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 last week. 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 Boxexhibition 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. Once an emblem of privileged leisure on the tennis court, the canvas-and-rubber high-top adapted to the new, egalitarian team sport of basketball. The Converse Rubber Shoe Company—founded in 1908 as a producer of galoshes—introduced its first basketball shoe, the All Star, in 1917. In a stroke of marketing genius, Converse enlisted basketball coaches and players as brand ambassadors, including Chuck Taylor, the first athlete to have a sneaker named after him.
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.
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. Instead of one pair of sneakers, people needed a whole wardrobe of them, custom-made for different activities—or genders. Sneaker companies embraced women’s liberation as a promotional ploy, advertising shoes specifically designed for female bodies and lifestyles.
As the suburbs became overrun with joggers, America’s cities saw a rise in basketball players, particularly New York, where a bold new style of play transformed the game into a spectacle of masculine swagger. Like break dancing, schoolyard basketball ritualized a competitive physicality, which bled into mainstream (white) culture. “In the 1970s, New Yorkers in the basketball and hip-hop community changed the perception of sneakers from sports equipment to tools for cultural expression,” the sneaker historian Bobbito Garcia explains in the Out of the Box catalogue. “The progenitors of sneaker culture were predominantly ... kids of color who grew up in a depressed economic era.” The 2015 documentary Fresh Dressed highlighted the prominent role of sneakers in the history of black urban culture—and its appropriation by whites.
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.
The ascent of aerobics in the early ’80s left Nike, known for its jogging shoes, struggling to adjust. In February 1984, the company reported its first-ever quarterly loss, but that same year Nike signed basketball rookie Michael Jordan to an endorsement deal—arguably the birth of modern sneaker culture. Jordan wore his signature Air Jordans in NBA games, in defiance of league rules. Nike happily paid his $5,000-per-game fine, while airing ads declaring: “The NBA can’t keep you from wearing them.” And so when the first Air Jordans hit stores in 1985, the sneakers carried with them a distinct whiff of sticking it to The Man, despite their $65 price tag. But not everyone wanted to be like Mike. As Jordan grew rich off of his Nike partnership, he was accused of staying silent on political issues affecting the African American community. “Republicans buy sneakers, too,” he allegedly responded.
The growing popularity of sneakers on both sides of the political divide set the stage for a raging culture war over the shoes’ ties to criminality, or lack thereof. In “My Adidas” (1986)—one of many hip-hop sneaker shout-outs—Run-DMC defended their laceless Adidas Superstars against sneakers’ thuggish image as “felon shoes,” rapping: “I wore my sneakers, but I’m not a sneak.” (The band was rewarded with an Adidas endorsement deal, a first for a musical group.)
But Nike’s all-white Air Force 1 sneaker, released in the same year as “My Adidas,” may have merited the name of “felon shoes.” Having enough money to step out in “fresh”—i.e., pristine and unscuffed—Air Force 1s became a point of pride among street drug dealers. “Like the complicated icon of the cowboy, the drug dealer was also a symbol of rugged individualism whose fashion was hypermasculine and easily marketed … in ways that capitalized on both its American-ness and its exoticism simultaneously,” Semmelhack writes in the exhibition catalogue. The AF1, far from a public-relations disaster, became an instant classic. The rise in sneakers’ price and social cachet led to a wave of sneaker theft; a frenzied media blamed Nike’s Spike Lee-directed Air Jordan ads for a string of “sneaker killings” in 1990. Bill Cosby—then a beloved and respected former TV dad—made an example of pricey sneakers in his 2004 “Pound Cake” speech to the NAACP, chastising African-American parents for wasting money on such frivolous purchases.
But mounting customization and collectability (driven by eBay) only increased the cost of sneakers; artists and elite fashion designers like Prada and Gucci began releasing their own designs or limited-edition collaborations with athletic brands. In this rarefied market, sneakers evolved from symbolic consumer objects into small-batch vehicles for unambiguous social commentary. In one notable example, the artist Judi Werthein designed the 2005 Brinco cross-trainer to assist with illegal border crossings from Mexico. Werthein distributed Brincos to migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border for free, while also selling them to sneakerheads for $215 per pair at a San Diego boutique. A few years later, “Obama Force One,” the custom AF1 designed by the artist Jimm Lasser in 2008, had profile portraits of President Obama etched on each sole. And, long before the Colin Kaepernick debate, the NBA star Dwayne Wade released a pair of Black Lives Matter sneakers.
Inevitably, some of these statement sneakers were accused of going too far, or not far enough. The line Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer designed for Converse in 2013 contained hidden human rights slogans and symbols. “It should be welcomed that Niemeyer is using this opportunity to raise political awareness,” The Guardian’s architecture and design blog noted. “But I wonder what he would make of accusations that dozens of factory workers making Converse sneakers in Indonesia have been routinely abused on the job?”
Such is one of the problems that can arise with socially conscious sneakers: The intent, the message, and the realities of production don’t always comfortably line up. Consider how many of today’s politicized kicks are too expensive for most people to buy. And even for those who can afford the shoes, there’s little incentive to take them out of their packaging and risk scuffing them out on the streets. 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?