Had it been shown almost anywhere else, The Rise of Sneaker Culture exhibit wouldn’t have troubled me. But it’s at the High Museum of Art, the same museum that has mounted shows of Picasso, Vermeer, Cezanne, Rembrandt, and, concurrently with this show, a retrospective of the photography of Walker Evans. So, throughout the exhibit I was nagged by the question of whether or not sneakers warrant consideration as an art form. I’m okay with fashion design, utilitarian objects like drinking glasses, bowls, plates, silverware, or sunglasses. I’m okay with highly engineered automobiles, aircraft, boats and buildings being classified as art – but sneakers???
However, if the exhibit had been at a shoe outlet I probably wouldn’t have bothered seeing it and I would have missed out. The exhibit, organized by the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and traveling to five museums in the United States, is fascinating, and, after all, it is not called The Rise of Sneakers as Art, it is The Rise of Sneaker Culture. In that regard my first awareness of sneakers as a cultural phenomenon was in an old Spike Lee film, Do The Right Thing, where one of the unwashed characters accidently tread on and smudged the hero’s designer sneakers and caused a cultural rift pronounced enough that I remember this scene after thirty years.
The exhibit is arranged chronologically. The oldest shoe is a rare, pre-vulcanized Brazilian wet-wear shoe from 1830 with an intricate floral design made for export to upscale American and European markets.
Shoes Is Art
By George Hornbein
Pierre Hardy, Oh Roy! 2015
Photo Courteys of ShoesPost.com
George Hornbein is an architect.
The Rise of Sneaker Culture is on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta from June 11, 2016 - August 14, 2016.
When vulcanization was developed in 1839, a durable, rubber sole, canvas top shoe began its evolution to become the sneaker we now know. With industrialization in the last half of the 19th century, came concern that white-collar workers and their families were not getting enough exercise. The physical culture movement grew with a number of competing schools of exercise regimes, all requiring special footwear. The “sneaker” industry obliged.
These 1900 Beacon Falls Rubber Company high tops at the left were probable worn by children during the physical education classes that became part of the public education curriculum during the last decades of the 19th century.
Not all early rubber soled shoes were designed for the gym. This 19th century pair of low cut Goodyear sneakers at the right would have been worn for dress as well as for physical exercise. At the time, these shoes would have afforded the owner a degree of status. These were not inexpensive shoes and, as a status symbol, anticipated the position of today’s expensive sneakers as cultural symbols and now, sought after collectors’ items.
Manufacturers developed innovations. This 1915 Spalding Brothers gymnasium and aerobics shoe, designed for women, incorporated a new seaming technique that allowed the canvas top to be stitched to a leather sole that was as durable as the rubber soled competition, but sold for nearly one third the price.
In the 20’s the earlier combat-boot-look morphed into an athletic shoe marketed to women and acknowledged that their participation in athletics didn’t have to compromise their femininity. These shoes may have looked good, but it is doubtful that the athletes who wore them set any records.
By the 20’s and 30’s, shoes were developed for specific sports. Basketball shoes, tennis shoes and running shoes were developed, engineered, and often named after sports heroes of the time. The Converse All Star shoe that debuted in the 30’s has remained outwardly unchanged and was what we called a gym shoe, which we changed into for our phys-ed classes in the 50’s. We wore penny loafers for normal wear at school and home as I recall.
Probably the most important impetus in developing the sneaker cultural came in 1984 when Nike developed the Air Jordan for the Chicago Bulls rookie phenomenon, Michael Jordan. At the time the NBA did not allow its players to wear anything but white shoes. Jordan thumbed his nose at this regulation and wore his colorful red, white, and black Nike shoes on court. He was fined $5,000 per game. Nike saw this as an incredible advertising bargain and willingly paid the fine after every game.
These shoes raised the design bar. The Air Jordan became an icon and other sneaker companies joined the cultural movement. Designers like Pierre Hardy became emboldened and were inspired by artists like Roy Lichtenstein or paid homage to the world’s diverse cultures with shoes inspired by traditional native fabrics, like these for the Adidas Saigon, part of their 2006 “Materials of the World” collection, or this 2013 take by Dsquared2 on derby shoes.
From left: Pierre Hardy, Poworama, 2011. Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum, gift of Pierre Hardy. Photo: Ron Wood.Courtesy American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum. Adidas Saigon, 2006. Photo: George Hornbein. Dsquared2, 2013. Photo: George Hornbein.
But my favorite shoe of the show is the Adidas fish net shoe. I am totally committed. It will be on the market this year. My friends will be so impressed -- they’ll be so jealous. I’ll wear them when I go to New York or London or Shanghai. They’re made out of waste fish nets that never decompose and were gathered from our trash clogged beaches and littered ocean vortexes. I will be one with the rising sneaker culture, and these puppies are off the jank.
Pre-Vulcanized Shoe, 1830. Photo: George Hornbein.
Beacon Falls Rubber Shoe Co. High Top, 1800. Photo: George Hornbein.
Goodyear "Dress" Sneakers, 19th Century.
Photo: George Hornbein
Spalding Bros. High Top Women's Shoe, 1915.
Photo: George Hornbein.
Dominion Rubber Company Fleet Foot, ca. 1925
Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum
Photo: Hal Roth
Courtesy American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum
Converse All-Star. Photo: George Hornbein.
Nike Air Jordan I, 1984.
Photo: George Hornbein.
Adidas Fishnet Sneakers, 2016. Photo: George Hornbein.