Sneakers: A History of Style and Masculine Identity

PUMA, Kehinde Wiley / Tekkies Mame, 2010 / Collection of the Artist / Photo: Peerapod Chiowanich. Image: American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum

Kehinde Wiley art inspired sneakers by PUMA includes a selection of African patterns from the artist’s paintings. Image: American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum

ART REVIEWArtists inspired sneakers and designs from major footwear designers highlight the complex social history of sneakers


Converse, Damien Hirst (Product) RED, 2010 Converse Archives .Image: American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum

ATLANTA, GA.,- Everywhere we turn today, we see people wearing different types of sneakers. For men, women, old and young, sneakers are loved and represent a staple of casual fashion.  While some of these sneakers are commonplace, others are high end and from top designers across the globe.

The interest for sneakers has grown through the years. But even as the fascination continues to grow across the globe, very few people know about the history of sneakers and how they became part of the global social fabric.

Presently at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta is an exhibition that tries to answer many of the questions people may have about the history of sneakers.  Titled The Rise of Sneaker Culture, the show traces the evolution of the sneaker from its origins in the mid-nineteenth century to present day. It allows an insight into how the everyday footwear achieved its role as a status symbol of urban culture and marker of masculine identity.

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On display are more than 155 sneakers examining sneaker’s complex social history and immense cultural significance. Some of the sneakers are from the archives of manufacturers such as Adidas, Converse, Nike, Puma and Reebok, while  others are from private collectors such as hip-hop legend Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, sneaker guru Bobbito Garcia, and Dee Wells of Obsessive Sneaker Disorder.Also included in the show are sneakers by Prada and other major fashion design houses and designers as well as those made in collaboration with artists including Damien Hirst and Kanye West.

Also included in the show are sneakers by Prada and other major fashion design houses and designers as well as those made in collaboration with artists including Damien Hirst and Kanye West.

One of the sneakers on display is M-100 by PONY. The design combines feminine and masculine features to archive an extraordinary beauty. While the bright bubblegum pink and Robin’s egg blue colors accentuate femininity, the bulky high-top elevates masculinity. PONY, which means Product of New York was founded in Brooklyn in 1972. The brand gained prominence in the 1980s with its running and basketball shoes.

PUMA is represented by some outstanding designs in this show.  Perhaps the most adventurous design is the rare pair of sneakers inspired by Kehinde Wiley’s art. The shoe’s design was based on  a selection of African patterns from Wiley’s existing paintings that he  provided to Puma.  Rather than the unusual printed designs, the pair of sneakers is delicately embroidered in gold.

The beautiful pair of sneakers is the result of the collaboration between Wiley artist and Puma. In 2010, Puma commissioned artist Wiley to create paintings of three African soccer stars sponsored by the company.  In addition to the paintings, a limited-edition series of shoes and apparel celebrating the individual football teams, as well as Africa as a whole were also produced.  The sneakers came from the collaboration.

In 2010, Damien Hirst teamed up with Converse to translate his work All You Need Is Love from fine art to street fashion. The objective of the collaboration was to raise money for the HIV/AIDS awareness charity (Product)RED.  The limited-edition sneakers feature a faithful reproduction of Hirst’s butterfly print on both the inside and outside of the shoes.

Crafted out of finely woven textiles and printed using a high-definition laser printer, the Hirst’s shoes blends art with style.  The butterflies are carefully rendered  on the shoes in a way that captures the universal appeal of the beautiful creatures. Butterflies are major motifs in Hirst’s oeuvre, appearing in paintings like I Am Become Death, Shatter of Worlds (2006), and Sympathy in White Major-Absolution II, 2016.  Hirst describes his love of butterfly thus: “Everyone’s frightened of glass, everyone’s frightened of sharks, everyone loves butterflies.”

One of the captivating designs on display is the XX Air Jordan.  The XX Air Jordan designed by Tinker Hatfield was a breath of fresh air to the Air Jordan designs. Created to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Air Jordan, the design was inspired by Michael Jordan’s love of motorcycles. Some of the important elements of the design are the tire tread-like sole, and an ankle strap.

Adding beauty to the XX Air Jordan design are the lace covers. They include two hundred symbols celebrating Jordan’s career such as  the Jumpman logo and an image of the first Air Jordan. The innovative laser-etching technique developed by Mark Smith (Nike’s Senior Creative Director of Innovation) was used for the first time to enhance the beauty of the design.

For a better understanding of the complex history of Sneakers ,  the exhibition includes film footage, interactive media, photographic images, and design drawings. They provide context and a broader view of the social history, technical innovations, fashion trends, and marketing campaigns that have shaped sneaker culture over the past two centuries.Originating from the Bata Shoe Museum,

Originating from the Bata Shoe Museum, The Rise of Sneaker Culture was organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Bata Shoe Museum. Curated by Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, viewers are presented with an in-depth history of sneakers. It is an overview of how  sneakers  transcended  gender, age, and socioeconomic categories to become the footwear of choice for millions across the globe.

Jordan Brand / Air Jordan XX, 2005 / Nike Archives, FW27718.PL . Image: Image: American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum

PONY M-100, 1989 / Collection of the Bata Shoe Museum, the gift of PONY, D1449AB / Photo: Ron Wood. Image: American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum


Kanye West and Adidas Originals YEEZY Season 1 / YEEZY 750 Boost, 2015. Image: Adidas/ American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum


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