Louboutin’s “Metropolis.”

To tweak (and possibly abuse) Dickens’ classic line: “It was the best of heels. It was the worst of heels.” This sentiment summarizes the Palm Springs Art Museum’s recently opened exhibit Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe.

Organized by New York City’s Brooklyn Museum, the exhibition introduces visitors to the evolution of the high-heeled shoe. Inside each of the many free-standing plastic-glass cases are between 4 and 7 high-heeled shoes. 

Each case speaks to either a social/historical event that triggered a specific theme (like space exploration) or the transformation of a style over a period of time (over-the-knee boots, stiletto heels). In addition to the plastic-glass cases, the exhibit includes six short films.

The curators see high heels as far more than footwear. The exhibit presents heels as an individual and/or societal interpretation of beauty, wealth, mystique and fantasy, as well as role, status and power. Essentially, each high heel is an iconic symbol that reflects and captures a cultural zeitgeist. 

Unfortunately, creators of the earliest, century-old heels shown in the exhibit are unknown. However, most of the heels shown from early in the 20th century onward were created by and/or attributed to major haute couture designers, like Chanel, Tom Ford, Ferragamo and Prada. Examples are also included from individual shoe designers and industry-specific design houses such as Louboutin, Walter Steiger and Céline.

The show offers visitors insights into the history and creation of high heels. Given their design and execution, many shoes are instantly recognizable as magnificent pieces of art; their inclusion in a museum or private-art collection, especially a collection that focuses on sculpture, is a no-brainer. Since we each define beauty differently, the show’s narrative helps us understand the inclusion of heels that many would deem ugly, unwearable or weird.

While the earliest heels can be traced to Greece, Asia or Egypt, this exhibit truly begins with Europe. Designed and constructed from the most valuable materials of their time, like woven silk and velvet, many heels sparkle thanks to the inclusion of silver and gold threads. It is not uncommon to find seed pearls and other precious materials as part of the final product. These shoes were frequently worn at formal and special events. From the 20th century onward, these same materials—alongside things like mother-of-pearl, crystals and semiprecious gemstones—were integrated into couture high heels, slippers, hogs and platforms, like Nicholas Kirkwood’s “Pump” (below) with its paisley-inspired swirling crystals in silver, gold, bluish-grey and purplish-white.

Most heels from the late 1800s onward in the exhibit were creations of American and Western European designers, with the smattered inclusion of intriguing Middle Eastern and Asian pieces. The broad range presented includes stilettos, platform/high-heeled combinations, over-the-knees, conceptual high heels, and shoes made of both traditional (leathers, patent leather, fabrics) and innovative materials (carbon fiber, bamboo). Might Winde Rienstra’s “Bamboo Heels” (top right) be seen as promoting sustainable fashion?

Long, thin and slender, like the Italian dagger for which they are named, stiletto heels are associated with the seductive, secretive femme fatale. While shoe designers and shoe historians differ as to the minimum length of a stiletto, they do agree that the height can be as much as 10 inches long (when paired with platform soles). A thin metal rod is frequently part of the design of the taller high heels. The show includes heels worn by Marilyn Monroe and Lady Gaga. Parenthetically, it is clear why 10-inch heels keep orthopedic surgeons busy.

One particular set of heels produced the most visceral and behavioral response when I was there; most gallery visitors shuddered visibly and/or repeatedly shook their heads when looking at shoes created for a 19th century Chinese woman—with each shoe less than seven inches long! Through much of the 19th century, tiny feet were a critical element of femininity and beauty in China. To make their girls more attractive—and coincidentally easier to marry off—mothers and fathers began the process of binding the child’s feet at a young age. The painful procedure, repeated daily, required breaking many or all of the bones in the child’s feet, and repositioning the big toes to below the soles of each foot.

In the space just outside the main exhibit room, the viewer is drawn into a more intimate space that oozes sexuality. The heels here—a couple in bright red adorned with silver studs—are deliberately provocative; they represent the evolution of the over-the-knee high-heeled boot from taboo fetish to functionality to high art, as exemplified by Louboutin’s “Metropolis” (image at top).

With the space-exploration age came innovative materials like strong and durable plastics, as well as carbon fiber. Heels made with these new materials explored the future of the woman’s high heel. This can be seen with Iris van Herpen’s “Beyond Wilderness” and Prada Wedge Sandal in Rosso.

For all its strengths, the exhibit at times seems like a near-final draft, and not a final project ready for public viewing. For example, the curators reiterate regularly that today’s high-heeled shoe goes back centuries. However, the exhibit feels more like an homage to heels from the mid-20th century to the present. The sheer number of heels from the 1950s on overshadow the few pre-1930 heels, and the even fewer pieces produced before. Editing out some of the later heels would have done much to strengthen their historical assertion.

The second glaring flaw is the non-presence of men’s heels. The show’s organizers assert that heels were introduced into Europe by people from what is now known as the Middle East. For these Turkish and Persian horsemen, heels were totally utilitarian; they kept a man’s feet in the stirrups. It was only years later that heels evolved into a symbol of wealth and power.  

Despite these flaws, Killer Heels stands quite tall. Check it out.

Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe is on display through Sunday, Dec. 13 at the Palm Springs Art Museum, located at 101 N. Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; and noon to 8 p.m., Thursday. Admission prices vary. For more information, call 760-322-4800, or visit www.psmuseum.org.