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Try walking in these: Swedish red leather and gold kid button boots from the 1890s.

Shoe Gazing
By Laura Leon

Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Foot
Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, through Dec. 28

Recently I nearly had to physically restrain my 79-year old mother from snagging my shoes, butterscotch 3-inch heels by Enzo Angliotti with double straps entwining the ankle.

Now, my mother used to be one hot dish with legs that could stop traffic, but these days, she’s looking the part of a woman who long ago begat eight children. Her once- glorious gams are shapeless and baggy, sagging over feet wedged into shoes a size too small. No longer stiletto material, she’s Easy Spirit fodder. Still, she wanted my heels, so much so that she gave me the creeps eyeing them, noticeably trying to figure out how she could pry them off my feet and get away without me catching up to her.

For her, the longing to wear sexy new shoes overrode practicality and brutal self-honesty. She wanted to be that trim vixen she used to be, and which, to all intents and usually embarrassing purposes, she still believes herself to be. At what point does our need to fashion a certain persona, evidenced by our coveting a particular fashion token such as lingerie or, in this case, shoes, overtake good sense? Can one exist without the other?

Hoping for an answer to these questions, while getting the chance to ogle sumptuous examples of history’s best heels, pumps and stilettos, I ventured forth to the Fenimore Museum’s Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Foot. Curated by Elizabeth Semmelhack, the exhibit features a solid collection of historical footwear provided by the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. The Fenimore’s press release explains that high heels, “simultaneously impractical, proper, demure and daring,” have been used to elevate the status and style of the wearer throughout the history of Western fashion. It goes on to say that this exhibit is an exploration of the development and cultural significance of the high heel.

To be sure, Semmelhack’s show does provide a fairly in-depth survey of footwear, dating as early as a remarkably well- preserved 16th-century chopine, or a kind of wooden platform overshoe, popular in the 1400s through the 1600s, that slipped over a more dainty shoe, protecting it from mud and dirt. Accompanying each display is a painting that provides a sort of cultural snapshot of that shoe style’s era; in the case of the chopine, it is a late 18th-century work by Jean-Etienne Liotard depicting a Turkish woman, tottering on platforms, aided by her slave. The chopine was an early indicator of shoe as social elevator—clearly, Liotard’s courtesan is of a higher caste than her lowly servant.

A more identifiable version of the high heel emerged by the late 1500s, at which time men got in on the act as well. Indeed, by the time of the ill-fated Louis XIV, heeled shoes were requisite status symbols for men of influence. The exhibit includes an impossibly luxe pair of red velvet heels, festooned with lace and blue ribbon, and featuring the heel nearly directly under the instep for support. (Prior to the creation of the reinforced shank, heels set back too far from the middle of the shoe caused the instep to collapse.) Beheading, it would seem, wasn’t the only physical discomfort experienced by the French royals.

With revolution came a return over the next several decades to a more egalitarian shoe, which for men meant something akin to an early Buster Brown and for women, flats decorated with a new restraint. Necessity breeds invention, however, which is why by the mid-18th century, shoes had matching clogs to help the wearer navigate cobblestones and avoid nasty stains from omnipresent street mud and garbage. The Fenimore exhibit displays two or three excellent examples of the use of understated embroidery, as well as more durable leather, that marked this era.

Among the collection’s most fascinating entries is its late-1890s boots, which bring to life the cancan dancers of Toulouse-Lautrec. A pair of super-high red leather boots with gilt kid appliqués seem oddly in touch with the collections featured in this fall’s Vogue or Bazaar. These boots say as much about what was really going on during this era as the best Edith Wharton, and sadly, are one of the show’s few real moments in which the displayed footwear comes alive, or sends the imagination reeling.

As the exhibit proceeds in its workmanlike way through the 20th century, we see some exquisite examples of fashion, notably menswear-inspired ankle boots from the early 1900s, inventive WWII-era platforms comprised of nonrationed materials such as cork and straw, and divine composites of technology and style with 1950s steel-heel stilettos by Roger Vivier. However, as much as the exhibit cards extol the excitement felt by early feminists at earning new freedoms without the loss of femininity, the show itself feels flat (no pun intended). We are looking at some beautifully preserved footwear, we are admiring workmanship by, for example, Salvatore Ferragamo, and musing over the fact that said shoes, with elfin upturned toes, were worn by Ruth Gordon in a 1940 movie—and yet we are not catching the pure excitement and perceived power of what it means to wear these shoes.

Upon entering the exhibit, the visitor sees this quote from satirist Stephen Bayley: “It is the flagrant lack of practicality that makes high heeled shoes so fascinating.” Given the preeminent position that the curators have given this quote, it would seem obvious that a central concept of the exhibit would be to convey that mix of caprice and glamour, pleasure and pain, sensuality and cruelty—the world of contradictions inspired by an in-depth study of high heels.

The latest examples of footwear, canvassing the disco era with representations by Terry de Havilland and Thea Cadabra, to the ’80s, in which Yves St. Laurent transformed street chic for the high-end market, up to present-day Manolo Blahnik “limousine shoes” (so named because they are impractical for nearly anything but stepping in and out of a limo), demonstrate the fantastic without giving us a sense of why women—and men—lust for such heels. Cadabra’s dragonheaded boot and the Kiss-era boogie platforms come across as simply theatrical, but don’t speak to the main viewer’s innermost self, whatever his or her propensity for impractical footwear may be. These shoes may, in Bayley’s words, be fascinating, but what compels otherwise normal or practical, largely comfort-seeking consumers to buy them, or to spend inordinate amount of money on purchasing multiple pairs? The Fenimore show is sturdy and informative, but it does nothing to bring us closer to that sense of desire—a sense that is intrinsic to the success of the high heel—which explains why people (Mom, are you listening?) throw away good sense in pursuit of an ideal.


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