Installation view, ‘The Rise of Sneaker Culture’ at the Brooklyn Museum (© Jonathan Dorado)

Everyone discovers a new pair of sneakers from a different angle.

I typically fall in love with them from above: in elevators, where my eyes shyly glance downwards, away from possible contact with strangers; on the train, abiding by unwritten rules of subway decorum; at crowded, dimly lit bars, where I carefully surveil the space around my shoes to fend off smudges and scuffs from inebriated patrons. As I stare at the floor, my eyes home in on the visual stimuli: color combinations, shapes, patterns. It is a unique matchmaking exercise, deciding on a pair of sneakers. The process resembles purchasing a car on a lot — the intricate stitches dotting the new low-top Kobe 10s akin to the cold leather seat cushions or glossy chameleon speckled paint of a Chevy Camaro. You can see yourself in sneakers, imagine the way they might look with a new outfit — or better yet, an old one — and visualize how they move as you move, how the laces flop from side to side, up and down, with each step, how the tongue slides into the shoe like a turtle into its shell, how the tips of the soles cast a shadow on the ground when you roll through a step and the sun hits them just right.

Installation view, ‘The Rise of Sneaker Culture’ at the Brooklyn Museum, showing Nike’s Air Jordan I (1985) on top and the adidas x Run–DMC 25th Anniversary Superstar (2011) below (© Jonathan Dorado)

The Rise of Sneaker Culture, currently showing at the Brooklyn Museum, enters the world of sneakers from another angle: historical. The exhibit, organized by the American Federation of Arts and curated by the Bata Shoe Museum’s Elizabeth Semmelhack, begins its dissection of the vastness of this category of shoes by understanding them as a work of technological innovation. Assorted pairs appear in a random arrangement — there is no discernible order, whether chronological, by brand or edition — that nods toward historical progression. Each shoe denotes progress, although quite often — as is the case with sartorial trends — forward looks backward.

The takeaway is that both Eric Avar’s Nike Foamposites and the Tobie Hatfield–designed golden track spikes of Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson owe their respective legacies, in part, to industrialism. Had there been no Industrial Revolution, as the exhibit text plainly explains, there would also have been no “rubber revolution,” which transformed rubber into a more durable material and paved the way for the sneaker.

But shoe innovation isn’t simply history to be read; it must be felt. As a child, I remember sitting on benches in shopping mall department stores, while a salesman with a name badge and mild acne would measure my foot, nod, and disappear into the back closet, only to return with a new pair of Reebok pumps. The physical comfort of slipping my feet inside — and then, of course, pumping up the shoes (inflating the cushion in the upper lip) — instilled in me a self-confidence that I hugged as tightly as the Reeboks clung to my pipe-thin ankles. The perfect sneaker can adjust to the contours of the body, providing a kind of contentment in human imperfection.

Installation view, ‘The Rise of Sneaker Culture’ at the Brooklyn Museum (© Jonathan Dorado) (click to enlarge)

The exhibit, by contrast, and perhaps taking its cue from shoe-store window displays, presents innovation as something not to be touched but observed. Each shoe is presented under glass, except for the pairs strung over telephone wires to simulate a celebratory tradition commonly found in urban neighborhoods. Though meant to subvert negative race and class stereotypes, this curated positioning robs the encounter — seeing a stranded pair simmer in the summer heat or casting a pair, tethered together by shoe strings, and hoping the line will snag — of its spontaneity and surprise. The use of glass to showcase the shoes as high art also subdues the visceral experience, accentuating their anachronistic feel. The clear boxes feel prohibitive, like parental warnings (“Look, but don’t touch!”). As a result, the vicissitudes of sneaker culture fall somewhat flat. Under glass, the 1985 white KangaROOS of revered Chicago Bear and Hall of Famer Walter “Sweetness” Payton lose the illustriousness one might expect of a shoe worn by one of the greatest running backs ever to play the game.

Converse Rubber Shoe Company, All Star/Non Skid (1917), Converse Archives (photo courtesy American Federation of Arts) (click to enlarge)

The Rise of Sneaker Culture does feature some of the rarest kicks I’ve seen. Experiencing the original Chuck Taylor, created by the Converse Rubber Shoe Company in 1917, feels like reading an American foundational document at a Smithsonian museum. The 1977 white John Wooden Batas, sneakers honoring one of college basketball’s winningest coaches, hint at the era of vulcanization: a period when chemicals like sulfur were being used to improve the durability and quality of rubber. An entire wing of the exhibit is dedicated to Michael Jordan, the sneaker industry’s most recognizable name brand. Staring at the gorgeous red, black, and white 1985 Jordan Is and the outerspace-black patent-leather Jordan XIs — from the Warner Bros. cult classic Space Jam — I found myself fending off nostalgia. Reading the prices, cheap by contemporary standards, transported me to the halcyon days when a few mowed lawns or tilled backyards could land me the title of “flyest kicks” at Monday lunch break.

The subtle thread connecting each element of the exhibit is a scattering of disparate experiences of self-professed “sneaker heads,” and the artistic ways in which their stories are told. Bobbito Garcia, who once penned a love letter to sneakers, “Confessions of a Sneaker Addict,” in The Source, and hip-hop legends Run DMC explain their affinities for the shoes in short looping documentaries. Hip-hop artist Missy Elliott and music entrepreneur Damon Dash jovially brag about their extensive closets of rare sneakers.

Many of the observations come from African-American men and women. The longer one observes the exhibit, the stronger one can feel the impact of black culture. The vastness of sneaker culture parallels the evolving and expansive experience of blackness, while also acknowledging the ways in which the ideas of black cultural producers have proven their economic worth and commercial viability. Perhaps, then, the purpose of The Rise of Sneaker Culture is educational — an acknowledgment of how black creativity interacts with an interconnected, modern, consumer-driven world.

Still, the most wondrous quality of the exhibit is how intimately some of it resonates. A plethora of testimonials are scribbled on note-sized paper cutouts, push-pinned to a bulletin board; others are sprinkled throughout the walls of the show. Each message begins with the words, “What’s your sneaker story?,” followed by individual anecdotes of mostly sentimental memories. Staring at these cards, you can’t help but feel like you’re in a classroom full of annoyingly zealous children, all telling each other secrets. Then you look down, and remember the moment you first fell in love and walked across the school yard, one foot in front of the other, feeling brand new.

The Rise of Sneaker Culture continues at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) through October 4.

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Ian F. Blair

Ian F. Blair is a writer based in New York City.