Chalk it up as another moment when we realise we've made it – starting in July, the world-renowned Brooklyn Museum will feature an exhibition investigating the history of sneakers in Western culture. 'The Rise of Sneaker Culture' will run from July 10 through October 4 and showcase around 150 pairs of important sneakers from the archives of Adidas, Converse, Nike, Puma, and Reebok as well as private collectors such as DMC, Bobbito Garcia and Dee Wells. There will also be film footage, interactive media, photographs, and design drawings that explore the social history, technical innovations, fashion trends, and marketing campaigns that have shaped sneaker culture over the past two hundred years. We suggest you get the hell along to it!
In the meantime, peep the gallery above for some of the pairs that will be glass-boxed up for the exhibition, like the sanctified artefacts they are, and read some thoughts on shoes that the show curator Elizabeth Semmelhack shared with New York Mag in a recent interview below.
As someone who’s studied footwear extensively, what about sneakers do you find particularly interesting?
Especially since the '80s, one of the things that has been so fascinating to me is that it’s at the sneaker level that men have been willing to take the greatest fashion risks. They’ve been willing to incorporate design and color into their footwear in ways they would shirk in other aspects of their attire. Sneakers are a means of enfranchising men into the fashion system — they allow men to break out of the uniformity of dress in which all men are expected to dress similarly. Think about a formal event: It’s expected that all the men will dress the same, whereas no two women could possibly show up in the same dress. With sneaker culture, men are expected to have different sneakers from everybody else. And if you take a simple outfit — jeans and a T-shirt — and wear that with a pair of Chuck Taylors, that says one thing. If you wear it with a pair of Air Jordans, that says another. There’s so much nuanced social and cultural meaning that is expressed through footwear choice.
Where does the word sneaker come from?
It’s a child slang term that comes into use by the early 1870s. We’re surrounded by rubber, so we forget what an amazing material it must have been when it first came into use. The rubber soles mitigated the sound that shoes made, so kids called them sneakers — and that starts to be the common word that’s used in marketing.
How have sneakers evolved since their first incarnation?
When we look back at early sneakers, they look so simple: just a rubber sole and canvas upper. But these were cutting-edge technology — and I think that innovation and interest in the new has continued to push sneaker design since the first sneaker was made. By the middle of the 20th century, the sneaker has become, in many ways, the footwear of childhood, and it takes the "Me" generation of the 1970s to reestablish sneakers as a means of expressing status. I think that’s when sneakers really transformed from an object of sporting and leisure into a fashion accessory — people aren’t just jogging on Sunday in their bright Nike waffle trainers, they’re wearing the same waffle trainers to the disco that night. Throughout the entire history of the sneaker, you had designers trying to push the envelope to make footwear meet needs specific to athletes and athletics, but now it’s come hand in hand with demands from fashion. I think most sneaker designers still think of themselves as making footwear for elite athletes, but we know that the primary way the majority of sneakers function is as fashion footwear.