Since its invention in the 19th century, the footwear has been about much more than athletics conveying ideas about national identity, class, race, and other forms of social meaning.
Though it’s been touring the U.S. since it opened in Toronto in 2013, the exhibition Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture generated frantic curatorial discussions ahead of its opening at the Oakland Museum of California recently. The show features two pairs of New Balance sneakers, newly politicized in the wake of the brand’s public support in November of Donald Trump’s protectionist trade policies, which led a neo-Nazi blog to declare New Balance “the official shoes of white people.” Outraged customers responded by taking to social media to share photos and videos of New Balance sneakers in trash cans and toilets, or set aflame. The company quickly issued a statement saying that it “does not tolerate bigotry or hate in any form,” while also touting the brand’s made-in-the-USA credentials.
About a month later, Nike released a new Twitter ad that appeared to declare sharing “opinions about politics” to be a distraction from what their shoes are ostensibly designed for: going running. Whether a bipartisan appeal to the election-weary or an attempt to forestall a New Balance-style scandal, Nike’s apolitical stance rings hollow given the history of the footwear they sell: Sneakers have always been canvases for political commentary and projection, whether or not brands want them to be.
What Nike and New Balance fail to grasp, the Out of the Box exhibition curator Elizabeth Semmelhack told me, is that “the cultural meaning behind sneakers is a constantly evolving dialogue between the people who produce the sneakers and the people who wear them.” Fittingly, she said that although the New Balance shoes remain on display for the moment, that could change depending on visitor response. “I can understand the ownership that brands want to have over their own message, but the discursive nature of branding is clearly open to manipulation,” Semmelhack added. As the exhibition shows, over the last 200 years, sneakers have signified everything from national identity, race, and class to masculinity and criminality; put simply, they are magnets for social and political meaning, intended or otherwise, in a way that sets them apart from other types of footwear.
Performance-enhancing, rubber-soled athletic shoes date back to the early 19th century, when they were primarily worn for tennis. From the beginning, however, these so-called “sneakers”—named for their noiseless footfall—were tainted by connotations of delinquency, being the proverbial choice of pranksters, muggers, and burglars. This reputation would prove difficult to shake: an incendiary 1979 New York Times article was headlined: “For Joggers and Muggers, the Trendy Sneaker.” It was not until the 1920s that industrialization made sneakers widely available and affordable. Politics, however, fueled the rise of sneakers as much as athletics. As Semmelhack explained, “the fragile peace of World War I increased interest in physical culture, which became linked to rising nationalism and eugenics. Countries encouraged their citizens to exercise not just for physical perfection but to prepare for the next war. It’s ironic that the sneaker became one of the most democratized forms of footwear at the height of fascism.” Mass exercise rallies were features of fascist life in Germany, Japan, and Italy. But sneakers could also represent resistance. Jesse Owens’ dominance at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games stung the event’s Nazi hosts even more because he trained in German-made Dassler running shoes. (The company was later split between the two Dassler brothers, who renamed their shares Puma and Adidas).
When the U.S. government rationed rubber during World War II, sneakers were exempted following widespread protests. The practical, inexpensive, and casual shoe had become central to American identity, on and off the playing field. The growing influence of television in the 1950s created two new cultural archetypes: the celebrity athlete and the teenager. James Dean effectively rebranded Chuck Taylors as the footwear of choice for young rebels without a cause. Sneakers became footnotes in the history of the Civil Rights movement. In 1965, I Spy was the first weekly TV drama to feature a black actor—Bill Cosby—in a lead role. His character, a fun-loving CIA agent going undercover as a tennis coach, habitually wore white Adidas sneakers, easily identifiable by their prominent trio of stripes. This updated gumshoe alluded to the “sneaky” origins of sneakers, while also serving as shorthand for new-school cool. Sneakers played a more explicit part at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, where American gold medalist sprinter Tommie Smith and his bronze medal-winning teammate, John Carlos, removed their Puma Suedes and mounted the medal podium in their stocking feet, to symbolize African-American poverty, their heads lowered and black-gloved fists raised in a Black Power salute. The ensuing controversy didn’t hurt the success of the Suede, still in production today.
“Over the next few decades, canvas sneakers came to embody youthful rebellion as much as athleticism.”
Around the same time, the jogging craze necessitated low-rise, high-tech footwear that bore little resemblance to the familiar canvas-and-rubber basketball high-top. But these state-of-the-art shoes weren’t made for running alone; they were colorful, covetable fashion statements. In 1977, Vogue declared that “real runner’s sneakers” had become status symbols, worn by famous non-athletes like Farrah Fawcett and Mick Jagger. Sneaker companies embraced women’s liberation as a promotional ploy, advertising shoes specifically designed for female bodies and lifestyles. The humble canvas sneaker, since the ’60s supplanted in the sports world by more ergonomic designs in futuristic materials, found new life as an everyday shoe. Over the next few decades, canvas sneakers came to embody youthful rebellion as much as athleticism. Beatniks, rockers, and skateboarders adopted them because they were cheap, anonymous, and authentic—not necessarily because they were comfortable or cool. Converse, Keds, and Vans got their street cred not from sports stars, but from the Ramones, Sid Vicious, and Kurt Cobain. (In 2008, Converse angered Nirvana fans by issuing special-edition high-tops tastelessly covered with sketches and scribbles from the late frontman’s diary.) The All Star, formerly available only in black or white, suddenly appeared in a rainbow of fashion colors.
While their designers may see them as works of activism, to their owners, these costlier sneakers are more likely to be investment pieces—the hard-won fruits of waitlists, raffles, and overnight lines outside specialty shops. The Out of the Box exhibition catalogue even includes an essay on how to care for your “personal sneaker museum,” which prompts the question: If a sneaker makes a statement in a box, does anyone hear it?
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell is a fashion historian based in Los Angeles. Courtesy The Atlantic. Original story: here