Part 2 of our interview Elizabeth Semmelhack dives deeper into the development of sneaker culture. If you haven’t see the Exhibit or bought the book Out of The Box: The Rise of The Sneaker Culture, part 2 will give you more insight on the EXPerience!
EXP: In New York Magazine you spoke about men’s fashion. Men’s fashion is very uniform but sneakers allow them to set outside the mold. They allow men to wear colors and styles that they wouldn’t normally wear.
Elizabeth: I think sneaker culture is opening up men, as I said, to be more inculturated into the larger fashion system. And I think that it comes with blessings but it also comes with some challenges. I mean I think that it is encouraging men to express greater individuality through Footwear choice. But with that also then comes the obligation to express individuality through choice. I’m interested to see where the sneakerfication of men’s dress goes because I think that we are increasingly expecting men to be more individualist the way we expect women to be very self expressive in their dress. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.
EXP: It’s really interesting because if you have two women with the exact same outfit they will put it together totally different. But if you have two men with the exact same outfit it will be the exact same outfit.
Elizabeth: And it is totally fine!
EXP: Yes that is very true if a woman walks in with the same outfit as another woman it’s an issue. I know in the magazine I was reading you spoke about men with suits on, they all wear the same suit and it’s okay.
Elizabeth: Yeah and so there’s a kind of herd mentality which has historically, when you think of gender politics, conferred to a kind of authority to that look. Now I think that’s starting to, as gender equity perhaps is rising, I think that opportunities for self expression are entering into the male market and into men’s culture. But like I said it comes with now increasing obligations. I’ll be interested to see how it goes.
EXP: How do you feel that through your findings and do this exhibit you feel that it changed over time? How the physical sneakers changed over time?
Elizabeth: I think that sneakers started out being related to concepts of innovation. Even just figuring out how to stabilize rubber. The problem with rubber when it comes out of the tree, when it’s just a simple sap of a tree, is that when you take it out of the jungle and you bring it up to…say New York City, in the heat of New York it just melt into a puddle and in the cold of New York it just freshers and freezes. So it was sort of a novelty it wasn’t a useful product and so a number of people were driven to try and find a way to make rubber stable. And Goodyear is credited with really being the one to combine sulfur and heat allowing rubber to stabilize. So innovation even from that very very get go was a part of early sneaker production.
But then once the sweet spot was kind of hit, production methods were refined and by the turn of the 20th century sneakers were starting to become democratizing they were starting to become cheaper. Rubber was unfortunately in horrific ways being tapped all around the world like if we think of the Belgian Congo — what made it so wealthy was not only that horrific slavery that deferred upon the people there but it was its rubber export. Rubber becomes cheaper sneakers become cheaper then they start to become a part of everybody’s wardrobe, but they start to become a part of everybody’s wardrobe just as fascism is rising. The fascists, the Nazis in particular, we’re interested in promoting ideas of racial superiority which was based on fitness and health. So the Nazis would do these huge demonstrations of exercise demonstrations and sneakers had to be worn by all those people. The Japanese didn’t and the Italians did it, the Americans started to do it, the British added to encourage their citizens to basically have greater physical fitness so they could serve the state. I find it interesting that sneakers really become democratized the footwear of everybody during this moment of fascism.
EXP: So the sneakers that they had they didn’t look fashionable.
Elizabeth: They weren’t fashionable. They were just like “let’s do our exercise, go to gym class…” After World War II there was the baby boom and by that point sneakers were so cheap that they become the footwear of childhood. Kids were just running around in sneakers left, right and center. And adult would wear sneakers if they were going to exercise or play team sports. But no adult is really wearing sneakers on a [everyday basis]. By the seventies the ‘Me Generation’ becomes obsessed with, not physical perfection in terms of the state, but physical perfection for personal best. This is when jogging, Bill Bowerman helps to bring jogging over, marathons became really popular, racquetball, tennis and this idea that I’m going to win, I’m going to be the best I can be. That is when Nike gets into the game. They offer the latest running shoes but what they do, which is extremely smart, is that they not only offer a very high-end athletic shoe they make it in bright colors. So for the ‘Me Generation’ which was in part interested in conspicuous consumption, you know I’m going to the gym and I am jogging and I am wearing my expensive running shoes, but the next thing you see is that they are wearing them to studio 54. So they begin to segue from fitness to fashion. That is one of the important moments in sneaker culture.
Then you have street ball in New York City really thrive in part because of television televised sports. As more and more people have television in their household they’re watching basketball and streetball moves are so much more entertaining. You end up with streetball and streetball moves being disseminated through television but in New York you also have the superstars being made. Then they get connected to teens and then they get their own sneaker deals. So then you have Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Walt Frazier, and then you have kids wanting to wear their sneakers. At the same time that people are jogging you have inner-city kids wanting to have the same sneakers as the famous basketball players. You have sort of two concurrent fashion sneaker influences happening and of course and hip hop gets involved playing a huge factor.
EXP: I find it interesting that Nike for the longest time fought to say that their sneakers were meant for fashion.
Elizabeth: I think that it’s interesting that their designers, like Tinker Hatfield and Eric Avar, are striving to make the best high end athletic footwear they can. But at the same time they are making footwear that while it can serve Elite athletic purpose also seems to meet the desires for fashion. It doesn’t surprised me that more people wear the shoes for daily use.
I just did an exhibition on the history of men in heels I’m interested in why there is such sensitivity around men wearing elevating Footwear. Basketball shoes are one way that men can increase their height without it being visible. So there’s all these online forums for guys comparing how thick the sole is in basketball shoes so that they can increase their height.
EXP: But isn’t interesting that men’s dress shoes have a bit of a heel?
Elizabeth: The heel was actually invented for horseback riding and European men were the first to heels and they wore heels for 130 years, that’s what my other exhibition is about. But what happens is that in the thirties, the same thing that is making sneakers so important for exercise and making your body physically fit so that you can play superior race, that also influenced heels for men. What happened was the thinking being that naturally superior men are naturally taller and so if you were a little bit of a heel, even though it increases your height, what it does is it highlights your lack of height. It basically announces to the world that you need to have additional height. Which is why the lifts start to be invented in the thirties around this political time. Even today those lifts are available and men are trying to find ways to increase height but not make it obvious. That’s what the basketball shoe comes in.
EXP: You are releasing a book call, Out of The Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture. So what we find in this book that you won’t find in the walls of the museum?
Elizabeth: Oh, a lot! I think the difference between a book and an exhibition is that a book you can really delve into the history and tease out the complicated concepts and ideas. The real challenge with exhibition text is that you have 100 words, so it is about very carefully crafting your language and trying to get that information across. You also have the museum [which] has its own word limits and standards. Each artifact has 80 word description. What I really feel very strongly about is that although you can look at sneakers as art, I feel like as a perfectly reasonable thing to do, the actual history of the sneaker, which isn’t evident by just looking at the thing you have to actually think about the background story, can only be told through words and through images. So I want to make sure that is much of the information in the book is available in the galleries just that people can get a sense of how deep a nuance that history is. The book is obviously can tell that story much more clearly.
EXP: Who are some of the most interesting people you were able to interview? Elizabeth: For me as a historian, I really like to go back to and read period documents. Look at historical documents from earlier times. Then talking to the designers I’ve got to talk to Paul Litchfield who invented Reebok Pump, he was fantastic, and I got to talk to Stan Smith, Dee Wells is the collector who has a show called obsessed of sneaker disorder and he was extremely helpful. I talked to a lot of people, a lot of people read the text and gave me their feedback. But because I am a nerdy historian I also want to make sure that in the book we did have the voices of as many people we can get and it was amazing. I got to talk to Darryl McDaniels from Run DMC. So there there was
17 contributors to the book ranging from Marc Ecko to Darryl. Each one of them is asked to just give a reflection on some aspect of sneakers. hopefully what I’m offering is a thoughtful history of the sneaker and each one of these guys is giving their insights.
EXP: Will you be able to purchase it at the exhibit and it’s not there can you purchase it online?
Elizabeth: Yes, you will! I believe it will be and all the bookstores and online as well.
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