Among the contents of the Allen Ginsberg Papers in Stanford University’s Green Library is a pair of worn and dirty tennis shoes. In the thousand linear feet of correspondence, photographs, manuscripts and notes, reel-to-reel recordings, performance posters, and broadsides, the beat-up sneakers hold their own. Purchased during his 1965 visit to Czechoslovakia, it is reasonable to surmise that Ginsberg wore the nondescript white canvas shoes to march in Prague’s May Day parade, to address a throng of students in the city square, and to cross the tarmac to an outbound plane when he was expelled from the Communist country a few days later. In America sneakers were the footwear of the beat generation, determined not to grow into their fathers’ oxfords. Ginsberg kept his pair as a symbol of a peril greater than selling out.
Top: Fig. 1. All Star/Non Skid by Converse Rubber Shoe Company, 1917. The Converse Rubber Shoe Company debuted its new indoor gym shoe in 1917. Brown canvas models were marketed as All Stars, while the same shoes in white canvas and with a slightly different tread were called Non Skids. Converse Archives, Boston, Massachusetts. Above: Fig. 2. Clyde Gametime Gold by Puma X Undefeated, 2012. Puma collaborated with L.A.-based sneaker brand Undefeated in 2009 and again in 2011 and 2012. Created in homage to the U.S. gold-medal-winning Olympic basketball team of 2012, Gametime Gold is based on the classic 1972 Clyde model (named after NBA star Walt “Clyde” Frazier) with perforations on the uppers and red, white, and blue heel tabs. Puma Archives, Herzogenaurach, Germany; photograph by Ron Wood.
Soon after, at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos stepped onto the medal podium, removed their running shoes, bowed their heads, and raised their gloved fists in the Black Power salute.
“We are not a show horse doing a performance, so if we do a good job we get paid some peanuts,” Carlos would tell reporters, referring at once to the significant contribution made by America’s black athletes and the oppressive poverty their community experienced in return. On the podium, they had signaled this conflict by removing their Puma Suedes (see Fig. 6).
That a thing as humble and ubiquitous as a rubber-soled shoe could symbolize both youthful rebellion and political persecution, athletic prowess and racial oppression, will be no surprise to visitors to The Rise of Sneaker Culture at the Brooklyn Museum. Organized by Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, the exhibition, like its subject, has both weight of meaning and wide appeal. After debuting in Toronto as Out of the Box: the Rise of Sneaker Culture (which is also the title of the catalogue) the exhibiton was expanded for the Brooklyn Museum. Through 150 pairs of shoes produced over some 150 years, Semmelhack explores an object that neatly—and intimately—describes the complex web of social, industrial, and political developments that ushered the nineteenth century into the twentieth, and the twentieth into the twenty-first.
Top: Fig. 3. Pre-vulcanized rubber overshoes, 1830s. The earliest rubber overshoes were made in Brazil by dipping Western-style lasts into boiled latex. While waterproof, they proved to be unstable in both hot and cold temperatures. Examples made for the American market were often embellished with incised floral decoration. Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto. Wood Photograph. Above: Fig. 4. Fleet Foot by Dominion Rubber Company, c. 1925. Although women had been encouraged to participate in physical culture since the second half of the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until the 1920s that female athletes were celebrated, and even then there were concerns that women’s participation in athletics would detract from their femininity. Here the menswear influence is seen in the broguing, but the high heels confirm that the shoes were intended for women. Bata Shoe Museum; photograph by Hal Roth.
The sneaker owes its existence to the 1839 invention of vulcanized rubber by American Charles Goodyear. The unique qualities of latex (as the sap of the rubber tree would be called) had long been known to the indigenous peoples of Central and South America, who waterproofed textiles by coating them with the milky liquid. But latex was extremely slow to harvest, and its benefits were difficult to exploit. Prior to Goodyear’s discovery that applying sulfur and heat to latex results in a stable yet flexible material, imported rubber products were highly valued by Europeans, but were ill suited to their climate. “For Westerners, it functioned more as a curiosity,” Semmelhack says. “Footwear was being made with rubber in Brazil for the Western market—they would dip ceramic lasts into latex rubber—…and these overshoes took the Western market by storm, but outside the Brazilian conditions, they had no sustainability.” Pre-vulcanized rubber overshoes brought from Brazil at great expense would turn to gum in the heat, or harden and crack in the cold (see Fig. 3). Even so, many saw potential in the exotic material with unusual properties, and industry was well-primed to capitalize on Goodyear’s invention. “Rubber was ‘the sinew and muscles’ of the industrial age,” Semmelhack says, refering to a speech Paul W. Litchfield, president of Goodyear Rubber and Tire, gave in 1839.
Top: Fig. 5. Modell Waitzer by Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik, 1936. For the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, at the height of Nazism, German shoemaker Adolf “Adi” Dassler offered athletic shoes to African-American runner Jesse Owens, who tested them in practice but is not confirmed to have worn them in his gold-medal-winning races. The Waitzer model was named after the German national coach Josef Waitzer. Collection of Adidas AG, Herzogenaurach, Germany © Adidas AG / Studio Waldeck. Middle: Fig. 6. Suede by Puma, c. 1970s. At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics the new Puma Suede became a central feature in the protest made by American Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith and his bronze medal-winning teammate John Carlos. Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, England. Above: Fig. 7. Running shoe by Thomas Dutton and Thorowgood, 1860–1865. Despite the discovery of vulcanization in 1839, most serious running shoes were made of leather in the middle of the nineteenth century. The leather uppers and small heel of this example are similar to men’s dress shoes of the period, but the spikes give it away as a running shoe. Northampton Museum and Art Gallery.
Goodyear’s discovery coincided with the rise of a new merchant middle class, keen to display the wealth they had accrued through manufacturing. The strikingly minimal appearance of the running shoes produced by Thomas Dutton and Thorowgood (Fig. 7) or the coy garçonne attitude of the heeled Fleet Foot tennis shoes (Fig. 4) belie the depth of their significance. “The sneaker is born from innovation, but it’s invented to meet the needs of the upwardly mobile,” Semmelhack says. “Original sneakers, no matter how humble they look, conveyed many concepts around social status.” If diversions such as lawn tennis and croquet signaled an abundance of leisure time, donning accoutrements specific to each pastime suggested the necessary means. A rubber sole was central to the uniform of the active and affluent mid-nineteenth-century bon vivant.
Top: Fig. 8. Grippers by Convese, late 1940s–early 1950s. Though they look like Converse All Stars, Converse Grippers were a postwar style advertised as being made from sturdy Army duck cloth. Designed for playing basketball and many other sports, they featured heavy ribbed white toe guards, ventilating perforations, and duck-covered insoles with “comfort cushioned arches.” Bata Shoe Museum. Above: Fig. 9. Poworama by Pierre Hardy, 2011. Frenchman Pierre Hardy launched his eponymous line of footwear for women in 1999 and for men in 2002. Among his many designs are sneakers that play with primary colors and geometric shapes. The limited-edition Poworama, inspired by Roy Lichtenstein, translates the artist’s graphic appeal into wearable art. Bata Shoe Museum, gift of Pierre Hardy.
By the turn of the century, with increasing industrialization and urbanization, athletics and play were imbued with moral value. Coupled with manufacturing innovations that led to increasingly inexpensive rubber-soled footwear, the sneaker was becoming commonplace and, as physical activity was added to school curricula and promoted by newly established organizations such as the YMCA, standard issue. “Sneakers were beginning to lose their edge in terms of being an expression of status,” says Semmelhack “and they were becoming considered an integral part of the wardrobe of millions…and all this comes together with the invention of basketball by James Naismith.” Charged by the YMCA to devise a game that could be played indoors during the winter and on a small outdoor court in summer, Naismith created basketball in 1891. The game was enthusiastically adopted in American cities, and manufacturers such as A. G. Spalding Brothers and the Converse Rubber Company capitalized on its success by releasing a new type of shoe—the high-topped canvas sneaker (see Fig. 1). By the mid-twentieth century sneakers had become ubiquitous in urban centers. The footwear of children and of the modern athlete, they would also soon become symbols of disaffected youth and subversion of the establishment.
Top: Fig. 8. Converse Rubber Shoe Company advertisement for the “maximum pep and minimum cost” Sure Foot and Non Skid sneakers, 1919. Converse Archives. Above: Fig. 10. An unidentified African-American women’s basketball team holding a “Ballard” pennant and wearing canvas high-top basketball shoes, c. 1910s. Basketball’s focus on nonaggressive game play made it a suitable sport for women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Courtesy the Black Fives Foundation.
As sneakers were becoming common in city basketball courts and playgrounds, specialized low-top running shoes were being produced for the elite stars of track-and-field by shoemakers such as German Adi Dassler, who would found Adidas, and his brother Rudolf, who would establish Puma. Despite connections to the Nazi party, Adi outfitted African-American athlete Jesse Owens with shoes for the 1936 Olympic Games, some thirty years before Smith and Carlos would raise their fists to protest racial oppression.
The Rise of Sneaker Culture was curated by Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. An expanded exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts and Lisa Small, curator of exhibitions, Brooklyn Museum, is on view at the Brooklyn Museum until October 4.