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He Designed These Heels For Lady Gaga. Now They're A Symbol Of Gender Bending Fashion At The MFA05:34
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These shoes designed by Thom Solo for Lady Gaga are part of the “Gender Bending Fashion” exhibition at the MFA Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
These shoes designed by Thom Solo for Lady Gaga are part of the “Gender Bending Fashion” exhibition at the MFA Boston. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

After Lady Gaga's 2017 Grammy Award's performance with Metallica she strutted after parties in a pair of black, 10-inch stacked platform shoes. They're sleek, sexy and kind of scary looking.

Newton-born women's footwear designer and artist Thom Solo said he was going for an alien "femme fatale" look with a "rock and roll vibe."

“We've got a beautiful woven, Sasari leather that kind of brings the modern day leather aspect, as well as a hint of Sci-Fi,” he described. “And then we've got a resin-casted spinal column that goes from the bottom all the way to the top to emphasize the alien aspect.”

Solo drew inspiration from the deadly, female extraterrestrial artist H.R. Giger designed for Ridley Scott’s classic space film. Now Gaga's shoes are in the MFA's new "Gender Bending Fashion" exhibition that's packed with works by international and local designers. Solo's accessories sit among the creations of other world famous designers like Gucci, Palomo Spain and Yves Saint Laurent in the MFA's galleries.

The MFA Boston's “Gender Bending Fashion” exhibition curator Michelle Finamore, left, and shoe designer and Newton native Thom Solo place shoes on a table that they will use to accessorize the mannequins in the show. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The MFA Boston's “Gender Bending Fashion” exhibition curator Michelle Finamore, left, and shoe designer and Newton native Thom Solo place shoes on a table that they will use to accessorize the mannequins in the show. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Solo's Boston studio has crafted commissions for other celebrities including Britney Spears, Lana Del Ray, Grimes and Kylie Jenner.

The 29-year-old's fascination with footwear started when he was just a toddler — with those plastic “jelly shoes” from the '80s.

“Then that stemmed into Cinderella and Dorothy from ‘The Wizard of Oz,' " he recalled, “and these like beautifully-crafted shoes had this sense of transformative magic around them.”

Now, having four pairs of his shoes in the MFA is like a homecoming, and a dream come true.

“I went to school at the School of Museum of Fine Arts, right across the street,” Solo recalled, saying the MFA was like a “mecca” for him and his peers. He hoped to have work in this building one day, he said, “and now the fact that it's happening is mind-blowing.”

As she was organizing the show, Penny Vinik Curator of Fashion Arts Michelle Finamore said she thought of Solo’s work immediately.

“One of the things I'm really keenly interested in is bringing more attention to Boston designers and local designers,” she explained, “because we have a very vibrant, amazingly-talented community here.”

The "Gender Bending Fashion" exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. (Courtesy Michael Blanchard)
The "Gender Bending Fashion" exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. (Courtesy Michael Blanchard)

From bathrooms to advertising to fashion, attitudes toward what’s feminine, masculine, both or neither are evolving. There’s more unisex streetwear on the market, along with three-piece suits for women and stilettos for men. But gender-neutral attire and accessories are nothing new. The MFA show puts contemporary trends in context.

Finamore said fashion designers have been tapping into gender-fluidity for decades.

“Cause they are right there, kind of seeing what's on the street, reading it, and turning it out onto the runway, into the ready-to-wear market, whatever it is,” the curator said, “and thinking about gender on a spectrum rather than something that's so strictly defined.”

Finamore believes Solo’s collections smartly play on ideals and archetypes of femininity. His mermaid boots have 5-inch, 3D-printed heels, cast in bronze that look like fishhooks. They're inspired by artist John Waterhouse's paintings of mythological creatures. Solo's take on 1950s pumps — black suede ankle boots with a flouncy flower at the heel — are paired with a black, women's Ralph Lauren tuxedo in the show. The shoes are from his cheeky "Suburban Bloodbath" series.

Shoe designer Thom Solo holds a shoe with a heel that looks like a fishing hook. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Shoe designer Thom Solo holds a shoe with a heel that looks like a fishing hook. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Solo’s creations compliment the vibrant, edgy ensembles selected by Finamore. She chose each one for their power to disrupt or transcend traditional ideas of the “suited man” or “skirted woman” through the 20th century to present day.

“I really wanted to capture what was happening currently, and then look back in time,” Finamore said, “and look at key figures and key moments and the brave individuals who have always sought to kind of blur those binaries.”

A timeline on the wall outside the gallery features Billy Porter in his velvet tuxedo gown at this year’s Academy Awards, and also includes Grace Jones, Patti Smith, David Bowie and Katharine Hepburn.

The "Gender Bending Fashion" exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. (Courtesy Michael Blanchard)
The "Gender Bending Fashion" exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts. (Courtesy Michael Blanchard)

While the show’s mannequins don 20th century garb, the timeline traces gender bending fashion to as far back as Hatshepsut, Egyptian pharaoh from 1507-1458 BCE. She wore male power symbols, including a false beard. There’s Joan of Arc too, in her masculine tunic and tall boots.

“Gender bending has been around since the beginning of time,” Solo mused, “and for it now to be focused on by such an established museum is a gift, you know, for somebody who is also a part of the LGBTQIA community.”

While Solo is an artist who spends his days imagining extravagant, conversation-starting high heeled shoes for women, he doesn’t think heels are gendered. In the show, Finamore pairs them with men's ensembles, too.

“You're seeing a lot more of these high heels for men,” she said, “coming down the runway you see a lot of designers who are specifically rethinking men's shoes.”

Shoes designed by Newton native Thom Solo are set out on a work table ready to be placed on the mannequins in the show. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Shoes designed by Newton native Thom Solo are set out on a work table ready to be placed on the mannequins in the show. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Heels designed by men have been deemed misogynist, even crippling for women. But Solo re-frames and sees them as extensions of the power women already have — women like Lady Gaga.

“Gaga requested these shoes,” he said of those alien-like platforms she commissioned for the Grammys, “so you know, we're going to create something over the top and beautiful."

And if she wants 10-inch heels, Solo added with a laugh, "she's going to get 10 inch heels.”

And of course Lady's Gaga's "Born This Way" is on the soundtrack created for the MFA’s "Gender Bending Fashion" gallery.

This segment aired on March 21, 2019.

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Andrea Shea Twitter Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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