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Maia Sacca-Schaeffer

"The Rise of Sneaker Culture"
at the Brooklyn Museum

How sneakers have shaped our culture and been shaped by it.


View of entrance to gallery. Photo by Maia Sacca-Schaeffer.

Sneakers are a way of life. As I ride the subway each day my eyes are drawn to the colorful row of feet across from me. Sequins, studs, stripes- each shoe is incredibly different and is a means of self-expression. It hasn't always been this way though. The Brooklyn Museum's "The Rise of Sneaker Culture" seeks to explore this very development and to understand how sneakers have become not only a central part of fashion but also a reflection of historical events, cultural shifts and gender relations.

The exhibition includes about 150 pairs of sneakers and is on view July 10 through October 4, 2015, after which it will travel to three other museums. The touring exhibition is organized by the American Federation of Arts (AFA) and the Bata Shoe Museum, seeking to look at how the sneaker moved from its humble beginnings to its present position as urban icon and symbol of status. The collection was curated by Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator at the Bata Shoe Museum and coordinated in Brookyln by Lisa Small, Curator of Exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition includes sneakers from manufacturers like Adidas, Converse, Nike, Puma, and Reebok, as well as rare pairs from private collectors and celebrities.

"All Star/non skid" from Converse (1917). Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

The exhibition is arranged in six sections, each one exploring a different step in the development of sneaker culture. Long glass cases full of shoes stretch out before me and my eyes bounce from one pair to the next. Scattered around the room are TV screens and photos that feature athletes, musicians, and even a look into production at an Adidas factory. This multimedia approach brings to life the story behind each shoe, and interactive tablets give added insight into certain styles or manufacturers. There is even a room were visitors can share their own sneaker story and sketch their favorite shoe. This creates a community feel that incorporates visitors into the exhibit, making our own sneaker experience just as crucial to mapping their evolution.

The first room details the "Rubber Revolution" that enabled sneaker production to boom. We begin by journeying back in time to 1830 to chronicle the development of rubber-soled footwear and explore how the vulcanization process was applied to manufacture practical athletic footwear. Technological advancements remain at the core of this narrative in that they allowed sneakers to become available to many more people. I am surprised to see how primitive these sneakers look, much more comparable to leather dress shoes men wear today. Yet as I look closer there are undeniable hints of the sneaker trends to come, especially with an early Converse high top from 1917 with laces all the way up that reminds me of the high tops I frequently wear. This window into the past reveals the ancestors of the shoes on our feet, showing how long these styles have been embedded in our culture.

"Fleet Foot" shoes by Dominion Rubber Company (ca. 1925). Photo by Maia Sacca-Schaeffer.

The exhibition emphasizes the role of women in relation to sneaker culture, and the way their lack of access to sneakers during this early rise stemmed from the perception that athletic activities were "unfeminine." On display is a high heeled sneaker (an ancestor of today's wedge sneaker), that toys with the possibility of being a sneaker by way of its strip of laces and black seams, but retains a stereotypically 'feminine' character with its heel. As I read testimonials from female sneaker designers I learn that the industry remains primarily masculine today, for instance male athletes' shoes are met with a much stronger response than those promoted by female athletes. The exhibition highlights female sneaker designers like Sophia Chang who are working to break down the gender barriers that for a long time have formed the foundation of this industry.

Case of Air Jordans. Photo by Maia Sacca-Schaeffer.

The exhibition progresses from this glimpse into the past towards sneakers' shift from being a purely practical item to a fashion statement. One of the most important developments of this era was Nike releasing the first Air Jordan in the mid-1980s, changing sneakers into something to be collected. These were some of the most sought after shoes around and they revolutionized the sneaker industry. I see an impressive shelf display of Air Jordans that compares the various styles the shoe took on and shows just how many of them were designed. They stand out with their bright colors and innovative styles, and my eyes are drawn to a black pair with a bright red Nike swoosh, opposite a large picture of Michael Jordan sporting his own pair. It is clear how influential these shoes were in changing the image of the athletic shoe, and their design undeniably influences other shoes I see throughout the exhibition.

While the exhibit emphasizes sports sneakers and the role of athletes in guiding sneaker culture, the final section highlights design, innovation and "the synergy between sneakers, urban culture, music, and basketball." This last room seeks to look at how sneakers fit into today's global world, many the result of collaborations between designers, celebrities, musicians and athletes to create a single artistic vision. Sneaker design opens up a space for artists to contribute their voice, achieving everything from creating new pop culture trends to enacting social change. These sneakers are objects to be desired, something to flaunt while walking down the street, and as I walk down the last row of cases the shift into the realm of art is undeniable.

Immediately I find myself pulled towards Reebok X Alfie "Ball Out's," a re-imagined tennis shoe in which the very material of the shoe is made out of tennis ball-like material. Next I see the Nike Air Max 95's, which evoke the human body with the design of the lacing mirroring the spine and the straps forming ribs. I see Jeremy Scott's "Forum Money" sneakers, covered in dollar bills with Scott's own portrait replacing that of George Washington. There are even shoes by Jimm Lasser with an imprint of Obama on the bottom so that when walking on certain surfaces they leaves an image of the President behind. I am blown away one shoe after the next, their creativity and innovation showing the way sneakers have become a means of fostering artistic expression. My favorite pair comes in the form of the Pierre Hardy "Poworama" sneakers inspired by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. The shoe takes his iconic "POW" and adds it to a colorful sneaker that sports the polka dots and stipling he is known for.

Left: "Forum Money" by Jeremy Scott for Adidas (2002). Photo by Maia Sacca-Schaeffer. Center: "Obama Force One" by Jimm Lasser (2008). Photo by Maia Sacca-Schaeffer. Right: "Poworama" from Pierre Hardy (2011). Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

As I leave the museum I can't help but notice my eyes glued to people's feet. With a now increased awareness I look at the sneaker styles people sport and the way they give me some insight into who they are. Sneakers have evolved into a means of expressing individuality and with their versatility offer something for everyone. The "sneakerfication" of our culture is bound to continue in the coming years, and while we should eagerly look forward to the innovations yet to come, it's nice to take a step back and appreciate the way sneakers provide us with a historical vault that traces the fashion trends, technical innovations, and cultural shifts that have defined who we are today.

You can see the exhibition at The Brookyln Museum at 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York, NY 11238. From July 10-October 4, 2015. For more information visit: General contribution is $16, age 19 and under is free.

Maia Sacca-Schaeffer is a student at Williams College. As of this writing, she is wearing Converse High-Tops.


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