Cedar Rapids Art Museum walks on wild side with shoe exhibition

Cedar Rapids Museum of Art photos

This Walter Steiger design is among curator Kate Kunau's favorite shoes in the exhibi
Cedar Rapids Museum of Art photos This Walter Steiger design is among curator Kate Kunau’s favorite shoes in the exhibition, “Kick Up Your Heels: The Fine Art of Shoes,” opening today (5/18) at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art. “The color is really interesting,” Kunau said, adding that the heel “is so sculptural.”

CEDAR RAPIDS — King Tut, King Louis XIV, Annie Hall, Carrie Bradshaw and Lady Gaga would feel right at home in the exhibition opening today (5/18) and continuing through Sept. 1 at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

“Kick Up Your Heels: The Fine Art of Shoes” features more than 100 shoes that double as wearable works of art. And some of the strangest ones are surprisingly comfortable, said Kate Kunau, the museum’s associate curator.

She couldn’t resist slipping her foot inside some of the shoes the museum purchased for the exhibition — not the borrowed ones. She didn’t wear them to a ball, but lots of them would be right at home at the May 6 Met Gala in New York, commonly referred to as the Fashion Oscars.

More formally known as The Costume Institute Gala at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, it’s where the stars put their best foot forward. Where better to wear cool shoes — or see them — than at an art museum?


“We really wanted to expand our horizons and kind of push the boundaries of what art is and what’s shown in our art museum, so we’re really excited,” Kunau said of the new exhibition in the second-floor back gallery.

It was inspired by a 2014-15 exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, titled “Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe.” Cedar Rapids Museum staff looked into bringing that exhibit here, but the borrowing fee of $90,000 sent them staggering. So they decided to create their own exhibit, buying most of the shoes visitors will see, but borrowing from a couple of private collectors in the area, as well.

They are displayed according to type: the little black shoe, to go with the little black dress; heeled booties; studded, beaded and spiked killer heels; sculptural heels, the most unusual of which is “shockingly comfortable,” according to Kunau; timeless classics; kitten heels and ballet flats; whimsical colored or patterned uppers; and sky-high “heelless” shoes, where all the weight goes on the toes and ball of the foot. The latter are “structurally challenging, to say the least,” Kunau said.

“It’s really looking at the shoe as a piece of art,” she said. “We’re interested in the cool design elements that shoes have, whether it’s really interesting fabric or texture or unusual heels or wedges.”


All of the major brands permeating pop culture are represented, including Jimmy Choo, Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin, Loeffler Randall, Dior — “all of the fun ones,” Kunau said.


Shoes have been a status symbol through the ages, she noted, with certain heel heights designated for royalty. But they’re a basic wardrobe staple that’s been enjoying an artistic renaissance through television’s “Sex and the City” fab four fashionistas, the Broadway hit “Kinky Boots” and outré singer Lady Gaga, most likely to be seen sporting the most outrageous shoes.

“The shoe by itself is such a humble object and so I think it’s really interesting to look at something that we all put on every day, and really appreciate the design behind it and the creativity that can make this really humble object into a piece of art,” Kunau said.

“Not everyone has high art in their homes, but everyone wear shoes every day, and so it’s something that everyone can kind of appreciate and understand and come together on. It’s really cool to see it appreciated for its aesthetic and design qualities.”

Kunau has been delving into the history of heels, which is the subject for her hourlong program at 7 p.m. July 18. She’ll discuss shoes as a fashion statement and status symbol, and look at the evolution of heels from their origins in ancient Egypt and Greece up to the current resurgence of shoes as wearable art.

“For so long it was a matter of status,” Kunau said, noting that in the olden days, sumptuary laws, designed to regulate consumers and consumption, dictated that princes could have 2.5-inch heels, but commoners could only sport half-inch heels.

“There are lots of restraints like that” in the history books, she said. Rewinding even farther, actors in ancient Greece wore heels to make them easier for audiences to see.

“It’s really interesting (that) for a long time, high heels were associate with men as opposed to women. And it wasn’t really until the 18th and 19th centuries that women started wearing high heels,” she said. “During the reign of Louis the XIV, the Sun King, it was men who were wearing the high heels to better show off their legs, which they were very proud of in that era. It wasn’t until the 18th and 19th centuries that women started wearing heels.”

Fast-forward from Louis’ 17th century France to 20th century America, and heels were again used to show off finely toned legs. Pinup girls in the 1940s brought a sexualized aspect to shoes, Kunau said. “But that is a fairly recent development, really.”


Today’s hottest brands owe much of their name recognition to the ultra-hip and chic foursome of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha on “Sex and the City.”


“I remember first learning about Jimmy Choo through ‘Sex and the City,’ and their obsession with them,” Kunau said. “I had never heard of that brand before, and in ‘Kinky Boots,’ it’s the entire focus of that (musical). It’s much more of a thing. Now on the red carpet, people are as focused on the shoes that people are wearing as they are on the dresses. I feel like they have come to the fore in the last 20 or so years.”

Several of the most out-there designs in the museum’s exhibition immediately evoke images of Lady Gaga.

“She pushes all of the boundaries with everything she does,” Kunau said. “We have a remake of the Alexander McQueen ‘Armadillo’ shoe that he made for her and there is only one or a couple more in the world, but we have a remake of that because Lady Gaga is so iconic with what she wears.”

Kunau obviously has gotten a kick out of walking on the wild side with this collection.

“It’s been fun working with shoes, and it’s been fun having 3D stuff in this space,” she said, walking around the gallery. “I’m really pleased. My goal is always that people notice that something is new, and so this will definitely, definitely take care of that. ...

“We’re hoping it brings in a different audience — that people who might not come to an art museum will be interested and come and see the shoes, because it is an unusual topic for an art museum to take.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8508;


l What: “Kick Up Your Heels: The Fine Art of Shoes”

l Where: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

l When: Today (5/18) to Sept. 1

l Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

l Admission: $7 adults; $6 ages 62 and over, college students with ID; $3 ages 6 to 18; free ages 5 and under and Museum of Art members


l Related events: Arts Bites look at the exhibition, 12:15 p.m. June 5, free admission; High Heeled History talk, 7 p.m. July 18, free admission

l Information: (319) 366-7503 or

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