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Why are we so fascinated by killer high heels?

Booth Moore
Los Angeles Times Fashion Critic

Ladies, the next time you are teetering on high heels, you can blame men. But not for the reason you think.

In Western fashion, high heels were popularized by men, starting in the court of Louis XIV where a talon rouge (red heel), identified a member of the privileged class centuries before Christian Louboutin made red soles the calling card of his luxury shoe brand.

That's just one of the tasty tidbits in "Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe," an exhibition scheduled to run through Dec. 13 at the Palm Springs Art Museum that examines the fashion accessory we all love to hate, including its history, its relation to gender identity, sex appeal and power.

Originally organized by the Brooklyn Museum, the show features a dazzling array of stilettos, wedges and platforms. There are more than 110 contemporary styles by Louboutin, Manolo Blahnik, Prada, Alexander McQueen, Céline, Jean Paul Gaultier and Maison Martin Margiela, alongside iconic 20th century designs from Salvatore Ferragamo, Roger Vivier, Andre Perugia and more.

Conceptual shoes in mind-boggling, space-agey shapes by architect Zaha Hadid, artist Masaya Kushino, designers Iris van Herpen, United Nude and Noritaka Tatehana sit next to dainty historical court shoes and Chinese slippers dating to the 17th century.

Browsing the vitrines, it becomes evident how much fashion is rooted in the past. For example, heel-less shoes existed long before Lady Gaga started wearing them, as evidenced by a pair of 1940 Victor ruby red suede platform sandals with carved out heels that would fit right in on the red carpet today.

Thigh-high boots have been a tool of seduction for even longer, judging from a super-sexy red Maniatis Bottier pair, dotted with black buttons, from 1920s Paris.

And celebrities have given a leg-up to popular shoe styles since the dawn of Hollywood. Hence, the exhibition's most prized artifact: a pair of black Ferragamo stilettos from 1959 worn by Marilyn Monroe. On loan from the Ferragamo Museum in Florence, they may or may not have one of the heels shaved down, which legend has it Monroe did to exaggerate her famous sway.

"Extreme, elevated shoe design is nothing new, and it's definitely not unique to the early 21st century," said curator Lisa Small, pointing out that platforms have signified a woman's status and identity in Asian cultures for centuries. "I do think we have reached a moment because fashion has become so much more flamboyant, and runway shows so much about spectacle and theater, that designers try to see who can do the biggest, tallest thing."

It wasn't until the 1950s, with the use of steel rods inside a heel, that a true stiletto was achieved. A perfect black pump by an American brand called Skyscraper, from the early '50s, demonstrates how principles of architecture have influenced footwear.

The pinnacle of fashion's recent extreme shoe fascination undoubtedly came in 2010 with McQueen's famous Armadillo boots, named for their armor-like appearance. (In June, Lady Gaga paid just shy of $300,000 for three pairs of them at auction.)

"That was the shoe that brought to many people's consciousness the epic craziness that was happening in shoe design," said Small. It was also the one shoe she couldn't get for the exhibition, she thinks probably because all the pairs were being used in the McQueen retrospective, "Savage Beauty," which broke attendance records at the Victoria and Albert in London earlier this year.

But there are plenty of other designs that suggest a similar metamorphosis of the foot — into a mythical creature (Walter Steiger's horn-heeled Unicorn Tayss, 2013), a horse's hoof (Iris Schieferstein's furry Horse Shoes 3, 2006), even a tea cup (Miu Miu's Surrealist Ortensia and Oro platform lace-ups, 2008).

The exhibition shows that shoes can be exquisite design objects, as worthy of decorating a mantel as a foot. (In fact, the intricately carved gilded heels on Perugia's 1928 evening sandals and Miu Miu's 2006 wedges resemble filigree rococo molding on a mantel.)

Shoe designers often borrow architectural motifs (like the inverted Eiffel Tower heel on a 2001 Jean Paul Gaultier shoe, for example). And architects dip their toes in shoe design. Hadid's 2013 striated silver, 3-D printed fiberglass Nova shoes for United Nude echo the cantilevered look of her Library and Learning Centre for the University of Vienna (which is pictured next to the shoe at the museum). The heel on Rem D. Koolhaas' 2004 Eamz shoe for United Nude echoes the design of an Eames side chair (also pictured in the exhibition).

As much as footwear references the past, it also reflects our vision of the future. Designs hint at flight and speed with springs (the midcentury Satellite jumping shoe), shooting flames (Prada's 2012 wedge sandal) and blade heels (Chau Har Lee's 2010 stiletto). They are made using cutting-edge techniques and fabrications (Threeasfour's white carbon fiber and plastic, 3-D printed wedge, 2013), and can even become symbols of political change (Kushino's 2012 Healing Fukushima heels that plant radiation-leeching seeds as the wearer walks).

But what will become of the high heel with the dawn of the comfort shoe revolution in fashion, when Birkenstocks and sneakers have proliferated on the runways, the streets and even the red carpet?

"I don't think high heels will ever be over," Small said. "Unless there's a dramatic change in the cultural and social investment into what high heels symbolize, they will never go away."

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'Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe'

Where: Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 Museum Drive in downtown Palm Springs

When: Through Dec. 13

Info: (760) 322-4800, www.psmuseum.org

booth.moore@latimes.com

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