How a sexist sneaker culture turned men into fashion addicts

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

(c) 2015, The Washington Post.

The front rows at menswear shows are, as one might expect, dominated by male editors and retailers, stylists and celebrities. And during New York Fashion Week: Men's, which begins July 13, if you look down at their feet, you will see a single line of painstakingly selected, shamelessly expensive, overtly fetishized sneakers.

"Men's fashion is being transformed from the feet up," said Elizabeth Semmelhack who, as senior curator at The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, is unquestionably biased about the importance of shoes to the overall understanding of a man's vision of himself. But that doesn't mean that she is wrong.

Sneakers have allowed men to flourish as peacocks — changing the mood and quickly adding flair to tailored suits, skinny jeans, baggy leggings and even tuxedos.

In recent years, men have eased into all manner of new, flamboyant plumage by way of an accessory that is firmly embedded in the quintessential cliches of sports, athleticism and masculinity. Sneakers are entrenched in the cult of boys, so much so that they occupy a different status than mere shoes, which are associated with women. Shoes, Semmelhack said, are what women are derisively described as obsessing about. Women are considered to be unhealthy shoe-a-holics — ruled by an insatiable and hysterical attachment to sling-backs, stilettos and mules.

"We don't consider sneakers to be feminine. Therein lies the essential difference," Semmelhack said. "Sneaker collecting, done by many men, is (described) in the tradition of other male collecting, like baseball cards and fine wines. It's about having every single one in every single model. Female buying is 'emotional'; male buying is posited as rational. But emotion is just as wrapped up in sneakers."

That sort of unspoken sexism is one of the many themes Semmelhack explores in "The Rise of Sneaker Culture," an exhibition that opens at the Brooklyn Museum on July 10.

The exhibition looks back at sneaker history — to some of the first running shoes, as well as the introduction, in the 19th century, of status and privilege into the conversation surrounding sneakers. Early on, sneakers helped define social hierarchies, Semmelhack said. The first sneakers that were intended for the average person, and not a professional athlete, were inspired by such rarefied pursuits as lawn tennis.

By World War II, sneakers were connected to the ideal of "physical perfection in service to the state," with the Nazi regime hosting sweeping outdoor exhibitions boasting of athletic prowess. In the years following the war, sneakers became part of kid culture as physical education settled into the elementary school curriculum.

In the 1970s, with the rise of Nike and later, in the 1980s, with the success of its Air Jordan models, sneakers became inextricably linked to fashion tribes and entertainment — spawning a host of social pressures for teens to have just the right shoe.

The advent of Casual Friday provided an opening for sneakers to enter the workplace. For many men, it was an unsettling transition. Having been told not to wear their work-day uniform of a business suit, they suddenly were asked to find a new way of dressing that involved bringing aspects of their weekend selves — their downtime selves — into the office, Semmelhack said. Men had to be — could be — more creative. And the fashion industry responded with countless luxury-branded sneakers and celebrity collaborations. Sneakers helped men step into the fashion system on their own terms.