Photo Credit: Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum. Image © 2015 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada.
“Never before have a few inches mattered so much,” winks the tagline for Standing Tall: A Curious History of Men in Heels, a new exhibition at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum –- the planet’s sole museum of footwear.
You can snicker, but the exhibition’s a serious look at how heels for him have evolved, from power signifiers (in the 17th century) to gender disruptors (now). Along the way are more high heels than you can shake a slingback at, from mules and biking boots to Elton John’s platforms and John Lennon’s original Beatle boots.
But the exhibition’s more than a parade of platforms. “One of our goals was to show that high heels are objects with ascribed meanings,” says Elizabeth Semmelhack, the museum’s senior curator. “When the heel first enters western dress, it’s more associated with masculinity, and men were as likely to wear them as women. There’s nothing encoded in us about gender and heels.”
Cerebral but accessible, the show tackles such thorny psychosexual questions head-on. “One of the biggest questions is 'why is it so destabilizing for men to borrow something from the female wardrobe, when women have so successfully borrowed from the male wardrobe,' ” Semmelhack says. “What does that say about gender equity?” Men’s heels, she observes, “are broad and sturdy, and women’s are narrow in ways both practical and cultural. When you see a man in a destabilizing stiletto, all kinds of questions come up. It’s transgressive.”
While Standing Tall doesn’t deal with drag in depth, Semmelhack did include boots from drag-lite musical Kinky Boots and a range of heels for men. “We’re at an interesting time culturally,” Semmelhack says. “There’s so much more visibility from TV shows like Drag Race. We’ve got opportunities for men to don high heels in public, like [anti-violence campaign] Walk a Mile in Her Shoes. Men are increasingly willing to put on high heels to signify femininity,” Semmelhack says. “Still, drag has always been problematized. Issues like that don’t get a lot of larger discussion.” It’s no small irony that a pair of 18th-century Italian silk slip-ons (believed to have shod a pope) occupy a prime spot near glossy red size-16 stilettos from Toronto's “crossdresser boutique” Walk on the Wild Side.
Does Semmelhack wear heels herself? “Of course,” she laughs. “Clothing is very discursive. Footwear is very much part of the vocabulary of fashion. There are times when you need to make statements.”
Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels runs through June 2016 at the Bata Shoe Museum, 327 Bloor St. W., Toronto. For further information visit BataShoeMuseum.ca
Pictured: Men’s platform boots with 5-and-a half-inch heels by Toronto shoemaker Master John.