Clothes Sense

A Little Bit of Sole

Fantasies below the knee, at Fashion Institute of Technology.

“Shoes: A Lexicon of Style”
The Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City
Jan. 26-April 17, 1999

In these body-conscious days, feet do get their due. Ask any girl: Shoes matter as much as hairstyle in all walks of life, and infinitely more than gloves and hats, despite being so near the ground. Buying shoes demands sizable chunks of time and money, and the eventual decision generates more existential agony about their looks than about their fit. Pain in the feet may be negotiable, pain in the image never. Passion or hatred can be ignited by one glance in a shoe store window. If the lust of a shopper’s eye is slaked by actual purchase, her willing feet accept the challenge, her active spirit expands. The other night, I looked across a restaurant at a sexy young woman who appeared to be limping. She wasn’t, though, not at all, really. She was just wearing 5-inch spike heel, 2-inch platform sole, tight-fitting, thigh-high boots, and making her spectacular way among the tables to the exit.

The current display at the Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City is called “Shoes: A Lexicon of Style.” It focuses on the amazing range of design in modern women’s shoes. There’s no history here, no sociological detachment–only the look, divided into categories for maximum impact. Drama is increased by the use of a single lighted showcase running the length of the pitch-dark room with no interruptions, no pauses for breath. You move along in one direction, mesmerized by a single great sweep of shoes arranged in pairs on three rising tiers under vivid lights. Emotional tension mounts, laughter and wonder alternate with lust and disgust, no relief is offered, from the first stiletto heel to the last bulbous Nike.

A part from a few historic examples, such as some satin pumps with celluloid heels from 1928, most of these styles date from the last three decades, even from the last three years. This show indicates that only in the last third of this century have designers really hit their stride with varieties of shoe material, shoe shape, shoe trim, and shoe attachment. Nevertheless, one of my favorites here was designed in 1958 by Herbert Levine: a pair of stiletto-heeled soles with no uppers at all, nothing but some invisible adhesive pads to hold each shoe against the wearer’s bare sole. These shoes would look as if they had grown there, by some potent fashion sorcery.

Another great shoe moment is a 1993 pair of “tabi toe” ankle boots by Martin Margiela. Japanese tabi are white cotton socks with a practical cleft between big and second toe to go under thong sandals, but as a beige leather, high-heeled boot, the effect is that of a perfect cloven hoof. I once saw these being worn in Paris. Emerging casually from under a pair of pants, they made my hair stand on end.

S uggestive shoe artifice comes in many varieties. One curious example by Junya Watanabe is a flat shoe draped and upholstered in rose and gold brocade, so that each foot becomes a rich little shoe-shaped cushion at the nethermost point of the body. Opposed to that is the lethal weapon style, which usually involves a fierce high heel, often skinny and slanted in an odd direction, like a half-open switchblade, with fastenings for the shoe that run to grim metallic buckles or very toothy zippers. Even fiercer is a high-heeled sandal by Todd Oldham with straps of spiky barbed wire that cross the foot and climb up around the calf. This sandal seems to attack the wearer’s tender skin and the viewer’s horrified eye together, until we learn from the label that it’s really all made of soft rubber and must feel deliciously tickly. On the other hand, of course, there’s Dr. Scholl’s health sandal, but even that wholesome item (in this show, anyway) boasts a leopard-print strap.

A woman’s foot is always engaged in a tense visual dialogue with her shoe, demonstrating its own shape and flexibility against the shoe’s claims, displaying its own erotic capacities in tandem with those of the suggestive object. Here we see how high heels can be globular or pyramidal, golden or barklike, slim as bending flower stems or thick as beams; straps can be suave ribbons or stiff manacles. Shapes are mostly variants of the mule and the pump, the oxford and the moccasin, the boot and the sandal, the muffin and the hot dog. Decoration can be applied as studded rhinestones, layered feathers, rows of silk rosebuds, festoons of chain, fringes of beads, or sprays of embroidery; or as stitched-on leather appliqués–why not glued-on peas and beans? Beyond leather, materials may be fur and fabric, rubber and vinyl, metal and wood, paper and string, maybe meat and potatoes, maybe glass. Fastenings are often laces–these never lose their cool, even after millennia–or else the kinds used for clothes and belts, most recently snaps and Velcro. Buttons seem to have lost out. Once, every well-dressed woman owned a buttonhook–a small, question-mark-shaped steel tool, often with an ivory handle. Now we’re quite willing to button a shirt or a pair of pants, but apparently not a boot.

A t the end, following these ranks of erotic, dangerous, comic, elegant, or perversely masculine female footgear, comes the “Sneaker Chic” section. Now we enter the huge athletic universe of canvas and rubber, with all its high-tech spinoffs and hangers-on. Manolo Blahnik gives way to Acupuncture and New Balance, to Reebok and Adidas, and the host of others stemming from the original Keds of 1917. Here, all feet are big. Gender becomes irrelevant, the erotic pull comes only from the thing itself. In this world, the watchwords are stability, traction, and support. But no one is fooled: The look is the true issue. So potent is the element of style in active sport shoes that great fashion designers have gone for it, producing hybrids such as Gaultier’s spike-heeled sneakers, and Chanel’s black deck-shoe-cum-sneaker, with the big double C gleaming on its white toe.

Fashion is at its most volatile in the sport shoe world. Hip insider models can die in a few months, if the mainstream adopts them, and be quickly replaced by new cult favorites. Much urban chic thus dwells in beautifully engineered shoes built for strain but worn by people who would never dream of putting them to the test. Beau Brummell, who invented modern urban cool in the 1790s, would thoroughly approve of such delicate perversity. Only style is the true test. Utility is really of no interest, but its presence is essential. It governs the beauty of the shoe.

S ince that’s the point, the foot retreats from the visual game, and the enveloping shoe leads its own bright life. As we move along the showcase, these shoes begin more and more to resemble pairs of small sports cars and to suggest similar methods of marketing and design. Here we find the vivid brand names, the poetic model names, the features invented for their function but displayed for their looks–all evoking motion, action, swift personal transport, perhaps into a better world.

This show is on until April 17. If you go, don’t forget to buy the illuminating book by its curator, Valerie Steele. It’s full of keen insights and dazzling supplementary photos showing many of the shoes at work. Book and show together will have you rushing out shopping yet again.