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Since its invention in the 19th century, the footwear has been about much more than athletics—conveying ideas about national identity, class, race, and other forms of social meaning.
Politics, however, fuelled 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.
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 medallist 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.
When most people think about museums, they think about exquisite paintings, historic sculptures and school trips accompanied by chaperones and seat belt-deprived yellow buses. But there’s one museum in particular that focuses in on the history of shoes. The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto has been documenting and displaying the evolution of footwear since its doors opened in 1995.
What transpired from that original idea was a traveling exhibition called “The Rise of Sneaker Culture.” This in-depth traveling displays tapped into the core of what makes sneakers such an important part of today’s society. First off, this isn’t your average sneaker display. It’s a beautiful, vast compilation of footwear pieces that can now be classified as works of art. Legendary kicks like the original Converse All-Star from 1917 and every Air Jordan model from the initial AJ I to the AJ XXIII provide fans with an educated glimpse on how sneakers have grown and become part of everyday life. Walking the halls of the exhibit allows one to really get a feel for where sneakers started and how far the industry has come throughout the years.
Run-D.M.C, a group of music pioneers, remains one of Adidas’ biggest hauls. Their use of the shell-toe Superstar model in pop culture signified a change within the youth. It gave a sense of longevity to the Adidas brand outside the world of performance shoes and placed it where it mattered the most: the streets. There’s plenty of history when it comes to each and every sneaker, and that’s what makes “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” so incredible. “What is significant about this exhibition is that it not only allows visitors to see exceptionally rare original sneakers from the 19th century to today, but it also strives to illuminate the incredible place sneakers have had in history and their role in culture