Before it was a fashion statement, the tall shoe was all about function.
NEW YORK – I recently visited the Brooklyn Museum’s Killer Heels: The Art of the High Heeled Shoe, a fabulous exhibition that tracks the evolution of the heel from the delicate slippers of the 16th century to the outlandish creations from today’s catwalks.
Tucked amid the severe Balenciaga Block Heels (spring 2013) and Vivienne Westwood’s Super Elevated Gillies (the nine-inch lace-ups that caused Naomi Campbell to tumble on the runway in 1993) are some 17th-century slippers that had me musing on the history of high shoes. Just how did cramming one’s toes into narrow, spiky pumps and tottering on the balls of the feet become a 21st-century norm? Art history gives some great insight into the evolution of footwear.
The heel has come to signify many things – power, femininity, sexuality – but the elevated shoe began life with practical intentions. Through much of history, the streets were filthy places to roam. If a road was cobbled, then you were lucky, and until the early 20th century you would most likely be slopping around in mud and who knows what else. So, from at least the 14th century, both men and women wore high overshoes to lift them above the filth.
A classic early raised shoe is the zoccolo, a high, wooden clog to slip on for outdoors. The zoccolo is memorably depicted in Jan van Eyck’s portrait of Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife in their Bruges home in 1434. Giovanni’s zoccoli, freshly kicked off, are shown in the corner (see below), while tucked in the background are his wife’s red indoor shoes (see top).
(LEFT) JAN VAN EYCK'S THE ARNOLFINI PORTRAIT, 1434 AND (RIGHT) A DETAIL OF THE ZOCCOLO. © NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON / ART RESOURCE, NY.
Giovanni was a wealthy man and although many of the details in the picture denote his status, his clogs say, “I work hard for this money, I walk out in the street.” As for the lady, her place was firmly in the domestic sphere. Even indoors though, she would need an overshoe. With no central heating, the 15th-century Northern European home could be chilly, hence the fur-lined dress (and oh, what a dress) and a raised shoe to keep her toes off the frosty floors.
The emergence of the high heel as a fashion accessory began in Venice in the 1300s with the chopine, which is ironic, given that it does not have a heel, but is raised with a platform. The contemporary equivalent of a superhigh chopine might be Noritaka Tatehana’s heelless creations for Lady Gaga. Made of wood or cork covered with decorative silks or velvet, chopines elevated feet and skirts from the dirt and raised their well-bred wearers above the heads of plebeians.
(LEFT) "ATOM," A HEELLESS SHOE BY NORITAKA TATEHANA. COURTESY OF NORITAKA TATEHANA. PHOTO BY JAY ZUKERKORN. (RIGHT) AN ITALIAN CHOPINE FROM THE LATE 16TH OR EARLY 17TH CENTURY. BROOKLYN MUSEUM COSTUME COLLECTION AT THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART. GIFT OF THE BROOKLYN MUSEUM, 2009: GIFT OF HERMAN DELMAN, 1955.
The Brooklyn Museum show includes a pair of beautifully preserved Italian chopines from the late 16th or early 17th century. Covered in sage green silk fixed to the platform with tacks surrounded by gold thread embroidery, the shoes have pale silk rosettes appliquéd to the upper and a tassel dangling from the peep toe.
The heel as we know it today – divided and higher than the rest of the sole – derives from a shoe worn by 16th-century European men for riding, the notch in the sole being all the better to grip the stirrups. But still there was the mud to contend with. The answer? Pattens. These nifty clogs slotted right on to your shoe, keeping a protective layer of leather or wood between you and the muck.
ANTHONY VAN DYCK, LORD JOHN STUART AND HIS BROTHER, LORD BERNARD STUART, 1638. © NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON / ART RESOURCE, NY.
Better still is my personal favourite, the slap sole, a kind of mule with a leather upper and a wooden sole, named for the distinctive sound it made as one walked. In a portrait painted by Anthony van Dyck in 1638, Lord Bernard Stuart is showing off a rather magnificent pair. After slipping them over his riding boots, off he would trot, with a glorious snap! at every step. Now that’s my kind of shoe.
Jonquil O’Reilly is a specialist of Old Master Paintings at Sotheby’s New York.