Obsessing about shoes

Thursday, I attended a public lecture by Valerie Steele at 92Y in relation to the current exhibition Shoe Obsession at the Museum at FIT. As mentioned in an earlier post, I found the exhibit itself to be a little under-communicated, so it was very interesting to hear the curator and fashion historian talk about why fashion is suddenly all about the shoes. She gave insights into the linking of the stiletto heel with fetishism, a topic she has previously done extensive research into; into the concurrent rise in the height of the heels and in retail prices over the last few years; into the private collectors who had lent shoes to the exhibition, and into the impact of the TV show Sex and the City and specifically the episode ‘A woman’s right to shoes’ on the collective craze for Manolos.

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Valerie Steele lecturing on shoes – it’s an awful photo, I know, but as she is a bit of an icon in this field, a personal snapshot from the session still makes for a keepsake.

Attending this lecture also gave me a chance to ask her to elaborate a little on the curatorial considerations on displaying fashion objects from the current collections on sale a few blocks from the museum, which she gladly did:

’Well I think that what we were aiming to do was focusing, as I said, on this contemporary moment of shoe obsession, ten or twenty years of it. One problem with museum exhibitions is that of course you can’t touch things, and you certainly can’t wear things, so it’s an interesting idea that you could actually go up town and try on many of the exact same shoes, that’s something that you could almost never have in an exhibit. I did go to one exhibit of contemporary fashion in Vienna, where they actually had the clothes there hanging on a rack, and you could try them on. But that was in Europe, I mean, in New York at five o’clock there would be nothing on that rack! So, I see museums as being another medium to display fashion. You see fashion in stores, you see it on the runway, if you go to runway shows, you see it on the internet and in magazines, and it provides a particular take on it. And what can be interesting is when you push that, to try to get people to look at two things side by side, and so, I really wanted to push it by having the case – because that was my idea, that wasn’t Saks, they’re our sponsor – I said, I want to have a case of things from Saks now, because I want people to understand that these are things, not every shoe here, some may be five or ten years old, but many of them are things that are on sale now, this is a current phenomenon. And I think a lot of the audience members did, from their comments, you can get a sense of that, one woman, I overheard her saying ’I’ve died and gone to shoe heaven’, and that’s kind of the thing that you say when you’re shopping for shoes, not when you’re in a museum.’

Only later did I think that it would also have been interesting to hear more about the choice not to include any of the high street rip-offs or similar styles, that are also part of the same cultural trend, and the more attainable variant for the common girl. Although these cheaper variants do not have the same quality in terms of manufacture or design, and cannot be said to hold quite the same sculptural qualities as the iconic high fashion pieces, it is still interesting how this trend, which, in its trickled down version, is even more clearly aspirational, has developed. And not least, why a museum of fashion does not see it fit to include such examples in what is also a cultural exhibition.

Walking back from the lecture, I revisited the exhibition, and yes, the displays did make a lot more sense – rather than simply being visually stunning – after learning about some of the thoughts behind the exhibition. I also bought the catalogue (I had meant to buy it at the lecture and get it signed, but was too late as I got talking to some learned ladies after the talk) and can now study the research behind the show in more detail.

More importantly, I plucked up the courage to go and try on some designer shoes at the rather splendid shoe department at Saks Fifth Avenue, the kind of shoe heaven some people would either die or kill to be in, as per the above comment. Now, I’m not personally all that obsessed about shoes (a confession which actually at this moment is almost a little bit like admitting that you’re not that into sex). I mean, what’s not to like, but I just can’t get to the obsession stage, which is probably a good thing as it would be very costly hobby to pick up. So it was actually from a fashion museological point of departure that I felt compelled to do this, and even though I had dressed up for the occasion, so as at least to look a bit like a potential costumer, I still felt like a total fraud asking for assistance, knowing that I was never going to buy anything. So this whole question of accessibility of design products in the public space is actually not all that straight forward.

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Shoe display in Saks Fifth Avenue. Sadly, photography was prohibited in the exhibition at FIT, but there were similarities.

I opted for a pair of spiked ‘Pigalle’ Louboutins, given that his red soles are some of the most lusted for items in the current fashion economy, and because this ‘classic with a punk twist’ design had stood out in the exhibition (as well as in the promotional material), even if it wasn’t by far as adventurous as some of the other designs. Apparently, this particular shoe had even been voted the sexiest of 2012 (the stuff you find on Google!). And finally they had got me wondering whether you would end up scraping you own feet with those spikes when you wore them, which would make them exceedingly uncomfortable. In other words, they were the perfect example of a museum object that you wish you could experience physically, as well as having the whole cultural significance, fashion system references and semiotic readability thing going on at the same time. Oh, and they were cool.

So it was really interesting actually being able to inspect these shoes more closely, check out the inside details, the finishings, feel their weight and how they were to touch. There really is a difference between high fashion and low fashion items, albeit perhaps not as great a difference as the prices sometimes warrants. And wearing them of course, walking around in those 12 cm heels. And realising that they were actually great to wear (with some of the other styles it was more hit and miss, and the really high platform stilettos would take a lot more practice and came with a high risk of ungracious collapses, but this particular design actually sat really well on my foot), and that no, you don’t scrape yourself, and yes, they were definitely walkable. IMG_0638 In other words, they were great, they made me feel great, and just for a moment there, I thought that maybe I could actually… Which is absolutely insane, as they cost $1295! And some women have hundreds of pairs, which just brings home some of the more repulsive aspects of fashion. But it also illustrated so well the allure and the transforming power of fashion, even if only in a short lived dream. (I don’t mean to come across all Cinderella here; I’ve already got a few glass slippers of my own (and the prince to boot), so I could handle waking up and smelling the roses).

So really, the combined experience or juxtaposition of the display of design and creativity, the cult of the shoe, in the museum, with the material and economic reality in the department store, was very interesting, even if the bridging of the two was not explicitly suggested by the museum.

And yet, of course there is still the problem about mixing curatorial aims with the interests of the fashion industry. Marie Riegels Melchior, in a very insightful conference paper on ‘Fashion Museology: Identifying and contesting fashion in museums’ (2011), does not ask for museums to give up these collaborations with the industry, but calls for the development of a fashion museology that is in keeping with the new museological aim for reflexiveness towards cultural heritage:

The way that fashion is currently displayed and communicated in a museum context, as a means to strengthen visitor orientation, neither stimulates a reflexive world view nor an understanding of the complexity of fashion, the industry, celebrity and consumer culture, ethics and the environment, etc. At least the exhibitions that build on this aim are limited in numbers and do not reach the major art museums’ display of fashion. Fashion museology has therefore future potential. As fashion is a subject that engages non-standard museum-goers, it can become a lens through which our past and present can be told and explored in a much more nuanced way. However, it can also very easily risk the corporal sponsorship of museums, if a more critical interpretation of fashion discourages new museum-goers or fails to interest them in more critical matters concerning fashion production, distribution and consumption. The challenge is to find the right balance – to sustain the interest of visitors and corporate sponsors while maintaining the objectives of the new museology paradigm, strengthening critical reflection and understanding our contemporary world and cultural heritage. (Melchior 2011 p. 8)

In other words, an exhibition such as Shoe Obsession, in dealing with a current phenomenon, could have adressed the complexities surrounding this subject more clearly – the psychology, the production and consumption cycles, the mechanics of fashion, the aspirations – rather than simply celebrating the wonderful creations of the master designers and the women who are privileged enough to be their costumers.

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