Interview; Valerie Steele about Shoes and Hights
By Katja Schmolka
It’s a sunny morning in New York. I’m meeting with Dr. Valerie Steele, director and head curator for the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, to interview her about the exhibition that just opened there: Shoe Obsession. Her reputation as an author and fashion expert goes far beyond the borders of the U.S. She has penned more than a dozen books about fashion and fashion history, including those produced by FIT itself to accompany its multiple-award-winning, top-tier exhibitions, among them Fashion Designers A-Z` and Japan Fashion Now. Local international fashion gurus highly commend Valerie Steele as “the Freud of fashion.” She transmutes her uncannily keen sense for the cultural and social significance of fashion into her skillful and breathtaking exhibitions at FIT. And it’s exactly this sensibility that has rendered her an institution in the world of fashion.
Her trademarks: an ever-present, friendly smile; a manner of dress that’s always precise and to-the-point; and a knowledge of fashion history and culture that’s unsurpassable.
After taking the elevator to the second floor at FIT, I find myself in her office, its tables and walls covered with books. Dr. Valerie Steele, dressed in black, sits down in her chair, laughs, and our interview begins….
Katja Schmolka: What does the shoe mean to women on a psychological level?
Dr. Valerie Steele: We always think that it’s primarily about the sexual deportment of a woman. And yes, of course, a woman feels sexy in high heels and consciously gives that off. But actually it’s also about other aspects. The character and style of a shoe present the wearer with a number of possible roles. And don’t we women just love always being someone else! And roleplaying just to suit our pleasure or mood: now as the formidable woman, ladylike, avant garde, and then perhaps shifting into girlie style. The sexual charge a woman in high heels gives off is very attractive to a man.
Katja Schmolka: Does a shoe say anything about a woman’s character?
Dr. Valerie Steele: There are studies that allocate character types, and want very badly to find a connection between the choice of shoe and the character of the wearer. But we women don’t have all that many character traits, and yet we have the widest variety of shoes in our closets. So these studies seem a bit cryptic to me.
Katja Schmolka: What meaning do high heels have for the world of women?
Dr. Valerie Steele: High heels are a very classy symbol of femininity.
Katja Schmolka: Why are women so utterly addicted to heels?
Dr. Valerie Steele: A real shift in the industry took place. Key accessories have taken center stage over the last ten years. The reason for this is obvious. It’s too easy to make knockoffs and bootlegs, especially handbags and clothing, which has caused the fashion industry to incur dramatic losses. The It Bag was replaced by the extravagant shoe some time back. But a shoe is so unique and so complex in terms of production, form, and materials, that it can’t be copied—or, let’s say, only with great difficulty. A shoe, meanwhile, tells a story that’s worked out technically in the smallest detail. A high heel has the same status as a piece of jewelry: it’s treasured, tended to, and above all, collected. It makes you feel pretty and special.
Katja Schmolka: Do you have a favorite pair in your shoe closet?
Dr. Valerie Steele: No, but it’s always something from the latest collection!
Katja Schmolka: To come back to the subject of high heels again: why are the heels tending to get so high?
Dr. Valerie Steele: It’s about power. This is something else we like to feel, and you can feel it in extremely high heels. When I asked Robin Givhan, a Pulitzer Prize winner for fashion journalism, “When do you feel most powerful?” she answered, “When I wear my highest high heels!”
Katja Schmolka: Earlier it was body tattoos that told stories in the form of poems and engraved images. Or even a pretty dress was a statement. Now it’s pearl-bedecked, beautifully curved heels and adorned straps telling the story. I even saw a high heel at the exhibition with a heel that was Michelangelo statue. What’s changed here?
Dr. Valerie Steele: (She picks up a shoe that happened to be on the table and impresses me with a demonstration.) A shoe stands all on its own! Its form and appearance don’t change. If it looks exciting, it’ll look exciting on any woman. A dress or a blouse lying on the table are just pieces of fabric, and it’s only the wearer that gives them a certain look and soul.
Katja Schmolka: Have you ever broken a heel In the middle of the street?
Dr. Valerie Steele: (Laughs heartily.) Yes! My absolutely gorgoeus favorite pair of Dries Van Notens: ankle boots that were so comfortable with a really thin pencil heel. It almost broke my heart! I wanted to have it repaired, but unfortunately it wasn’t possible. But I also didn’t want to throw it away, I just didn’t have the heart to do it. It’s sitting like a little wounded soldier in my shoe closet!
Katja Schmolka: Thanks for the interview!
Shoe Obsession Special Exhibitions Gallery, February 8 through April 13, 2013