What is it about women and shoes? According to Dr. Valerie Steele, the director and chief curator of The Museum at FIT and the author of Shoes: A Lexicon of Style (among many other fashion books), the fixation dates back to Cinderella and her glass slippers. But that doesn’t necessarily explain women’s willingness to defy death, gravity, and blisters with the super-stacked platforms and needle-thin spikes of modern day. Shoe Obsession, The Museum at FIT’s upcoming exhibition (which, running from February 8 through April 13, was curated by Dr. Steele, Colleen Hill, and Fred Dennis), explores the female shoe fetish via some of the most iconic, outrageous, and exceptional styles that have come out this century.
Including shoes from established houses (Christian Louboutin’s Pigalle stilettos, Roger Vivier’s feather Eyelash pumps, Prada’s flame shoes, and Chanel’s gun heels), up-and-coming talents (Nicholas Kirkwood’s graffitied Keith Haring platforms, Charlotte Olympia’s Kiss Me Dolores pumps), and experimental designers (Masaya Kushino’s sculptural human hair, Cyprus wood, and lace platforms; Noritaka Tatehana’s eighteen-inch ballerina shoes), Shoe Obsession presents every type of high heel you can imagine—and several that you can’t. Here, Dr. Steele talks to Style.com about the fascination with extravagant shoes, the evolution of contemporary footwear, and the upcoming exhibition.
Let’s cut to the chase. Why are so many women obsessed with shoes?
Well, I think there are a couple of layers. First off, shoes are an intimate extension of the physical body. And they seem to say a lot about our personality, our sexual attitudes, and our social status. And high heels in particular seem to be the focus of a lot of our thoughts about gender, sexuality, eroticism, and femininity. I think there’s definitely an element of sexual fetishism involved in men’s fascination with women’s high-heel shoes. But for women, I think it’s not fetishism so much as it is an obsession with fashion and with shoes as the ultimate sartorial symbol of erotic femininity.
Have women always been obsessed with shoes, or was there a point in fashion history when the infatuation really took off?
It goes way back to Cinderella. Shoes have played an important role in cultural thought for a long time. In Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo?, a film from the sixties about French fashion, there’s a wonderful scene when a TV reporter is interviewing some pompous French sociology professor who says that the Cinderella story is all about the importance of tiny feet and beautiful shoes. Then he says, “So there you are: fetishism, mutilation, pain. Fashion in a nutshell.” [Laughs] But I do think that our show is unique, because we’re not just looking at the social and psychosexual reasons why we all love shoes. We’re focusing on the twenty-first century and calling attention to the fact that in the last twelve years or so, after the end of Sex and the City, the obsession with high-end designer shoes has spread from something that only a few people were really obsessed with to being something that everybody’s obsessed with.
Why have heels risen to such hilariously high heights in the past few decades? And what dictates heel height?
I think the key element there is the acceptance of hypersexual shoe design as part of fashion, as opposed to just a corner of the pornographic industry. Before he died, Helmut Newton said in an interview that in the seventies, you had to go to fetish and porn stores to get the kind of shoes he wanted for his fashion photographs. But by the early nineties, he could go to any high fashion designer—Chanel, Dior, they were all doing fetish-y shoes. So that’s one thing, which I think is crucial to the recent growth of heels. Another is the popularity of platforms on shoes. If you’ve got a two-inch platform, automatically your heel can go from three to five inches, or from four to six, or whatever you want.
What makes women willing to shell out so much money for a pair of shoes that they may or may not be able to walk in?
Part of it is that shoe shopping is probably the highest form of fashion shopping. It’s the most pleasurable. I mean, who doesn’t look good in a pair of beautiful shoes? And compare it with something like bathing-suit shopping, which is the nadir of horror. Also, you can get a lot more fashion bang for your buck with a pair of shoes. You know, it might be a thousand dollars, but if you’re going to buy a jacket or a dress by that same or a comparable designer, you’d be talking three, four thousand dollars or up. And right now, people are, in a way, dressing in more of a uniform. For instance, many people just wear a well-cut pair of jeans and a great black jacket. But with shoes, they can play and transform themselves—they can change the style image that they’re creating.
What surprised you most in your research for this show?
I don’t know if it was a surprise, but Colleen found that the average American woman now has about twenty pairs of shoes, which is twice as many shoes as she had ten years ago. We also featured five collectors in the show (Lynn Ban, Daphne Guinness, Yliana Yepez, Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz and Baroness Monica von Neumann) who have hundreds of pairs of shoes.
Why did you want to do this exhibition now?
I think because we’ve been in this growing mania for shoes—the heels have gotten higher, the prices have gotten higher, and department stores around the world are engaging in the great designer shoe wars and enlarging their shoe departments. More and more students are going into shoe design. And more and more young designers are focusing on shoes as the way to make their mark. I think we’re in a high-shoe moment, even though platforms are beginning to come down. We’re seeing more designers doing what we call single-soled shoes.
Why are platforms coming down? Are we just sick of looking at them?
It’s a pendulum effect. It’s been going on for more than five years and people are sick of it. Now, single-sole shoes are being referred to openly as “sexy shoes.” They might not be quite as vertiginously high, but [they create] a sexier, smaller, more delicate-looking foot.
So are shoes, in fact, the new It accessory?
Absolutely. Suzy Menkes has said it before, and I think it’s a big change. Shoes and bags as accessories have moved more and more toward the center of fashion. But now we’re seeing a moment when shoes have temporarily eclipsed the It bag.
Do you have any shoes in your wardrobe that you can’t do without?
I don’t think I have more than about fifty pairs, because I just love them and wear them to death, or try them and if it doesn’t work, I get rid of them. In the museum, we get to enjoy a permanent collection of over four thousand pairs of shoes, which has taken some hysteria out of my urge to collect them personally. But my favorite shoes are always my next pair.
Shoe Obsession is free to the public and runs from February 8 through April 13 at The Museum at FIT; 227 West 27th Street, New York, NY 10001.