Flats, heels, boots, ballets, sandals, clogs, platforms, wedges, strappy, buckled, lace-ups, peep-toes, I love shoes, desire and lust after them. I feel my heart race when I look at shoes I am considering buying, feel a jolt of joy when I wear them the first time. I know that I need to have shoes like I know that I need to eat and breathe. Perhaps I wouldn’t die if I had to wear the same drab pair of shoes for the rest of my life but some part of me would wilt and fade. Sometimes when I think about the things I would scramble to grab if my house were on fire, I think about my shoes. I feel pretty confident that I would make sure my dog and cat were safely out of harms way first, but after that I would grab my shoes.
I am far from the only woman who feels this way. Most of us do. On average, a woman owns 20 pairs of shoes at any given time. Many own more.
This was the theme of Shoe Obsession, an exhibition at The Museum of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (F.I.T.), where 150 contemporary shoes by 50 different international designer were showcased in such a way as to inspirer the same feeling of awe and reverence that one might experience in a house of prayer.
The excitement began as I walked down the stairs, one among a crowd of woman and a few scattered male worshipers, to the basement museum of F.I.T. where the walls and floors were painted black, adding to the mystery of our “secret” obsession. No photos were permitted, but nearly every woman snapped at least one blurry shot with their I-phone before the guards could reprimand her.
The shoes were spotlighted in showcases like artifacts at the Vatican. They went from wearable to wild — spikes, glass, feathers, studs, lace. Every material available in the world seemed to be represented somewhere on some shoe. Though some compelled me more than others for a variety of reasons, I couldn’t choose a favorite if you twisted my ankle.
In the way that media can simultaneously talk about and create a phenomena, perhaps it was influence of Sex & The City: The Complete Collection (Deluxe Edition)
Sex and the City that gave permission for women to come out of the closet about shoes, though I think our passion goes much deeper. Shoe size rarely fluctuates with either weight or age and there is no wounding to our self esteem if a pair of shoes doesn’t fit well, unlike a dress or a pair of jeans. On the contrary, a great pair of shoes instantly changes our mood for the better. Putting on high heels lengthens our shape, changes the curve of our posture and that physical change can evoke an inner feeling of confidence and sexiness like putting on a smile can make us feel happy. We are suddenly, taller, thinner and shapelier. A pair of stilettos pushes that all out even further.
Most women will tell you that they love their shoes because of the way they make them feel. And many women are willing to play with shoes in a way they don’t play with other parts of their wardrobe.
According to co-curator Dr. Valerie Steele, “They’re an intimate extension of the body and seem to say so much about our attitudes, aesthetics, sexuality and social status.” Sculptural quality, she added, is another part of the appeal. “Maybe it’s because shoes are sculptural. Clothing, when not worn, just lies there flat, lifeless. But shoes seem to have an autonomous quality, which may explain why our obsession with shoes seems to have reached new heights.” The shoes displayed in this exhibition do indeed look a lot like art.
Shoes are as much a part of everyday fantasies as sex might be, though they are more Cinderella than erotic. That’s because buying shoes taps into our most primitive instincts akin to what our earliest ancestors felt; the hunt, the chase, the kill. By simply even thinking about shoe shopping, adrenaline starts to course through my body. By the time I’ve reached my favorite shoe store, my system has moved on to release dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, and serotonin. That’s powerful stuff. But, unlike alcohol or other substances or processes that do the same, there are few consequences; maybe slight guilt, an argument with a spouse, or a reduced bank account – all of which seem minor in comparison with the joy you feel from finding an awesome pair of shoes and knowing they are yours to keep forever.
Shoes provide the foundation for the image that we want to broadcast to the world. We wear them as a way to play with aspects of our identity in a less committed way than any other visible marker such as a haircut or color. We can change that message every day or more if we choose. A pair or flats of Berkenstocks shows our groundedness, pumps tell the world we are all business and high leather boots declare toughness.
I don’t own an expensive pair of Louboutin’s, Manolo Blahnik’s or Jimmy Choo’s, though I would love to, I just can’t afford them. But then again, I can’t afford most shoes I buy and yet I continue to buy them. I find a way because no other article of clothing or accessory in my wardrobe allows me to so fluidly express everything I am or want to be. They are the physical manifestation of freedom.
The after-effects of Sex & The City, as a placard introducing at the F.I.T. exhibit announced, shifted attention way from other accessories — most notably handbags — to shoes. That led to innovations in the architecture and technology of shoe design. Now, women’s shoes make up 60% of shoe sales in the U.S. That’s more than men and children’s shoes combined.
Some of the shoes displayed could be compared to the colorful plumage of birds, a sign of romantic or sexual availability or receptivity. Louboutin, for example, creates shoes that are brazenly sexy and often extreme, whether it is in the height of the heel and arch or the use of leather and straps, as well as, of course, his signature red sole which presumably will only be seen when a woman flashes the underside of her foot. But we cannot always interpret what or even if this display is a signal intended to be received by others; men and women alike. For some it may indeed be.
Another interesting aspect of personal relationships to shoes is that some women rarely wear the shoes they most love. It’s as if a designer made something just for them; a coveted work of art to be looked at, perhaps occasionally touched. It is an experience that for them is special, private.
Despite such worship, when it comes to sexual fetishes, the great majority of those who eroticize shoes are men. While there may be many women who feel sexy wearing certain shoes and there are undeniably some shoes that imply bondage, even pain, men are more likely to find sexual arousal and satisfaction from the shoe itself, often without a person wearing it.
The exhibition represents a survey of our collective fascination with shoes from the practical to the fantastical, such as a pair of Lady Gaga’s that are virtually unwearable. The experience is entertaining and sometimes bewildering in the way that much contemporary art can be. Rounding out the exhibition is a section that highlights the “bones” of shoes; i.e. structural skeleton as well as a section that explains the processes that are necessary to prepare boots for exhibition in a gallery. This is a window into another dimension of the process involved in creating objects and displays that we have all become familiar even immune to over time. I found it all fascinating, as I do for most subjects that I come to understand as being far more complex than I had originally assumed. Add to this the fact that I had an emotional investment and response to the works displayed. Like all good art, the pieces made me feel something. They were also accessible, something I could relate to.
I won’t say it is fun for the whole family because in the same way that I complained as a child when my father dragged me to look at masterpieces of art at The Met, some may not be able to appreciate it as much as others. But I can say that I personally loved it.