In Part 1 and Part 2 of my interview with exhibition curator Elizabeth Semmelhack, we focused on the beginnings and development of the exhibition. In this final section, Semmelhack and I discuss race, gender, and the future of sneaker culture.
Lindsey O’Connor: In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times, you discussed the high heel in relation to antiquated notions of gender and symbolic power. If heels are linked to notions of femininity and one’s supposed “place” in society, how do women’s sneakers fit into that story? And is there something inherently feminist about sneakers?
Elizabeth Semmelhack: I think that sneakers are part of an exceptionally long tradition in Western culture that “allows” women to borrow from the male wardrobe, but I don’t think that women have been fully enfranchised into sneaker culture.
LO: You find that’s true despite the fact that, in their 19th century origins, sneakers would have been worn by both genders?
ES: I actually think that the end of the 19th century was a much stronger moment for women in the history of the sneaker. The Gibson girl, for example: she was of course beautiful, but she was somehow haughtily single and in control of her own destiny, and she participated in sports for her own pleasure. Sports were being advocated for women at the Seven Sisters schools. Smith College was a very important place for women’s athletics, and athleticism was generally promoted. Even the origin of basketball features into this early history of women, sports, and sneakers. As we know, women played the game, possibly they were the first to play, but I think that connections between femininity and athleticism were reordered in the 1920s when ideas of crafting the ideal body in relation to media standards became important and issues like exercise for weight loss and aesthetics displaced ideas of playing for pleasure. Since then, there has been a difficult relationship between women and straightforward athleticism. I think that this difficult relationship can also be seen in the ’70s and the ’80s, when activities like aerobics developed. The focus was much more related to looking good than, “I just kicked ass in the aerobics class, and I’m a female athlete.” I think actual athleticism remains antithetical to ideas of desirable femininity. If this wasn’t so I think we would be seeing a lot more sneakers endorsed by women athletes and these sneakers would be as desirable as ones endorsed by male athletes. Unfortunately this is not the case.
LO: I hope we’re seeing our way out of that. Serena Williams, the women’s World Cup team, Ronda Rousey…
ES: They’re great athletes, but they’re not setting fashions. The World Cup women’s sneakers are not what men (or women) want to buy. Women want to wear men’s sneakers; they still want to wear Stan Smiths. It’s frustrating and complicated, but I think that women wearing men’s sneakers is not the same as being full participants of sneaker culture. If women’s sneakers had the same symbolic power as men’s, men would want to wear them too, but we just don’t see it!
The traveling exhibition is happening at a time when sneakers in women’s fashion are very, very hot. I’m on the fence trying to find out if this is simply a passing fad. Even this year, if you look at the fall and spring runways, sneakers are not as essential as they were last year.
I think sneakers are fading in women’s fashion, but the place where some change could be suggested is in pornography. Pornography is an excellent indicator of how desirable femininity is being constructed at any given moment. The high heel has been paramount in the construction of the eroticized female since photography was invented and pornographers embraced the camera. Increasingly, over the last couple of years, I have seen men’s erotica with women wearing sneakers. If you look at Maxim or #hotchickswithkicks, women are wearing sneakers. However, they’re almost always wearing men’s sneakers.
LO: In some respects the exhibition reads like a historical perspective on the cultural contributions of African Americans through the lens of sneakers. Was this framing intentional and why do you think Black culture has had such an impact on sneaker culture?
ES: I would argue that I try to tell an accurate history of the sneaker. My goal has been to unravel this history to the best of my ability without speaking on behalf of anybody. Basketball, originally, was invented to be played in places where there was less land available. That’s why it was embraced by urban players; these things are all just facts about the history of the sneaker. But when you get to the ’80s, the story becomes more complicated in terms of how African American culture becomes so influential, not only throughout America but also worldwide. One of the things I thought about was that in America, our national myths often rely on some kind of adversity that is overcome through personal effort. Stories abound of immigrants who arrive in America with a dollar in their pocket and go on to make their fortunes. Manifest Destiny is full of narratives about individuals who pull themselves up by their bootstraps to carve out their own patch of land and thereby build the nation. I also think that story is also implicit in cultural narratives of the urban youth who finds himself in a difficult situation, pulls himself up by his sneaker strings and makes something of himself and becomes a new model of masculine success. These are the types of stories that we tell ourselves in America about how we have individually achieved success. The romance of the Western frontier wasn’t available in the ’70s and ’80s, but the inner cities provided a lot of fodder for the collective imagination. This is a very complex moment in history and was motivated by both the politics of exclusion as well as inclusion.
LO: But I think the Bronx was sort of the Wild West of the 1970s and ’80s.
ES: It was! And the media exploited this. Gang activity became a media focus and was central to the narratives of numerous movies and TV shows. This helped to cultivated perceptions about inner-city criminality which itself was exploited to create tropes and ideas related to the “romance” of survival and domination, which in turn fed into the marketing of urban fashions to a wider audience. Like the cowboy, another American icon, economically disadvantaged youths who used their “street smarts” to seize opportunities became updated versions of the American success story. Not without its complications, including the perpetuation of racist ideas, but it still functioned like an American success story because it retained ideas of authenticity, struggle, and hyper-masculinity.
LO: At this point, do you consider yourself to be a sneakerhead, and what is your favorite pair of sneakers that you currently own?
ES: Ultimately, I’m a historian–too nerdy! I think what has happened for me over the course of this is that, not only has studying the history of the sneaker increased my respect for this form of footwear as well as its multiple cultural meanings and uses, I have also become much more appreciative of individual sneakers themselves. Understanding historic importance allows individual objects to be seen more clearly. Of course, I have objects that I find more pleasing than others, so I definitely have my favorite shoes throughout the exhibition, but in terms of what I wear? I think because of its historical importance, as well as the fact that it is an exceptionally comfortable shoe, I’d have to say the Adidas Superstar remains my favorite.