The Brooklyn Museum looks at the history of the sneaker, from its 19th-century origins to how New York helped it become the status footwear of today.
The traveling exhibit “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” hits the Brooklyn Museum this summer, offering a comprehensive overview of how this popular form of footwear evolved over the last 140 years, from simple canvas shoe with rubber sole to designer-generated lace-ups, trainers, and high-tops that can cost well into the five figures. “New York is the epicenter of sneaker culture,” says show curator Elizabeth Semmelhack, of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. The city’s sneaker obsession started in the 1970s, when local basketball players and graffiti and rap artists embraced the shoes, modifying them to their liking. This cool customization created cult followings around certain styles and brands that fast spread to cities around the world. “I can’t imagine a better place to have the exhibition,” says Semmelhack, who first staged “Sneaker Culture” at the Bata Museum in April of 2013 and has refined it extensively for the Brooklyn show.
The exhibit shows how sneakers’ earliest origins were posh—in 19th-century Britain, where the shoes first appeared, rubber was expensive; the shoes were made for tennis and croquet, pastimes enjoyed solely by those who could afford “playtime.” “Sneakers only became democratized at the end of the century and [then again] during the interwar period between World War I and World War II,” Semmelhack notes, pointing out that sneakers and the physical activity associated with them fed into an increased cultural emphasis on physical fitness as individuals prepared for war. (Henry Nelson McKinney, an advertising agent for N. W. Ayer & Son, is believed to have come up with the term sneaker in 1917, playing on the fact the rubber sole made the shoe stealthlike.) After World War II, the sneaker became associated with children’s footwear; it was only in the 1970s that the “status sneaker,” thanks to New York urban cultists, was born.
To feature as many influential sneaker designs as possible, Semmelhack tapped archivists at Adidas, Reebok, Converse, Nike, and Puma, along with major collectors like Dee Wells of the popular podcast “Obsessive Sneaker Disorder,” Dion Walcott and Lee Joseph of the community organization Toronto Loves Kicks, and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of rap group Run DMC. Visitors to the show can ogle more than 150 significant pairs—original versions of Converse All Stars from 1917; the original 1974 Nike waffle trainer and 1982 Air Force 1; the Reebok Pump prototype; high-fashion interpretations by Christian Louboutin and Prada; and styles from artists Damien Hirst and Shantell Martin. Archival design sketches and film footage round out the show.
“For the last 33 years I’ve been a part of the sneaker culture,” says D’Wayne Edwards, former design director for Nike’s Jordan brand and founder of the Pensole Footwear Design Academy in Portland, Oregon. “To think a kid from Inglewood [California] would be recognized by the culture in this exhibit is humbling.”
As for Semmelhack: “I hope that the history of the sneaker, along with so many issues central to sneaker culture, will surprise visitors. The expression of status and the construction of idealized masculinity go far back… all the way to the 19th century.” The gym shoe left the gym a long time ago, and the Brooklyn exhibit demonstrates how it became a totemic icon for people around the world.
July 10–October 4. Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Pkwy., 718-638-5000