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Vivienne Westwood Naomi Campbell via imgkid
Naomi Campbell falls in Vivienne Westwood heels in Paris 1993via

Fashion’s most extreme footwear

To celebrate the announcement of the V&A’s summer exhibition ‘Shoes: Pleasure and Pain’, we chart five pairs worthy of any fixation

From the stiletto heels punctuating the fetishistic art of Allen Jones to the lyrical lustings of Lou Reed over shiny boots of leather, a fascination with footwear permeates pop culture, marking shoes as an arena of transgressive sexual power and possibility. Shoes: Pleasure and Pain – an exhibition at the V&A opening in June 2015 – explores this fixation, looking back at over 2000 years of fashion history to find the footwear that is both sadistic and seductive. The exhibition will feature ancient Egyptian sandals and lotus leaf shoes for bound feet alongside modern designs – 3d printed shoes, examples by the likes of iconic contemporary footwear designers like Christian Louboutin, and even the cult trainers that drive sneakerheads to queue for hours. To celebrate the exhibition’s announcement, we look back at five of fashion’s most extreme pairs of shoes.


An art object rather than a genuine fashion item, Christian Louboutin’s Ballerina Ultima is the tallest heel ever created by the shoe designer. Designed in 2007 as part of a collaboration with David Lynch – whose photographs of the shoes and four other pairs were displayed in Fetish, a Paris exhibition – the made-to-measure shoes push footwear to the limits. “If there is an element of fetishism in a wardrobe, it is the female shoe, even without stilettos,” said Louboutin. “It is an object of worship that lead to rituals.”


With polished chrome taillights and vinyl flames trailing from them, Prada’s hot rod inspired heels from their SS12 collection were an ode to the sweet rides of the 50s – and the new sexual potential they (or rather, their backseats) represented. Miuccia Prada took an already fetishised object of American culture and translated it for the feet with iconic effect, transforming a symbol of masculinity into one of female style.


The image of Naomi Campbell floored on the Vivenne Westwood runway by a towering pair of purple mock-crock Super Elevated Gillie platforms is one of fashion’s most famous catwalk moments. Taken from the AW94 ‘Anglomania’ collection, the nine-inch heels – admittedly a challenge for any supermodel – epitomised the 90s trend for shoes that reached dizzying heights. Wearing a tartan skirt, Victoriana cameo pearls and a cropped velvet jacket, the fact Campbell walked with a polished wooden cane only added to the school-mistress seductress vibe.


Alexander McQueen’s otherworldly SS10 collection, Plato’s Atlantis, was a spectacle that ranks amongst the designer’s most legendary shows. The first runway to be live streamed, the collection pushed fashion to new heights – as did the shoes. Models (some of whom reportedly quit in protest) stalked the futuristic runway in staggering claw-like creations covered in python skin, glitter and an irredescent textured material measuring in at 12 inches in height. 


Trust Karl Lagerfeld to take phrase ‘killer heels’ somewhat more literally. A pair from Chanel’s 2009 cruise collection had miniature replica guns as heels, a darker take on Pre-AW08’s lighbulb shoes. Sexy yet dangerous and surely designed for the wardrobes of femme fatales, the shoes apparently caused a few problems for fashion fans going through airport security – and sparked controversy when Madonna wore them to a premiere.

Shoes: Pleasure and Pain will run from the 13th of June 2015 until the 31st of January 2016, and is supported by Clarks, Agent Provocateur and the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers.