Sneakers’ role in culture at Toledo Museum of Art

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Once they were just ordinary old sneakers, or “tennis shoes,” as they were most likely called in Michigan.

Then in 1984, Nike signed Michael Jordan and launched the production of Air Jordans, at a stroke revolutionizing the entire shoe industry and exploding earlier, stuffier definitions of contemporary masculine cool.

The history of the lowly sneaker’s evolution from functional footwear to key status marker is a fascinating, overlooked story of material culture that’s laid out in “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” at the Toledo Museum of Art through Feb. 28.

Got a balky male adolescent who thinks museums suck?

He’s not going to mind getting dragged to this show, with its 160 pairs of sneakers displayed in glistening glass cases, and accompanied by brief-but-interesting historical labels, film footage, still photos and design drawings.

At Toledo, there are some remarkable shoes on display, including a pair of 1936 track shoes of the same type worn by Olympic medalist Jesse Owens, as well as way-cool PUMA Clyde Gametime Golds, Pierre Hardy’s Poworamas and Nike’s cerulean-blue Foamposites from 1997.

Also worth a look are drawings spanning the careers of Nike sneaker design legends Tinker Hatfield, Eric Avar and Tobie Hatfield.

And under no circumstances should you miss artist Jimm Lasser’s inspired take on the classic Nike Air Force 1, with a detailed portrait of President Barack Obama incised on the sole bottoms.

The box they came in is something of a collector’s item, too.

The footwear’s cultural power, says popular culture professor Jeremy Wallach at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, is remarkable.

“In the last 30 years, sneakers became items of conspicuous consumption,” Wallach says. “Things like Air Jordans are objects of intense desire — people line up for hours to buy them. Sneaker culture is both vitally important and a multi-billion industry,” he adds, “not just here, but worldwide.”

This phenomena all started in 1839, the year scientists perfected vulcanization, which for the first time turned raw rubber into a durable material that could be manipulated into various forms — including shoes.

But it wouldn’t be ’till sometime during the Civil War that the great-great-granddady of the sneakers you’ve got on your feet first appeared — a black, cleated Thomas Dutton and Thorowgood Running Shoe that still looks pretty snappy, even by today’s standards.

From the very start, argues “Sneaker Culture’s” curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack, sports shoes were markers of social status and position.

“Before the 1930s, the only people who had time to run around in sneakers and play sports were the upper class and rising middle class,” Semmelhack says from her office at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, which draws 120,000 visitors a year.

The mid-20th century saw a democratization in the sneaker world, she explains, as prices fell and more and more people enjoyed a 40-hour work week — and thus had time for recreational activities like organized sports.

But Air Jordans and the rise of hip-hop culture in the 1980s propelled sneakers into the status icons we know today.

It wasn’t limited to just Michael Jordan. Adidas and Puma rushed to sign other hoops superstars like Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Walt Frazier, and the race was on.

Rappers, ever attuned to the sports world, suddenly appeared in videos wearing the branded shoes, all of which created a perfect storm of status, sports machismo and undeniable cool.

Today, of course, the cultural status of sneakers is underlined by the prices many command. At Ypsilanti’s sneaker boutique Puffer Reds, owner Eric Williams notes Kanye West’s Yeezy Boost 750’s for Adidas retailed for $500 over the holiday season, while they lasted.

The limited production numbers were gone in no time, he says — but often as not probably weren’t worn by the purchasers. Like fine pieces of art worthy of museum display, many buyers saw them as investments and resold them for up to $2,000 a pair, Williams says.

‘The Rise of

Sneaker Culture’

Through Feb. 28

Toledo Museum of Art, 2445 Monroe, Toledo

10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday & Wednesday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday, Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday

Museum admission free; parking is $5 a car

(419) 255-8000