High Heel (2019): Summer Brennan


Bloomsbury Object Lessons

What do you think of when you think of high heels? For me, there’s a divide between high heels ‘in the wild’ and my own experience. High heels in general are elegant: they’re worn by women who are smart, professional and probably wealthy enough to jump in a taxi rather than risk getting their stiletto wedged in a Tube station escalator. A woman of this type would probably not get her heel trapped in a grille on a staircase, and has to grimly hunker down, one shoe on, one shoe off, to winkle it out. (That was me.) Heels have a mythos of their own, provoking envy, longing and pride in otherwise quite reasonable women, and transforming their designers into household names; but why should this be? Exactly what is it that makes the high heel such an enduring object of obsession? The Bloomsbury Object Lessons series is always engaging, but Summer Brennan’s investigation of the heel is a particular favourite so far. Embracing Greek myth, fairy tales, history, fashion and biology, she sets out on a quest to understand exactly why this most uncomfortable of shoes has become the most ubiquitous. Fierce, feminist and fascinating.

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In Search of Hipermestra

Stefano della Bella: Apollo

Glyndebourne’s current production of Francesco Cavalli’s Hipermestra brings an ancient tale of love and duty up to date, with a powerful contemporary setting. Being a historian, however, I always wonder what it would’ve been like to experience these operas as they were originally performed. What would we have seen if we’d been in the audience for Hipermestra’s premiere in 1658? Fortunately, we don’t have to leave it to the imagination. Extensive visual and written documentation records the costumes and sets. Even more excitingly, the theatre where the opera was first performed still exists and is still functioning. During a recent business trip to Florence, I took some time out to visit the Teatro della Pergola and its remarkable archives, in search of Hipermestra…

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Giovanni Battista Moroni (2014-15)

Moroni: Portrait of a Tailor

(Royal Academy, London, until 25 January 2015)

He’s a familiar sight in the National Gallery. A young tailor has been distracted in the middle of his work. Resting his scissors on the table for a moment he glances up, as if you’ve just wandered into his workroom, half-inquisitive, half-challenging. His clothes are simple but well-made, showing off his craft: his cream doublet is elaborately pinked and finely-detailed lace peeks out at collar and cuffs. In a moment his assessing gaze will shade into something more specific: a frown at being disturbed, perhaps, or a welcoming smile, but for now he’s captured in that split second where everything is still possible: a moment of infinite potential.

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History Live! (2013)

History Live! 2013

(organised by English Heritage, Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire, 20-21 July 2013)

‘What is this strange contraption?’ It was 9:30am on a grey, cool Sunday morning and I was in a 12th-century encampment from the Holy Land (temporarily translated to a damp field in Northamptonshire), explaining the principle of photography to two Normans. Within five minutes’ walk were two thousand years of British history, ranging from a Roman legion to Second World War troops representing Britain, Germany, the USA, Russia and Poland. The day ahead would encompass tanks, trebuchets and muskets, thundering hooves and shattered lances, showers of arrows loosed from English yew, a shield wall, and the spine-tingling thrum of a Merlin engine, as a Spitfire burst through clouds of smoke to do a victory roll in the skies above. This was History Live! (formerly the Festival of History), English Heritage’s annual smorgasbord of a weekend celebrating British history.

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In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion (2013)

Elizabeth I as princess

(Queen’s Gallery, London, 10 May-6 October 2013)

Before we begin, let’s get one thing clear: if you have any interest in historical costume, the Tudor and Stuart courts, or textiles, then you absolutely must see this new exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery. It’s visually glorious, with a collection of splendid portraits from the Royal Collection displayed alongside surviving examples of costume from the period; and it’s also intellectually absorbing, because it takes very familiar images and, in switching the focus from the sitter to what they’re wearing, encourages you to think about portraits in an entirely new way.

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Masquerade (Carnival in Venice)

Two masked figures on the Riva degli Schiavoni

Even on an ordinary day Venice feels unreal, suspended between sea and sky, a jumble of bridges and alleyways and damp brick walls, porphyry and gold mosaic, ogee arches and pinnacles of blindingly white marble. I’ve been there twice before, but had always dreamed of going to the carnival and so couldn’t have been more excited when my parents decided to make their first trip to Venice and asked me to come along as translator and guide.

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Hollywood Costume (2012-13)

Hollywood Costume

(Victoria & Albert Museum, until 27 January 2013)

The V&A have assembled more than 100 of the most famous costumes in film history for their winter exhibition, which is unsurprisingly very popular and consequently very crowded. The selection seems to have been guided by no real principle, beyond the admirable one of trying to include examples from as many different genres and periods as possible. The purpose of the exhibition is to use these outfits as a framework, to educate the general public about the process of designing costumes for the movies.

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