A new exhibition is afoot at the Brooklyn Museum.
Beginning Friday at The Brooklyn Museum, “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” features 282 individual shoes (including 89 pairs and 168 different designs) and is laced with videos of sneaker-wearing voguers and break dancers: including Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics, The Lockers on Soul Train, and Run DMC and Patrick Ewing in the iconic “My Adidas,” “Yo! MTV Raps” clip.
This ode to comfortable shoes, promising wearers almost magical powers of loft and speed, is complete with design diagrams depicting sneaker technology, etchings, photos and commercials. Shoe history is also brought to heel: While sneakers go back at least to the early 19th century (called “plimsolls” then) it was not until the vulcanization process was patented in the 1840s — allowing rubber to remain pliable without being sticky — that manufacturing of athletic shoes picked up.
The recent rise in sneakers’ popularity is an outgrowth of athleticism, consumerism and masculinity, said Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, which originated the touring exhibition.
“For 150 years at least, men have been expected to engage in a herd mentality in dress, but sneakers allowed for an increased vocabulary of style and individual expression,” she said. A killer pair of rare, high-status kicks “allowed for a more diverse expression of male success.”
But lots of girls and women love the cushiony comfort of “trainers,” too — with none other than Missy Elliot rocking Adidas in an music video for the exhibit. What about us?!
“Athleticism and femininity have had a difficult relationship in the 20th century,” said Semmelhack, who was wearing high heels. Women began to come out of aerobic exile and wear sports shoes in the 1930s, she added, when many governments began to see physical fitness as a civic duty for both sexes.
“Physical education was added to school curricula around the world because it was considered a citizen’s obligation to be fit to fight the next war,” Semmelhack said.
More recently, “gym shoes” have become objects of intense veneration and collectible status symbols. Filip Bendersky, 18, from Sheepshead Bay attended the exhibit’s preview wearing a pair of pristine Kanye West Airs.
“I could get anywhere from $700 to $800 for this pair,” said Bendersky, who has more than 100 pairs of sneakers and hopes to open stores for discerning sneakerheads. Collectors, he said, often don’t care if the sneakers comport with the size of their own feet.
“I won’t play basketball in certain pairs of sneakers: I respect the shoe too much,” he added reverently.
Bendersky appeared to be following the instructions and living the observation of Joseph “Rev Run” Simmons, who exhorted in an exhibit display: “Your sneakers could NEVER EVER be dirty! PERIOD! Truth be told … The sneaker game was and STILL is deep.”
Truth be told, the appeal of impact-absorbing shoes in the concrete jungle extends far beyond kids and teens.
At the press preview, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, Arnold Lehman, who is in his early 70s, sported a pair of traffic-stopping patent leather, neon yellow Yohji Yamamotos. Lehman’s sneakers had been appropriated by a grandson but finally relinquished when they were outgrown.
“I would wear these every day if I could,” Lehman said. “They’re very comfortable.”
The Rise of Sneaker Culture: July 10 – Oct. 4, 2015
Where: 200 Eastern Parkway (Eastern Parkway stop on 2 and 3 subway trains)
Admission: $16, seniors and students with ID $10, Ages 19 and under free.
Hours: Wed., Fri., Sat. & Sun. 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. Thurs. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Closed Mon. & Tues. Open the first Sat. of each month (except Sept. till 11 p.m.)
More info: brooklynmuseum.org