From structural and splendid to daring and dangerous, high heels have been the subject of conversation and controversy for centuries. Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe comes to the Currier Museum of Art (150 Ash Street, Manchester, New Hampshire), its exclusive New England venue, from now through Sunday, May 15, 2016. More than 300 years of women’s elevated shoes will be on view, featuring both historic and stunning contemporary heels by Prada, Alexander McQueen, Jean Paul Gaultier, Vivienne Westwood, Christian Louboutin, Ferragamo, Manolo Blahnik and more.
Once a symbol of aristocratic power for men, high heels became a women’s fashion accessory in the West during the 16th century. Heels signified that the wearer was of the leisure class, but like all cultural objects, their meaning shifted over time. Today, some women consider heels to be a symbol of power and beauty, while others argue that they sexualize or demean the wearer.
“High heels are probably the most talked about fashion accessory,” says Samantha Cataldo, exhibition curator at the Currier. “You can’t help but make a statement wearing them because their structure has a way of affecting the wearer in both a physical and psychological way.”
The show consists of about 150 examples of high heels from the collections of the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Ontario, Philadelphia Museum of Art and many designers themselves. Two-thirds of the shoes on view in Killer Heels are contemporary. Six films by noted video artists including Marilyn Minter, Ghada Amer & Reza Farkhondeh, Zach Gold, Nick Knight, Steven Klein and Rashaad Newsome are located throughout the exhibition and offer fascinating modern interpretations of the political and cultural meanings linked to high-heeled shoes. The exhibition is divided into six thematic sections.
Revival and Reinterpretation
In fashion, new styles are inevitably informed by the past. Some high heel shoe designs in the exhibition pay homage to the Renaissance or aristocratic life in 18th century France. The high-heeled shoe as we know it became fashionable for women about 400 years ago but their popularity reemerged in the 1930s, 1970s and again in the 1990s. While platform shoes date back almost one millennium, one of the style’s strongest resurgences occurred during the disco days of the 1970s, when both men and women wore them.
Rising in the East
Elevated shoes were first seen among Eastern civilizations, including Persia, but in the West, it was the ancient Greeks who were particularly fascinated by them. Greek male actors wore raised-sole boots to give the appearance that their character was powerful.
High-heeled shoes also served very practical purposes. Persian cavalrymen wore heels to help keep their feet in their stirrups while in combat. In the late 16th century, Western soldiers, who were allied with Persia against the Ottoman Empire, followed suit. Other people wore elevated shoes to keep their feet above pooling water in bathhouses or to raise them above the mud in city streets.
Glamour and Fetish
High-heeled shoes inevitably create strong responses from both wearers and viewers. The expression “power heels” is often used to describe shoes that give the wearer a sense of situational domination. With all high heels, sensuality is implicit in their design, but often, so is danger; take, for example, the stiletto heel, which was named after the pointed Italian dagger.
Some high-heeled shoes are embellished with metal studs, jewels and designs that are both foreboding and fantastical. High-heeled, long-legged boots take these shoes one step further by drawing the viewer’s gaze along and up the wearer’s leg.
Implicit in the design of high-heeled shoes is the fact that they directly affect the wearer by forcing changes in both posture and gait. Heel designs sometimes emphasize transitional states; looking like mythical hybrid creatures or architectural objects whose shapes are in flux. Maison Martin Margiela’s Glass Slippers (2009) harken to Cinderella, the ultimate children’s story of personal metamorphosis. Iris van Herpen’s Beyond Wilderness (2013) creates the appearance of a tangle of plant roots wrapping around the wearer’s leg.
Without a doubt, contemporary high heels are informed by both sculpture and architecture. Designers must consider both the artistic appearance of the shoe and its structural qualities, so the wearer can avoid toppling over and to minimize excessive physical strain on the body. It wasn’t until the 1950s that extruded metal rods were embedded in heels to increase strength enough to create the tall, thin skyscraper stiletto. Some heel styles pay homage to familiar architectural forms such as the Eiffel Tower or the crown of New York City’s Chrysler Building.
Emerging technologies had a direct effect on the art and architecture of the 20th century. Space Age materials allowed designers to expand the visual vocabulary of high-heeled shoes, making stronger shoes with more dynamic shapes that were often sleek, streamlined and futuristic. This has been especially true of heel design since the advent of 3-D printing, which has taken the high-heeled shoe to new levels of creativity and abstractness.
Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe is organized by the Brooklyn Museum. The Currier’s presentation of the exhibition and the related educational programs are sponsored by: Barbara B. Putnam, Dwight & Susi Churchill, Hitchiner Manufacturing Company, The Duprey Companies, TD Bank and People’s United Bank.
The Currier Museum of Art is open every day except Tuesday. It is home to an internationally respected collection of European and American paintings, decorative arts, photographs and sculpture, including works by Picasso, Matisse, Monet and O’Keeffe. Visitors of all ages will enjoy the engaging exhibitions, the dynamic programs ranging from art-making and lectures to music, a Museum Shop, and an airy, light-filled café. Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the Museum. The Currier welcomes visitors with disabilities and special needs. It is wheelchair accessible and offer FM headsets for sound amplification at most public programs. For more information, visit www.currier.org or call 603.669.6144, x108.
The Currier Art Center offers studio classes, art camps, Master classes and intensive workshops for all ages. The Museum also owns the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Zimmerman House, complete with the original furnishings and the owners’ fine art collection.
For more information, visit http://www.currier.org or call 603.669.6144, x108.
Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe is a full-color, 224-page catalogue published by the Brooklyn Museum (2014). The book is available from the Currier Museum of Art’s Museum Shop ($35 for softcover, $55 for hardcover). Members receive a 10% discount on all purchases in the Museum Shop.
Killer Heels Educator Walkthrough
Thursday, February 11, 4-5 p.m.
Local educators are invited to come learn about Killer Heels with a Museum educator. Come see how this dynamic show can be used in your class. FREE for Currier Members! $5 for Educators. Pre-registration required.
Killer Heels Tour
Sunday, February 14, March 26, 11:30 a.m.
Enjoy a tour of Killer Heels with one of the docent docent tour guides. $8 special exhibition charge to view Killer Heels for Not-Yet Members.
ARTalk: Lisa Small
Sunday, February 14, 2:00 p.m.
Explore the history of high heels with Brooklyn Museum’s Lisa Small, curator of Killer Heels. High heels are the fashion world’s most talked-about accessory. Learn about their rich cultural history and complex relationships to fantasy, functionality, identity and power. Reservations required, space is limited. Members free, Not-Yet Members $5. There is an $8 special exhibition charge to view Killer Heels for Not-Yet Members. Come early to enjoy Second Sunday Jazz Brunch from 10 a.m.–2 p.m. Valentine’s Day Brunch reservations are strongly recommended. Call 603.669.6144, x110.
Late Night Film Series
Thursday, February 18, March 24, April 28
5-9:00 p.m. Galleries open
5-6:30 p.m. Winter Garden Café and Museum Shop open
6:30 p.m. Film starts (space limited)
- 2/18: The September Issue (runtime 90 mins.)
- 3/24: Kinky Boots (runtime 107 mins.)
- 4/28: God Save My Shoes (runtime 70 mins.)
Free with Museum general admission. $8 special exhibition charge to view Killer Heels for Not-Yet Members.
The Art of Accessories Tour
Saturday, February 20, 11:30 a.m.
Enjoy a tour that looks at fashion accessories depicted in the Currier collection with one of their docent tour guides. This tour will make a perfect pair with Killer Heels! Stay afterwards to enjoy lunch in the Winter Garden Café.
Currier After Hours: Relax and Enjoy the Shoe
Thursday, March 3, 6-9:00 p.m.
This night is all about relaxing and exploring shoes. Sample wines from LaBelle Winery and spirits from Djinn Spirits. Learn the stories behind the world of shoes with Dr. Kimberly Alexander, UNH faculty member, and more. The evening will also include live music by M.B. Padfield, a cash bar and a tour of both Killer Heels and fashion accessories in art. Free with Museum general admission, $8 special exhibition charge for Not-Yet Members to view Killer Heels.
Steady in Your Stilettos: The Art of Balance Presented by YogaBalance
Monday, March 7, 14, 21 and 28, 1-2:00 p.m.
One thing you must have when wearing high heel shoes is balance. How else will you look beautiful in your Blahniks, lovely in your Louboutins and fancy in your Ferragamos? Improve your sense of balance with a yoga class at the Museum led by YogaBalance of Manchester—high heels optional! After each class, participants are invited to join a docent educator for a tour of Killer Heels: The Art of the High Heeled Shoe. $15 each class $50 for all four classes. Tickets will be available soon and include admission to Killer Heels and a tour. Bring your own yoga mat or borrow one of ours. These classes are appropriate for all levels.
Killer After Party
Friday, March 11, 7-11:00 p.m.
Break out that little black dress or skinny jeans, and slip on your best stilettos as we celebrate Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe. There will be cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, music, dancing and most of all FUN! When your feet need a break, explore art in the galleries, including the fabulous footwear in the exhibition. Tickets required and will be available soon via www.CURRIER.ORG. Bring a special friend for an evening you’ll both remember.
Currier After Hours: Wearable Arts
Thursday, April 7, 6-9:00 p.m.
Come for an artisan fair that will feature wearable arts from necklaces to hats and scarves. For one night only, regional artisans not typically represented in the Museum Shop will be here selling handmade wearable arts throughout the Museum. Take advantage of this opportunity to shop for Mother’s Day or for a new spring accessory! The evening will also include food, old time music by Bradford Bog People, a tour of Killer Heels and fashion accessories in art, and more. Free with general admission, $8 special exhibition charge to view Killer Heels for Not-Yet Members.