It’s a fashion choice that you make every day. Sometimes, your whole outfit depends on what you put on your feet. Sneakers, tennis shoes, trainers or whatever you want to call them, they aren’t just practical, they’re also art.
A new exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art explores the culture of sneakers and their impact in the world of fashion.
“The Rise of Sneaker Culture is an exhibition that everyone connects with, because we all wear sneakers, even if we call them tennis shoes,” wrote Brian Kennedy, director of the Toledo Museum of Art, in a press release. “W
e’re delighted to present an exhibition that’s as fun as it is informative and culturally relevant.”
This traveling exhibition celebrates the origins of the athletic shoe since the mid-1800s to its current place in fashion. Organized by the American Federation for the Arts (AFA) and the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Canada, The Rise of Sneaker Culture is the first exhibit in the United States to display an extensive study of the history of sneakers, their design and the cultural significance of sneakers.
According the museum’s website, the Bata Shoe Museum has an international collection of over 13,000 shoes and related artifacts celebrating 4,500 years of footwear history. They host a semi-permanent exhibit called “All About Shoes.”
The sneaker exhibition is curated by Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum. She has been working on this exhibition since 2010, when a graduate student commented on the lack of sneakers in the museum’s collection.
In creating this exhibition, Semmelhack said she reflected on her own experiences regarding her work and found that many people think that her research on footwear revolves around women.
“I thought that this was very interesting, that we can construct gender by women wearing shoes and having men go barefoot,” Semmelhack said. “So I thought looking at sneaker culture with a focus on its relationship to masculinity would be a way to engage with one of the most important forms of footwear on the planet and also shed some light on this issue. There are many men who are as interested in their footwear as women are.”
She said men increasingly express their own personal style through sneakers; it is not just women who like shoes in today’s culture.
Semmelhack explained that the history of sneakers had a modest beginning as simple rubber shoes. Early sneakers were expensive, not long-lasting and not very comfortable, but it was a start. Sneakers were seen as shoes for leisure time, which is something only the upper classes could afford, according to Semmelhack.
“The sneaker became democratized because of larger issues as well as technological innovations,” Semmelhack said. “Technological innovation is propelled by need and need is propelled by socio-economical and gender requirements.”
Over time, shoes became cheaper, much more comfortable, stylish and longer-lasting. By the 20th century, sneakers were affordable, and they transformed from athletic wear to a canvas for artists. Gallery visitors can see this transition as they walk through the exhibit.
“So as you march through the history of the sneaker, as you go through the exhibition, hopefully one of the main messages that will come across is that exact point,” Semmelhack said. “Sneakers are not simply related to shifts in style; they are intimately connected to much larger shifts in culture.”
Sneakers rose to symbolize cultural change. The exhibit includes a pair of 1985 Air Jordan 1s that came to represent one of the more pivotal moments in sneaker history. According to the exhibit, in 1984, Nike began to make sneakers for rookie Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls. Jordan wore the red and black shoes to each game, which was against NBA rules regarding colorful sneakers and cost Nike $5,000 per game. This, and Jordan’s soon-to-be legendary basketball skills propelled the desire for the sneakers and made Air Jordans iconic.
“Why have sneakers become such a wanted and desired commodity?” said Halona Norton-Westbrook, exhibition coordinator and associate curator of contemporary art at the TMA. “I think there are many reasons for that and one of them is that they’re just great vehicles for design and personal aesthetics.”
The 160 sneakers on display at the TMA showcase the rich history of the athletic shoe and is further developed by design drawings, photographs, films, a series of guest lectures, music and dance performances. Visitors are encouraged to take a #shoefie and share it with TMA on social media.
“I think a lot of people might think that footwear in general and sneakers in particular have very little to do with society in which they live and are not objects that can reflect these much larger culturally important,” Semmelhack said.
The exhibit displays how cultural shifts tie into sneaker trends.
“Sneaker culture is really a reflection of what is happening in the broader culture, in terms of popular culture, sports culture and music culture,” Norton-Westbrook said. “All of those cultures coalesce together. Sneaker culture is one way to understand the different aspects of changes in broader society.”
Featured sneakers of the collection include a complete set of Air Jordans I-XX3, 1936 track shoes similar to ones worn by Olympic medalist Jesse Owens, the original Air Force 1 and a pair of Run-DMC autographed Adidas Superstars.
Semmelhack said she was thankful for the amount of lenders they had for this exhibit. Shoe contributions came from the Bata Shoe Museum, the Kosow Sneaker Museum, Northampton Museums and Art Gallery, the archives of manufacturers such as Adidas, Converse, Nike, Puma and Reebok and private collectors such as hip-hop group Run–DMC, sneaker guru Bobbito Garcia and Dee Wells of Obsessive Sneaker Disorder, according to a press release.
The exhibition opened Dec. 3 at the Toledo Museum of Art and will continue to be displayed until Feb. 28.
Previously, the exhibition was viewed by large crowds at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City and the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. After its close at the TMA, the traveling exhibit will move on to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Ga. and then end its tour at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Ky.
Admission to the Toledo Museum of Art and to the exhibition is free. For more information including museum hours and parking, visit toledomuseum.org.