Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe

Screen Shot 2015-03-11 at 5.17.37 PM Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe was a special exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit displayed a collection of the high-heeled shoes—a “fashion statement, fetish object, [and] instrument of power”—to explore its history and artistry (Exhibitions: Killer Heels). It highlighted many influences on the high heel. Heels designs appropriated concepts from science, architecture, culture, and fetishism. Some shoes were made from horse hooves, chairs, and wood and some others looked more like death contraptions rather than shoes.

Fetish Ballerina -Christian Louboutin
Fetish Ballerina -Christian Louboutin

Walking through the exhibit, I felt my own shoes were inadequate. I noticed that many people (including myself) viewing the exhibition were not wearing high heels. High heels are inconvenient. They’re difficult to wear for long periods of time especially when a lot of walking is involved and any strenuous activity would be silly. Personally, I don’t wear heels often because I use public transportation. Women who wear heels around often probably have a car, so that they don’t need to walk around as often. The shoes on display highlighted the difference between the “leisure class” and “labouring class” that Thorstein Veblen discusses in “Conspicuous Leisure.” He writes, “Conspicuous abstention from labour therefore becomes the conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement and the conventional index of reputability; and conversely, since application to productive labour is a mark of poverty and subjection, it becomes inconsistent with a reputable standing in the community” (25). Veblen contends that conspicuous leisure was a way of displaying wealth and distinguishing oneself from the lowering working class. High heels connote “conspicuous abstention from labour” because they are not practical for physical activity. The ability to wear high heels like the ones on display shows that one doesn’t need to work and has the ability to leisurely exhaust oneself by wearing impractical but beautiful shoes. Not only does the high-heeled shoe ostracize those who are not capable of wearing it, the brands at display also makes it so that only those with the economic means can attain these killer heels. The exhibition featured top-notch brands such as: Tom Ford, Salvatore Ferragamo, Christian Louboutin, and Alexander McQueen. Without “superior pecuniary achievement” one does not have the money to buy killer heels or time to wear them (Veblen). Not only are the shoes unattainable because of the exorbitant cost, but also because of social status.

Lady Gaga's shoes made by United Nude
Lady Gaga’s shoes made by United Nude

Social status and social worth were factors that played in role into the pieces that were selected for the exhibit. A status of an individual can also make a pair of shoes famous. The infamous Vivien Westwood shoes that cause the supermodel, Naomi Campbell, to trip during her catwalk were on display. Marilyn Monroe’s black Salvatore Ferragamo stiletto was displayed simply because she owned them. The exhibit also featured a pair of shoes designed by United Nude specifically for Lady Gaga. These three shoes were on display and famous because of the individuals the shoes were associated with. It shows how some individuals can have such superior social power and influence that museum pieces were selected because of their fame.

Vivienne Westwood shoe that Naomi Campbell tripped on
Vivienne Westwood shoe that Naomi Campbell tripped on

The distinction between the killer heels and the shoes of the average person shows the large disparity between the wealthy and powerful and the powerless working class. “Fashion on the one hand signifies union with those in the same class, the uniformity of a circle characterized by it, and, uno actu, the exclusion of all other groups” (Simmel 544). Not only were the shoes on display expensive, but they had social value that could only be achieved through the association with people such as Naomi Campbell, Marilyn Monroe, and Lady Gaga whom have a celebrity status that is unachievable for most.

Marilyn Monroe's black Salvatore Ferragamo stiletto
Marilyn Monroe’s black Salvatore Ferragamo stiletto

At the end of the exhibit, there was a wall of photographs and notes created by the audience. There were photographs of museum visitors who were wearing heels along with notes about why they loved heels. I had not worn heels so I did not add a photo to the wall but I wrote a note to leave my thoughts and appreciation for high heels. Although many of the visitors did not wear heels, there was definitely a sense of appreciation and awe for the heels on display. I recognized the beauty and art within the exhibit. As Bourdieu writes, “To the socially recognized hierarchy of the arts, and within each of them, of genres, schools or periods, corresponds a social hierarchy of the consumers” (1). Like myself the other spectators probably realized the value of the killer heels. I realized that the viewers had a cultural capital—a competence and upbringing to be able to understand connotative value—to come to visit the Brooklyn Museum (Bourdieu). One needed the knowledge about the exhibit to know to visit and the cultural background to appreciate the items on display. I found that the brands displayed were not unfamiliar to me. Someone who had the leisure to learn about them would know the designer brands. killerheels2

As I left the exhibit, I felt glad that I had not worn heels. Heels are beautiful, but my feet would have been killed.

-Erica Lei

Works Cited:

Bourdieu, Pierre. Introduction. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984. N. pag. Print.

“Exhibitions: Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe.” Brooklyn Museum: Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe. Brooklyn Museum, n.d. Web. 11 Mar. 2015.

Simmel, Georg. “Fashion.” American Journal of Sociology 62.6 (1957): 541-58. Web. 31 Dec. 2012.

Veblen, Thorstein. “Conspicuous Leisure.” The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Dover Publications, n.d. 23-42. Print.


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