Shoe Obsession: The Museum at FIT Examines the Art of Modern Cobbling

Andreia Chaves, "Invisible" shoes, 2011
(Courtesy Andreia Chaves)

When Carrie Bradshaw teetered into the pop-culture zeitgeist in her sky-high Manolo Blahniks, little did she know that she would blaze the way for mainstream shoe mania. The Museum at FIT’s upcoming show, “Shoe Obsession,” which opens on February 8th and runs through April 13th, examines the compounding craze for shoes — no matter how exorbitantly expensive, impractical, or hyperbolically high — in the 21st century.

Not long ago, heels were the reserve of fetishists and pornographers, but “stripper shoes” aren’t only accepted in the fashion mainstream, they’re its bread and butter. Despite a worldwide economic recession, the average woman owns twice as many shoes as she did ten years ago. The last decade has seen Alexander McQueen’s armadillo stilettos, Noritaka Tatehana’s 10-inch sky-walking platforms, and a bitter, litigious shoe battle being waged between Christian Louboutin and Yves Saint Laurent. “Shoe Obsession” checks all the big boxes of 21st-century shoe design, from Roger Vivier’s Eyelash heel to Prada’s flame-decaled wedges.

It’s been decades since high heels came out of the brothel and into the department store, but they still hold a fetishistic appeal over women and men alike. Why do so many women have a “thing” for shoes? Could it be perverse cocktail of physical pain and visual pleasure? Or could it be that the heel — spiky, rigid, upstanding — is a phallic signifier? Could accessorizing be the answer to penis envy, a detachable totem of virility and power? That's a question for Carrie Bradshaw if ever there were.

The museum's curator, Valerie Steele, traces the origins of female shoe fetishism back to the Cinderella myth, but shoe historian (yes, that’s a job) Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto (yes, that’s a place), offers a different genealogy of the heel. Interviewed by the BBC’s William Kremer, she traces the modern high heel back to the heeled riding slipper of the 17th-century Persian warrior. The style was appropriated by European aristocrats who “sought to give their appearance a virile, masculine edge that, it suddenly seemed, only heeled shoes could supply.” In the 1630s, women began sporting heels as a “borrowed from the boys” trend. It wasn’t until the Great Male Renunciation at the end of the 18th Century that men abstained from wearing heels, opting for the restrained masculine dress that survives today. 

Regardless of their hyper-masculine, warmongering origins, the high heel has become — as Steele put it in an interview with — “ultimate sartorial symbol of erotic femininity.” As the festoons of feathers, fins, jewels, and toy guns that adorn the shoes at FIT can attest, the heel is a perfect blank slate, a gestalt that can be endlessly manipulated and reinvented.