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Spring fashion fling: Extreme high heels

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Marc Jacobs' latest high heels have no heel at all. They represent this season's designer high heels that look more like sculptures than footwear. These sell for $596. (Photo Provided by MissMeghan.com)

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Fendi's cage heel is one of many extreme high heels this spring. These have metal chains surrounding the heal and sell for $600. (Photo Provided by Saks Fifth Ave)

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These Miu Miu black high heel pumps have a surrealistic candlestick and flame in the heel. They sell for $710. (Provided by FashionReporter.com)

Upbeat electronic music pulses through the room. Well-dressed women mill around observing with reverence the detailed, colorful, sometimes sparkly objects showcased in uneven square or rectangular cut-outs in the wall. Some point and stare. Men in suits hover, beckoned with a look. Conversation hums at a low level punctuated by occasional shrieks of delight.

This clubby atmosphere is the shoe department at Bergdorf Goodman, a department store in Manhattan, where the shoes and ambiance provide something akin to an out-of-body experience. Spring’s first designer shoe collections have arrived and they’re unlike anything the ordinary shopper has ever seen. These aren’t the stilettos Sarah Jessica Parker made famous in Sex and the City--they’re on a whole new level. As provocative as a work of art, they beg discussion. What is ugly? What is beautiful? What is torture? What is pleasing? Who is the beholder? Who is beheld?

“There has been a significant return to a shoe that has a real artistic presence,” said Ken Downing, fashion director at Neiman Marcus. “Designers are looking for ways to create something distinctive and special. The runway is always a theatrical commentary on society, so it is no shock that since the economy is not strong we are certainly looking for ways to take our mind off of it.”

This season’s shoes reflect much more than the latest ideas of designers. They also hearken a long history of fantastical shoes dating to the sixteenth century when Chinese women bound their feet to squeeze them into lily foot slippers and French women began wearing heels that were so high they needed a servant to help them stand. The latest incarnation of high-fashion footwear, with their seemingly physics-defying construction, walk the line to between empowerment (women having the means to pay small fortunes for some straps, a sole, and heel), and the willingness to cripple herself for so-called beauty. A shoe is not simply a shoe. It’s a vehicle that allows women to transcend reality, if only for a moment. It’s a season of extremes.

“These shoes have a real surrealist sort of feeling to them,” said Nicole Phelps, executive editor of style.com. “They are a way for women to do something outrageous, something entirely impractical that, when they put them on and slide into a car, because they surely can’t walk in them, makes them feel really sexy, beautiful, and unique.”

A Fendi pair have five inch heels that look more like the heels have been taken prisoner than a piece of high fashion. They’re $600. Marc Jacobs dabbles in Surrealist sculpture with a heel turned on its side (price, $596.) Miu Miu offers a show-stopping style with a black toe, a thin metal candlestick for a heel and a lick of fiery orange leather that snakes up the ankle like a flame for a mere $710.

Certainly, these shoes are an investment. But the price tag speaks to the emotional connection women have with their shoes. The prices don’t reflect practical purpose or need. The avant garde spin this season provide a fantasy or a diversion from everyday, real-world problems. Fashion, like art, reflects the time period in which it is made and, according to Phelps, elaborate shoes with bright colors, ludicrous heels, or otherwise ornate designs provide a way for women to escape from thinking about say, the current economic recession. “If women are feeling quite pessimistic about the future,” Phelps said, “clothes can provide an outlet.”

And as outrageous as the cost of designer shoes can be, women can always rationalize the expenditure.

“In a recession, you might not want to buy a whole new wardrobe because you can’t afford it,” said Meghan Cleary, the host of “Shoe Therapy” on the Home Shopping Network and creator of MissMeghan.com. “So women will buy a pair of shoes instead.”

But these shoes say more about the women wearing them than the society they’re in, according to Dr. Lars Perner, professor of consumer psychology at the University of Southern California. Perner said these shoes probably appeal to a very small percentage of women who really want to stand out.

“These women want to make a certain impression on other people and not necessarily a favorable impression,” Perner said. “They are not suitable for wearing in professional situations; they are simply for generating attention.”

Moreover, they are terrible for the woman’s feet. “They may look pretty but they are dangerous,” said Dr. Charles Passet, a foot specialist in Forest Hills, N.Y. “High heels put your foot in an anatomically incorrect position which strains your calf muscles, your hamstrings and your lower back.” By putting increased pressure on the foot, Passet added, these shoes also increase the likelihood of malformations like hammertoes or bunions. The precarious perch of a high heel, Passet said can even lead to a fall or a twisted ankle.

As severe as the physical consequences may be, history reflects a cycle of extreme footwear. It’s boom and bust--women’s shoes became more and more difficult to wear until they reach an extreme and are cast aside. “When the style becomes more and more exaggerated, ridiculous and uncomfortable, then it begins to decline,” said Laurie Lawlor, author of “Where Will This Shoe Take You? A Walk Through the History of Footwear.” “It has its own arc of existence. I think we are seeing that arch now, where high heels are getting so ridiculous, so impractical that they will dissipate.”

Other experts in the fashion industry insist these shoes aren’t going anywhere. Joyce Corrigan, Senior Editor at Large of Marie Claire magazine sees them as nothing short of objets d’art. “These aren’t the fetish-y type of shoe,” she said. “But they are almost straight out of a ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream.’” Less one-night-stand sex kitten, more enduring Shakespearean heroine.

“These shoes aren’t little flirty, strappy kitten heels that we’ve seen in seasons past,” Corrigan said. The Sergio Rossi shoe with the thin, sharp metal heel and the Fendi with the thick metal heel could practically be used as weapons. “These shoes are heavy,” Corrigan said. “They almost represent a notion of modern-day armor.”

“I would definitely be interested in trying these on,” said Shelli Chase, 61, when asked about the Marc Jacobs shoes at Bergdorf Goodman’s. “I think they are so intriguing, interesting and clever. And they could be comfortable! You have no idea! They are like the Picasso shoe.”

Mike Orr, 46, who was visiting New York City from Vancouver with his wife, Sonya, took an opposing view. “I don’t get it,” he quickly answered when asked about the Marc Jacobs shoes. “I think they’ll break as soon as you step into them.”

Ultimately, these shoes represent a complex and new way of thinking for women. They offer a point of departure and a world of possibility. Masculine pessimism be damned! “This is an interesting time for women,” Cleary said. “There is a woman running for president. Women are claiming power and their place in the world. They are saying, ‘Here I am. Look at me.’ They’re willing to be out there trying different things.”

“And, of course,” Cleary added, “There is also part of this that is really fun.”

E-mail: jpj2110@columbia.edu