Shoes hold a special place in the heart of many women. Mimi Pond, in her 1985 humorous look at the subject, Shoes Never Lie, put it like this: “Shoes are totems of Disembodied Lust. They are candy for the eyes, poetry for the feet, icing on your soul. They stand for everything you’ve ever wanted: glamour, success, a rapier-like wit, a date with the Sex God of your choice… They seem to have the magic power to make you into someone else, someone without skin problems, someone without thin hair, someone without a horsey laugh. And they do.”
While she used the heightened language of the essayist, any woman who has ever stepped into a pair of high-heeled masterpieces will know exactly what she means. High heels, after all, have nothing to do with practicality and are all about allure. More than any other piece of clothing or accessory, they have become the focus of art, satire, museum exhibitions and films.
This fascination is fully examined in a major retrospective exploring Christian Louboutin’s universe and the things that formed his eye. L’Exhibition[niste], which runs until 26 July at the Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris, displays past and current designs – including some never seen before – as well as objects highlighting the sources of his inspiration, including stained-glass works produced in the workshops of the Maison du Vitrail, a Bhutanese wooden theatre, jewellery, textiles and giant wooden columns, as well as collaborations with a variety of artists he admires. There is also a section devoted to Louboutin’s collaboration with the filmmaker David Lynch, reprising their partnership in 2007 for a photographic exhibition called Fetish, and a room full of his most iconic pieces, including his Ballerina Ultima heel, the Pensée (which sports a flower on the side and was worn by Princess Caroline of Monaco at the 1995 Bal de la Rose), and the extremely high Pigalle (beloved by Kate Moss).
Fabrizio Viti, who launched his eponymous shoe line in 2016 and who currently oversees women’s shoes with Nicolas Ghesquière at Louis Vuitton, remembers the cultural shift that Louboutin’s skyscrapers brought about. “I was working at Prada when the Pigalle launched in 2004,” he recalls of the designer’s 120mm stiletto. “It wasn’t so much that it was so high, which it was; it was that it thrust the foot forward in the shoe and re-centred the heel so that the foot would really arch. At the time, Prada didn’t really do any significantly high heels, but that fetish element was very influential – and commercially successful. We started making higher heels from that point on.”
For his autumn/winter collection, Viti has unveiled a 110mm heel for his own brand. It has a higher “throat” (Viti prefers not to see toe cleavage) to lend it a more “dominatrix” look. “Women can wear whatever they want, when they want,” he says of his first major heel. “I don’t try to do shoes as a fetish object. There’s something that could be seen as fetish in my design, but it’s not my ultimate goal. I don’t like women to be objectified. But if they want to be an object, I’m very happy!”
Artists have long explored the shoe as fetish object. Andy Warhol was obsessed – he first drew them simply as fashion illustrations, but they became the focus of a series of famously sought-after screen prints in the 1980s. Helmut Newton frequently fetishised high heels in his photography, as documented in SUMO, a new 20th-anniversary version of his 1999 tome. Allen Jones says his interest was primarily personal: “I’m one section of the male population that finds the leg and the high heel very attractive – there’s just something about the arched foot. When I did my series in the 1960s, high heels were totally out of fashion and that was exactly why I was interested in them. At the time, representative art of the sort by Fragonard or Boucher wasn’t in vogue and abstract art was all the rage, but I was interested in doing representative art using a new language – the language of popular culture. I took my imagery from strip cartoons and Ruggles comic strips.”
Feet and shoes feature in many of our most powerful myths and fairytales, from Cinderella and Puss in Boots to The Red Shoes and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Modern-day social anthropologists often trace the popularity of high heels to the rise of “stiletto feminism”, which encompasses both traditional femininity and power – think of Carine Roitfeld and her fondness for bondage stilettos. As one of the greatest shoe designers, the French-born André Perugia, puts it: “Almost every woman is not only conscious of her feet, but sex-conscious about them.” Certainly, for Louboutin heels are much more than mere accessory. He fully buys into the notion of their power to transform and is just as obsessed with their erotic force. “So much power is packed into such a small package,” he says. He first became preoccupied with their symbolism as a small boy when he visited the Palais de la Porte Dorée, which was around the corner from where he lived, and came upon a sign that had a drawing of a high-heeled shoe crossed out, indicating they were forbidden. From then on, he drew shoes obsessively. “I was drawing shoes all the time,” he says, “but I had no idea it could ever turn into a job.”
There are many more designers who are fascinated with the potency of the high heel. Those who have observed Manolo Blahnik’s work closely generally acknowledge that many of his designs contain an element of fetishism. As André Leon Talley, the well-known American fashion journalist, put it: “When he does a black shoe with a chain, it’s certainly a bondage shoe, but it’s always a bondage shoe with elegance.”
Historically, few designers have dabbled so extensively in the imagery of erotica as Alexander McQueen, who used spikes and studs, glitter, lacing and hints of bondage, combined with vertiginously high heels, to create some of the most extraordinary shoes on the planet. Saint Laurent (remember the famous caged boot?) is another house that still embraces the stiletto’s seductive allure. And Christopher Kane is particularly fond of injecting a hint of kinkiness into almost anything he creates.
It’s interesting, though, to speak to Charlotte Dellal, the designer behind Charlotte Olympia, about how a female designer approaches footwear and fetish. “When I’m designing, I am probably thinking more about how a woman feels when wearing them, rather than as a voyeur,” she says. “I think I – and possibly other women designers – usually take a more playful approach than an outright erotic one. That said, I have often used bondage or fetish symbols in my designs.”
Edoardo Caovilla, the third generation to head up the family firm René Caovilla, thinks that “a combination of elegance and sexiness is the name of the game”. But no matter which designer you speak to, all acknowledge the same thing – it is the arch of the foot that lends the frisson of kinkiness to a design. And offers us a chance to strut a little stronger, to feel that bit more glamorous – and to dream.