Sole Searching: The Origins of Sneaker Culture

Written by BlackbirdGo December 11, 2018
The People

Arishi or Air Jordans? Nike or New Balance? For many, shoes are a pragmatic purchase—something that should be comfortable and durable with stylishness as more of a side note. But for some collectors, sneakers can border on obsession.

Footwear enthusiasts—known among collectors as “sneakerheads”—attend conventions, scour the internet, and seek out little-known local shops, all in the name of finding the next rare pair. The trend of collecting footwear dates back decades, though the internet has made sneaker collecting easier than ever.

It’s fitting, then, that in an age of polarized politics and widespread division, what you wear on your feet may be just as much a statement as a screenprinted t-shirt or a political pin.

The Politics of Footwear

Shortly after the 2016 election, New Balance drew heat for publicly embracing the stated policies of Donald Trump. This led to boycotts from the left, praise from the right, and support from the fringes; the Nazi publication The Daily Stormer encouraged their readers to buy New Balance shoes en masse.

Contrasted against New Balance, Nike seems to have courted the progressive left. The brand’s most recent ad campaign, released earlier this year, featured a close-up of Colin Kaepernick’s face with the phrase, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” The slogan is a nod to Kaepernick’s pre-game kneeling protests against police brutality and widespread systemic racism.

Kaepernick is just the latest athlete to align sneakers with social justice. In 2012, NBA stars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade wore sneakers on the court with handwritten messages that included “R.I.P. Trayvon Martin” and “We Want Justice.”

Some brands themselves seem to be rooted in politics. Adidas and Puma were born from a split between brothers Rudi and Adi Dassler. The two had co-managed the Dassler shoe company in Germany before World War II. Both were members of the Nazi party, but Adi avoided service during the draft and allegedly helped Jewish families. His brother Rudi, by contrast, did fight in the Nazi army and got swept up in the Nuremberg trials. After the rift between brothers , Adi started a new shoe company branded with his own name: Adidas, short for Adi Dassler. Rudi went on to found Puma.

Sneakers are a common accessory in today’s society, but that wasn’t always the case. To better understand the politics of shoes (and the motives that drive their collectors), it’s worth taking a look at the complex history of sneakers.

“I Wore My Sneakers but I’m Not a Sneak”

Athletic footwear colloquially took on the name “sneakers” because they literally allowed people to sneak up on others with silent steps. This led to an early association with robbers and criminality.

During the 1960s and 1970s, wearing sneakers if you were a non-athlete was considered rebellious, even “anti-establishment,” according to Tommy Ramone. In fact, undercover NYPD officers in the 70s associated sneakers with street muggers, even saying on record that they looked for sneakers in a crowd of people as signs of a potential robber. This suspicion of athletic footwear worn outside the gym led to a pearl-clutching 1979 headline in the New York Times : “For Joggers and Muggers, The Trendy Sneaker.”

The Emergence of Style: Sneakers as Expression

Self-definition through apparel really took root in the 1950s. During the post-war boom, Americans enjoyed increased wages but were limited overall by restrictive social classes and statuses. This led to a lot of individuation and status/identity expression through clothing.

Given the evolution of fashion-as-expression, sneakers became something of a democratizer—a way that average working-class individuals could differentiate themselves and radically redefine the status systems that society adheres to.

In the 1970s, the hip-hop scene in New York helped redefine footwear as a fashion statement and a simultaneous expression of identity. Sneakers went beyond athletics, even beyond rebellion against something, to become a representation of what an individual was for.

This quickly spread to the West Coast, where shoes became an expression of identity and toughness in southern California. “All the gangbangers wore Chuck Taylors,” Ice Cube said in an interview with SPIN. “They were what they made you wear in the prisons and Youth Authority camps. You’d see all these gangsters going to the surplus stores and buying Chuck Taylors because they looked good with a pair of khaki pants and a T-shirt. You could spend $60 and look fresh.” Fellow NWA member Arabian Prince agreed, saying, “Crips would wear blue Chucks or white ones with blue laces. Bloods would wear red. That’s the OG hood way.”

The growing sneaker fandom gradually spread outside of hip-hop circles as rock-oriented teens began to idolize punk musicians like members of The Ramones (and, later, Kurt Cobain) who wore Chuck Taylors.

Eventually, the act of wearing sneakers was no longer a statement. But the brand, sneaker line, and color designs of sneakers remained an expression of something: self, culture, style, or simply wealth, depending on whom you ask.

The Evolving Cultural Value of Sneakers

Today, there are entire communities built around buying, selling, and trading sneakers. These communities exist online and in the physical realm, with annual sneakerhead conventions taking place in various parts of the country. But for many who have been a part of this community since the early days, the evolution of sneaker culture has been problematic.

For one thing, sneaker culture has historically been very male-oriented. Most limited runs of rare sneaker lines have been primarily or exclusively released in men’s sizes. Nike recently acknowledged this disparity and began releasing more collectible sneaker lines in women’s sizes as well as more shoe lines that have been designed by women. But collectors remain skeptical as to whether this helps or harms the community. Some worry that the new Nike campaign makes stylish streetwear even more of a commodity for people who are just following the latest trend.

Another issue within sneaker culture is who collects shoes in today’s market. Sneaker culture started in the 80s within inner-city working-class communities. Early sneakerheads had to save up to get the latest pair, yet collectible sneakers now routinely sell for thousands of dollars to collectors who are simply trying to get on board with something trendy. Some have called this extreme commodification of sneakers a sort of gentrification within the sneaker community: the culture has been breached by outsiders who have rapidly outpriced and displaced the founders of the community.

It remains to be seen how the next wave of collectors will influence the styles, sizes, and colors that sneaker manufacturers release. But as sneaker commodification continues to spiral out of control, many sneakerheads may hang up their boots and seek out other means of expression.

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.