Now You Know: How Stilettos Evolved From Puddle Jumpers to Chic Torture Devices
Welcome to Now You Know, Eric Wilson’s column that will help you become a fashion know-it-all in one quick read. Each week, he’ll take a look at an endearing fashion influence and why it’s relevant right now.
Call it a case of curious timing. Just as the fashion world is embracing sensible flats, chic slip-ons and glitzy running shoes, the Brooklyn Museum is planning to open an exhibition about the art of high heels. “Killer Heels,” which opens to the public on Sept. 10 and was put together by the museum's devilishly clever Curator of Exhibitions Lisa Small, promises an overview of more than 160 haunting historical and contemporary styles, including some “deadly sharp stilettos, architecturally inspired wedges and platforms, and a number of artfully crafted shoes that defy categorization,” according to the museum. (To wit: The Zaha Hadid X United Nude shoe pictured below.)
Sounds delightful! And infinitely more enjoyable to look at on a pedestal rather than on the hoofs of preening editors threatening to jab you in the shin if you get too close to their seats at Fashion Week (which kicks off Thursday). To give you some idea of just how threatening these monster shoes purport to be, look no further than Christian Louboutin’s “Printz” design from 2013 (pictured, top), platform stilettos so high that images make them look as if they were sketched on Silly Putty.
Stilettos are devious little things. Sexy, yes, but their name says it all, heels of sharp thin blades that have inspired countless cinematic fantasies in which they are used as actual weapons. I will name just one example: Think of Jennifer Jason Leigh marking her turf, so to speak, in Single White Female. Scared yet?
Of course, life-threatening footwear long predates the stiletto, as illuminated in a fascinating essay by Caroline Weber in the “Killer Heels” catalog, particularly during the golden age of Venice in the 16th century, when teetering mules called a chopine, which could be 20 inches high, became status symbols. Supposedly, they were designed to keep women’s feet dry in the city of canals, but they were so restrictive as to make stepping into a puddle seem a fairly unlikely event.
Thin heels have remained items of fetishistic fashion ever since, though the term stiletto did not come into use until the 1950s, when Roger Vivier introduced a style with a thin metal shaft embedded in the heel that created enough support for towering heights. The more modern version of the killer heel resulted from post-war advancements in technology, and also a desire for a more sexy alternative to the wedges and platforms that were popular in the 1940s.
The stiletto, Weber writes, “promptly became synonymous with 1950s femininity.” And in more recent times, gravity-defying heels reached extreme levels of ridiculousness in the early years of this century, interestingly just as the economy tanked, as designers like Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen (remember the armadillo platforms from his spring 2010 collection) and Louboutin created styles that looked less like shoes than devices of torture.
Perhaps this explains fashion’s recent swing back toward comfort, something to keep in mind while touring “Killer Heels,” preferably in flats.
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