, he does not hasten to add: a sexual fascination with female shoes is a male thing. While women love shoes, we wouldn’t want to have sex with them. In them, yes, but not with them.

Our shoe fetishism is acquisitive, rather than sexual. Although this is not exclusively a female thing, as any trainer-freak will attest — or any ten-year-old boy in a sports shoe shop.

The exhibition is divided into three sections: transformation, status, and seduction. From Cinderella’s fairy godmother to the shoe gods of today (Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Jimmy Choo, Roger Vivier — he created the stiletto heel in the 1950s) to the transformative power of football boots, putting on a shoe is more than just about keeping your feet warm.

Curator Persson describes a sculpture from ancient Greece that depicted a woman wearing high sandals, just because they looked good. Even in the 1st century BC, shoes were a thing, and they are also mentioned in the Bible — a verse from ‘Song of Solomon’ includes the line, “How beautiful are thy feet with shoes”.

Many of the historic shoes in the show are high off the ground in enormous wedges, to keep clothing from touching mud.

The history element of the show keeps it from being a superficial shop-window affair — it questions our relationship with shoes, and the psychology of what drives us to inflict such torture on ourselves. It’s all about sex, obviously. And status.

Privilege and leisure are reflected in impractical shoes. From the 18th century Pompadour shoes worn in French courts to the blue Vivienne Westwood platforms that toppled Naomi Campbell in 1993, none of these shoes are for walking the dog.

They are not sensible. Nor are the shoes designed specifically for seduction — high Japanese geta, thigh-length, tightly laced leather boots, shiny PVC heels, flimsy stilettos adorned with feathers and jewels. Even the classic, satin and swansdown bedroom mules are all about allure.

Shoes, as collectibles, appeal to both men and women, from Imelda Marcos to the box-fresh trainer fetishist, via Clarks’ cult status in Jamaica, but collecting will never be as interesting as seduction and power play.

After time spent in the boudoir-like atmosphere, full of glass cases of shoe art, I emerge into the hectic London street in something of a daze, relieved not to be wearing shoes that require any kind of concentration.

High heels are divine, so long as they are worn by other people.

V&A SHOES: PLEASURE & PAIN until January 2016

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