High heels get high-art treatment at Frick
In recent years, fashion has become the focus of an increasing number of museum exhibits. And a growing number of artists have been collaborating with luxury labels, blurring the distinct line that once separated fashion and art.
Like Paul Poiret, a contemporary of Picasso and a leading French fashion designer during the first two decades of the 20th century, a small number of notable designers throughout history have stated unequivocally that fashion is art. But the topic continues to be debated, and designers, as well as art and fashion historians, remain divided.
Still, exhibits like “Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe,” which opened June 10 at the Frick Art Museum, make it hard to argue otherwise. Here, visitors will find artfully crafted shoes that defy categorization, featured among nearly 150 historical and contemporary heels on loan from designers, as well as the renowned Brooklyn Museum costume collection housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.
Take, for example, Christian Louboutin's “Ballerina Ultima,” a pair of 8-inch-high leather “pumps,” in which the stilettos force the wearer's feet into the en pointe position of a ballerina.
The tallest heel ever created by the world-famous shoe designer, they were created in 2007 as part of a collaboration with filmmaker David Lynch, whose photographs of the shoes and four other pairs were displayed in “Fetish,” a photography exhibit of fetish shoes, which opened at the Galerie du Passage in Paris that same year.
“You couldn't possibly wear them,” says Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at the Frick. “You'd need to be a trained ballet dancer to walk in them.”
A similar perception cropped up during Japan's Edo Period (1603-1868), courtesy of a dual-pedestal wood-and-cloth thong sandal called geta, which transformed a woman's natural gait into a ballet of daintily graceful steps.
“They were originally designed to get you across rice patties without sinking into the mud, sort of like a snowshoe,” Hall says. “But it evolved into a kind of shoe worn by priests, and then it became associated with wealth when worn by courtesans.”
Next to a pair of 19th-century geta is another wooden-soled platform shoe, the “Bamboo Heel” — designed in 2012 by Dutch fashion designer Winde Rienstra — comprised of bamboo and plastic cable connecting “zip ties” that form the upper portion of the shoe.
Through her designs, Rienstra seeks to explore the boundaries between art, architecture and fashion, while maintaining principles of sustainability.
“She likes to straddle the line between art and shoe,” Hall says. “I don't think they are completely conceptual, but they are not completely wearable either. She likes to use sustainable materials, recycle, repurpose, so yeah, those are indeed zip ties.”
As innovative as Rienstra's design is, Japanese designer Masaya Kushino may have her beat.
Kushino's “Nanohana Heels” (2012) is a pair of shoes that plant rapeseeds (nanohana, in Japanese) into soil through the mechanical high-heels. As the wearer walks, the rapeseeds are automatically planted into her footsteps.
This project was realized in reaction to the devastating nuclear power-plant accident in March 2011 in Fukushima, Japan, which is still hugely affecting the lives of many people today.
Even though these Nanohana Heels have obvious functional ability in terms of farming, Hall says the main reason for this work of art was to begin the conversation and discussion for rebuilding Fukushima.
“I think there is so much in costume and fashion in general that speaks to larger cultural trends, what's important in society at the time, even sometimes a response to things like war and international difficulties,” says Hall. “So, you can interpret fashion as a cultural signifier, but it's also a function of personal identity, particularly high heels, which conjure notions of sexuality and femininity and what makes a woman powerful. There are plenty of women who feel more powerful in high heels, even though it makes them appear more sexual.”
As far as the argument of art versus fashion is concerned, many more debatable examples abound in this remarkable exhibit. They range from a pair of Pradas from 2012, with polished chrome taillights and vinyl flames trailing from them, to a black-leather platform bootie with an 8-inch heel and little gold men grasping onto them, which were designed by Rem D. Koolhaas of United Nude that same year for Lady Gaga.
There are even heels designed by architects, such as Zaha Hadid's chromed vinyl rubber, kid nappa leather and fiberglass “Nova” shoe (2013), as well as Julian Hakes “Mohito Shoe” (2012), which was 3-D printed.
It's worth noting that this is the final stop of a traveling exhibition that originated at the Brooklyn Museum, where it was organized by Lisa Small, curator of exhibitions there.
Small will be in town June 16, to talk about the history of high-heeled shoes, from the platform chopines of 16th-century Italy to the glamorous stilettos on today's runways and red carpets. Admission is $12 for the 7 p.m. event, and paid reservations are required.
Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.