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November 28, 2016

We've Got Sole

Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture celebrates the history and evolution of this high-impact footwear

By OMCA Staff

Ask any teenage boy willing to shell out $245 for a customized version of Kobe XI Elite ID basketball shoes: Sneakers are far more than utilitarian protection for your feet. They’ve been icons of sports and style for nearly two centuries. Starting December 22, OMCA will explore the art and impact of this fashion staple in the new exhibition Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture.

“This traveling show is the first exhibition in North America to focus on the design, technology, fashion, and history of the sneaker,” says Evelyn Orantes, OMCA’s curator of public practice. “Hip-hop and skateboard cultures are part of the story. So are Vans, which have been made in California since the 1960s. It’s a fun opportunity to reflect on what sneakers tell us about diverse people, eras, communities, and styles.”

Out of the Box displays displays nearly 140 notable sneakers from the 1820s to the present.

The Sporting Life

Sneakers in their earliest form date back to the nineteenth century, when industrialization gave people more time and means to engage in leisure activities (Out of the Box includes the oldest existing running shoe from that era). Tennis, bicycling, and calisthenics were no longer just for the upper classes, and the clothing and equipment they required— including the first sneakers—were a sign of social standing.

Between the 1920s and 1970s, there was increased focus on athletics. As more schools taught physical education, canvas sneakers became widespread. Celebrities began endorsing brands—including basketball player and coach Chuck Taylor, known for his association with Converse—and the rise of professional sports drove a market for specialized sport shoes and sneakers by European companies such as Puma and Adidas.

Style and Status

Just like a pair of Jimmy Choo heels today, boldly branded sneakers became wearable status symbols in the 1970s and 1980s—prompted by the growth of fitness culture, advances in running shoes, and the emergence of Nike. Synergies among hip-hop, sneakers, and basketball exploded in the mid-1980s with the Air Jordan franchise, promoted by Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan, and the signing of rap group Run-DMC to Adidas. Some of the exhibit highlights include a classic pair of Adidas Superstars (the inspiration for Run-DMC ’s song “My Adidas”) and Reebok Freestyles, an icon of aerobic fitness in the 1980s.

Sneakers, through their bright colors, patterns, and designs, became the most baroque part of the male wardrobe. Customization pushed the art of footwear to extreme levels, putting a new, and costly, spin on existing products—Museum visitors will be able to see a pair of noted custom artist Mache’s Jokers, a visual nod to Heath Ledger’s acclaimed portrayal in The Dark Knight. Recent footwear designs by Prada and Louboutin further emphasize the role of sneakers in the world of high fashion.

“For more than 150 years, sneakers have been part of our fitness and style identity,” Orantes says. “Out of the Box invites us to think about what our footwear says about local fashion, our culture, and the time and place in which we live."

Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture will be on view in the Great Hall from Dec. 22, 2016, to April 2, 2017. There is a $4 special exhibition fee in addition to Museum admission. Free for Members.

Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture is organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Bata Shoe Museum. The exhibition is curated by Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum.

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Inside Out, the Oakland Museum of California's Member magazine.