A new exhibit on shoes and masculinity has swagger but little substance.
In 1985 I bought my first pair of blue gray suede Puma and the only way to keep them clean was by using a tooth brush, and they wasn’t Pumas unless they had thick laces. Puma Classics for LIFE
–DJ Dave, Brooklyn, in response to the question, “What’s Your Sneaker Story?” Brooklyn Museum, July 2015
Although the film “Dope” is set in the present-day, its high-school heroes have so reverently co-opted 1990s hip-hop fashion and culture that this year’s sweet sleeper hit, destined to become a movies-in-the-park staple in New York summers of the near-ish future, feels studiously like a period piece. Inundated, or you might say intoxicated, by A Tribe Called Quest, acid-washed jeans, and towering flattop haircuts, the viewer needs the grounding presence of Bitcoin as the currency of choice for a major drug deal to be reminded of the timeframe of “Dope”—a reminder that also has the curious effect of lowering the film’s dramatic stakes. Signaled by the participation of Pharrell Williams as an executive producer, we are more in a “Happy” place than the tragic territory of “Boyz N the Hood.” The digital age has expanded the options believed to build an express lane from socio-economic disadvantage to affluence; as indicated by “Dope,” that lane can still involve drug-selling, but it can also pass through Silicon Valley.
But at the pivotal moment when “Dope” toes the line between caper and tragedy, coming-of-age and unmanning, it’s telling that the flare of real, consequential violence can be traced back to sneakers. From head to foot, Malcolm, the film’s protagonist, is a walking sampler of ’90s fashion, which he wears as a sort of African-American normcore: so nerdy it’s fresh. This includes his pristine ’90s-throwback Nikes, even though they invite the attention of bullies who routinely steal them. In one encounter, Malcolm’s tormentor gets away with one Nike. Malcolm keeps the other, limping away half-triumphant. Later, the shoe-stealer must face a conflicted Malcolm shakily aiming a gun; in “Dope” Chekhov’s gun is not a gun at all. It’s the other shoe, dropping in the third act.
In many ways, “Dope” feels like a companion piece to another of the summer’s tributes to street style and the modern man, a species marked by the uneven gait of having one foot in the world as it is, the other perpetually cushioned by adolescence. That companion—the other shoe in the pair—is “The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum. Like Malcolm, the exhibit limps along toward an unsteady portrait of manhood, but looks great while getting there.
“The Rise of Sneaker Culture” stars around 150 shoes and is meant as a social history tracing an arc from the industrialization that made rubberized footwear a possibility, on through the birth of the leisure class and the idolization of professional athletes and hip-hop moguls. As an attendance-driving spectacle, the show is baldly viewable as an attempt by the museum to do for men what its exhibit “Killer Heels: The Art of the High-Heeled Shoe,” did for women.
You probably don’t even need to see the sneaker version to imagine why it feels flat-footed when competing with heels (that exhibit closed this past March). For one, even the most aesthetically ambitious sneakers—here created by the likes of Christian Louboutin and Kanye West—cannot compete with the Dali-esque whimsy cobblers have applied to elongating the female leg. As a purely sensual experience, inspecting the collection yields few rewards. From the panoptic view, the variety in colorway and brand can feel like a markdown section at a sneaker superstore; up-close, sneakers creased at the toe from wear can feel deflatingly like a forgotten pair of your own, discovered in a closet cleaning. The Pierre Hardy Poworama model, a pair of high-tops ornamented with Lichtenstein-inspired comic book text-bubble bursts, feel appropriately like pop art. More often, the result is this: a quiet pair of recent vintage Common Projects trainers, too familiar from the increasingly casual workplace to merit enshrinement.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that as gender studies go, the sneaker simply does not compel as a symbol of ideas about maleness as the heel does for ideas about women. Even in gay porn and its fetishizations of hyper-masculinity, sneakers rarely play the role that heels do in the heterosexual equivalent, in which stilettos are left on with no regard to convenience or practicality, and often propped on the shoulders of the male lead, a fashion-conscious act of submission. Conversely (no relation to Converse) if men are imagined having sex with their shoes on, the image is as erotic as mowing the lawn while wearing sandals and black socks.
It is left to the exhibit catalogue to confront real and current concerns. (Some might argue a single Instagram post, by one of the museum’s curators, confronts more real and current concerns in one powerful image and a succinct text than the exhibit itself; in the post, the curator wryly observes, with photographic evidence, that Converse—@Converse—bought out the entire Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum subway stop servicing the museum’s neighborhood to sell sneakers. “It would have been nice,” she pointed out in her post, “if you had shared a few ad dollars or donated a few huge panels to help us the get the word out about exhibition, which includes a number of Converse designs from the early and mid-20th century.”)
A serious-minded essay by Elizabeth Semmelhack examines a cultural context that, when viewed through a racial lens, assigned a degree of menace to sneakers, making them the Carter-era version of the hoodie. Semmelhack, senior curator at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, cites a 1970s New York Times article about the athletic footwear movement under the headline, “For Joggers and Muggers, The Trendy Sneaker.” She also indicts 1980s sneaker marketing that exploited associations with the inner city, counting on white suburban teenagers to flock to brands worn by their urban counterparts as a way to flaunt lawlessness. British Knights, in particular, employed this tactic.
To its credit, as heavily as the show decoratively leans on pairs of sneakers strung from the ceiling, as from telephone wires or lampposts, the text adds nuance to the urban legend that this is a marker for criminal territory. “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” traces the custom to graduates of boot camp stringing their boots overhead. In some cases, the practice can celebrate a loss of virginity. Opposite a vitrine showcasing Adidas Stan Smiths, the crisp tennis whites that became a fashion-world staple when reissued in 2014, the young faces of Run-DMC project a different kind of innocence as they rap, on loop, an acoustic version of “My Adidas.”
The track pointedly contains the lyric, “My Adidas only bring good news/And they are not used as felon shoes.” Occasionally transcribed as “selling shoes,” that last bit is understood as a reference to wearing sneakers laceless, as might be required in prison. The notion that sneakers could brand anyone as having criminal tendencies seems unimaginable today, but, as with other difficult-to-fathom relics of the 1970s- and 1980s-era inner city—like graffiti-covered subways jostling together vigilantes and their antagonists—proof exists. It’s implicit in the question, posed in the catalogue to The Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz, of what it means for sneakers to be “tied to athletes, musicians, or successful people, or sometimes dangerous people.” “Right!” he replies. “Like, I’m wearing sneakers, so I’m not soft.”
Is that a distinction without a difference, though? Or is it in fact maleness that has softened, not the individual who chooses the safe and soft option of brogues? There are certainly artifacts in “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” that translate as aggressively male; the anvil-like horn protruding at shin height from a special-issue Air Jordan XIV carries an invasive thrust missing from the Michael Jordan persona of “Space Jam.” But you would have to look to a bare-chested Vladimir Putin to find a modern symbol that projects the level of testosterone that “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” seems to imagine it does.
If slinging your sneakers over a wire can mark the transition from boy to man, what does pulling them back down and putting them on again signify? It feels significant that what might be categorized as the Bronze Age of sneakerdom—from hip-hop’s first break to the early 1990s—babysits a generation of b-boys and Beastie Boys: sneakers as child’s, not man’s, play. “Do you still collect sneakers?” Horovitz is asked. “No … no, no,” he insists. “When you get older, paying the mortgage or making rent might become more important.” Moving away from the inner city still doesn’t locate us in the realm of “icons of masculinity,” as the opening text describes sneakers. Rather, we head to California, where a pair of checkerboard Vans evoke Sean Penn’s perpetually stoned Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” a creature too dazed and squinty to even reach beta-male status on the evolutionary scale.
Because “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” and its text so often advance the idea of sneakers as an expression of masculinity, it’s fitting to ask for more on the theme of sexual identity than the exhibit delivers. As it stands, the subject is nestled into the discussion in ungainly fashion, the way the studded Louboutin slip-ons on display might lose their dazzle when wedged between twists of tissue back in the shoebox. The catalogue’s inclusion of Farrah Fawcett skateboarding in a pair of Senoritas—Nike’s distaff version of its Cortez line—might be a commentary on sneakers and the male gaze (it isn’t exactly clear), but what happens when the male gaze is turned on itself?
Besides the “My Adidas” stylings of Run-DMC, additional multimedia in “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” includes clips from the seminal graffiti and breakdancing documentary “Wild Style,” which feels natural, even necessary. More curious is the way “Wild Style” is paired with a sequence from “Voguing: The Message,” which chronicles the late 1980s drag ball scene and the swift, gestural routines Madonna would later pilfer for her own. What does voguing have to do with sneakers? Almost nothing, as the accompanying text must concede. Its inclusion feels like a way of acknowledging that gay men, too, feel compelled to find a path diverging from the footwear of their fathers. If so, the point feels like a way of evading more complicated but more interesting examinations of the intersection of urban fashion and gay male life. The show surely could have found an eyelet through which to lace a discussion of hip-hop’s notorious homophobia. Or of the role muscular sneakers played in the rise of the bulky, sculpted gym bodies of the 1980s, meant to telegraph conspicuous health and self-care in an era when every sexual partner was feared to carry AIDS. The absence of a more committed dialogue on male sexual identity leaves room for a suggestion of gay panic. “It’s an interesting way to study maleness,” Horovitz says in his interview, on the topic of shoe obsession. “We are taught as straight men, wanting to be fashionable or look ‘pretty’ is female and therefore bad.”
It’s tempting to wonder what the results might have been had the exhibit’s text turned to the literary community to bring diversity of perspective to its analyses. Brooklyn, after all, has no shortage of male writers who have made arrested development their subject. In Colson Whitehead, sneakers are a symbol of polarized racial identities between two African-American brothers; in Jonathan Lethem, they cameo in a sexual awakening with homoerotic undertones. In Whitehead’s “Sag Harbor,” set in the summer of 1985, a boy experiences the unease of his brother’ drift toward unknown influences through the suspicious acquisition of a new habit: the brother suddenly cleaning his white Filas with a toothbrush dipped in ammonia. This fastidiousness is imagined as a tendency to see the world as “a vast array of malevolent forces out to blemish or mar his blessed kicks.” In other words, not a bad metaphor for the rightful paranoia of the young black male, circa the summer of 2015.
Meanwhile, if the rise of sneaker culture can be read as a kind of reverse-gentrification, there are few more comprehensive dramatizations of actual gentrification—in the neighborhoods fanning out from the Brooklyn Museum no less—than Lethem’s “Fortress of Solitude.” One of the novel’s heroes, Dylan, who is white, is taunted as a young schoolboy when he wears anything except his Pro Keds. (“Re-jects, they make your feet feel fine, re-jects, they cost a dollar ninety-nine,” his tormentors sing.) Later, as Dylan and his black friend Mingus engage in sexual exploration, they are interrupted by Mingus’s father, who is surprisingly nonchalant as the boys are discovered, “their pants irretrievably down, bunched like mufflers over their Pumas.” The lack of repercussion washes over them like relief, excusing them as “not faggots, of course: best friends, discoverers.” Complicated desire chalked up to adolescence; adolescence signaled by—what else? Sneakers.
In the end, it is a woman artist who might project the most expansive explorations of identity onto the blank canvas of sneakers. Shantell Martin, a Brooklyn Museum favorite, earns inclusion in the vitrines by way of her “be-branded hi-tops,” generic white sneakers onto which she has doodled free-form in her trademark black ink pen, including a variation on “Are You You,” the phrase, something between a question and a plaint, that often informs her work. In this case, written literally where the rubber meets the road, it becomes “New Who.” Although, in the case of sneakers, our “icons of masculinity,” if the exhibit’s thesis is to be believed, the doodle begs to be rephrased, asking—or challenging—not “New Who” but rather “New He.”