NEW YORK — It may be Fashion Week in Manhattan, but ‘Killer Heels’ are coming to Brooklyn.
A new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum looks at the elevated shoe as a design object, from platform shoes dating to about 1600 to a contemporary — and lethal — 8-inch dagger stiletto.
Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe opens Sept. 10 and runs through February 15, after which it will travel around the U.S.
Iterations of the elevated heel — a signifier of sexiness, femininity, glamour and status through the ages — fill display cases: Some with triangle- and ball-shaped heels, others with twisted, trapezoidal and even furry heels. There’s even a gravity-defying skyscraper platform embraced by Lady Gaga.
By and large, design trumps comfort in these 218 creations.
The earliest examples date to about 1550, high platforms called chopines made of wood or cork worn by both noblewomen and courtesans of Renaissance Venice to suggest a taller and elongated figure.
But elevated footwear can be traced to the 1st century B.C. The exhibition features a picture of a statue of the Goddess Aphrodite teetering on high platform sandals.
“My goal was to bring together a group of historical and contemporary high-heeled shoes that spoke to all the amazing designs that we have seen over centuries,” said Lisa Small, the museum’s Curator of Exhibitions. “I was looking for designs that are innovative in some way, that push boundaries, that sometimes don’t even look like a shoe at all.”
The show also includes conceptual designs and 3-D printed shoes, including a concoction that looks like a mass of tendrils seemingly emerging from the ground and turning into a plant.
It’s arranged into six themes including Revival and Reinterpretation, Glamour and Fetish and Space Walk. Contemporary designs are juxtaposed with earlier iterations to show the relationship across time and cultures.
“We’re living in a very interesting moment in which footwear is both a focus of cultural meaning but where many high heels also are seen as works of art,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, a senior curator at Bata House Museum in Toronto that has loaned pieces for the exhibition.
One standout in the show, if only because of its bizarre concept, is a Japanese design created after the Fukushima nuclear accident.
Its designers constructed a shoe with a mechanism that contains seeds of a plant with properties that leech contaminants from the soil. As you walk, the seeds are planted into the soil through the high heel, “the idea being that the plant will grow and help repair the soil,” said Small.
Among the historical pieces is an elaborate wood sandal worn by women in bathhouses of the Ottoman Empire to keep their feet high above the wet floors. There’s also a Japanese Geta, or clog, worn by elite courtesans that’s so high they had to walk in a figure-8 pattern.
There are sensible heels too, including 18th-century slippers worn by aristocratic women that are richly embroidered or done in brocade fabric.
The show “vividly demonstrates the incredible staying power of the high heel,” both as a status symbol and as a part of feminine allure, said Caroline Weber, an expert in 18th century French literature and culture. “In the history of fashion, not a single other accessory has functioned for that long and with that much consistency.”