Where Heels Kill

Maura Linehan

It’s hard to believe, but Marilyn Monroe died over 50 years ago. Despite the passage of time, she remains an American icon. While the famous quote, “Give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world,” has often been attributed to her, it does fit her image while providing inspiration to girls and women.

For those, like Marilyn, who appreciate shoes, the place to be this summer is The Frick Pittsburgh as it hosts an exhibition dedicated to the art and culture of shoes. The exhibition, “Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe,” opened in this museum that what was once the home of 19th century Pittsburgh Industrialist Henry Clay Frick back in June. The show remains open and runs through September 4, 2016 at The Frick, which is located in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Pittsburgh.This exclusive exhibit was curated by the Brooklyn Museum by drawing on materials from its own collection and from other prominent museums around the world including the famous Bata Shoe Museum of Toronto. It took its first steps before the public when it debuted at the Brooklyn Museum in September 2014.

The show traces the history of high heels from the 16th century until today. It also includes the work of famous designers such as Ferragamo, Prada, Chanel and many more. In addition to the shoes, which run the gamut of materials from wood to leather and glass to horse hooves, there are examples of other media that pay tribute to their subject and place them in a larger social context.

Two attention-getting items that have interesting historic origins were a pair of shoes for women with bound feet and a pair of stilted wood shoes. Although the shoes for bound feet only have one inch high heels, that inch symbolizes a great deal for the Chinese women of the time. As a matter of fashion and of marriageability, girls had their feet and toes bound to a point where as grown women, they could fit into shoes that look more like they belong to toddlers. The practice was outlawed and finally ended around 1915, but it must have been an incredibly painful experience to make a fashion statement.

Shoes for Women's Bound Feet (19th Century, Qing Dynasty) Photo credit: Maura Linehan

Although there were other examples of shoes that looked like they would be painful to wear, others demonstrate how heels can capture the imagination of others. The stilted wood shoes in the exhibit represent a style common in the Ottoman Empire where women would wear them to keep their feet above the water on the floor of bathhouses. These shoes captured the imagination of Europeans who saw the sensuality in them and the culture they represented. As the exhibit makes clear, this is not the only time that a pair of high-heels were associated with the sensual.

Syrian Wood Sandal (1875-1900) Photo credit: Maura Linehan

“Killer Heels” is an entertaining and enlightening exhibit. It makes it clear that shoes have had a long relationship with both fashion and the role of women in society. It was well worth the time to see it and experience The Frick at the same time. If you’re looking for something to do this coming weekend, use some of that time to see it before its final day of September 4.