This past Tuesday, some friends and I roadtripped out to Toledo, Ohio to visit the Toledo Museum of Art. The museum's world-renowned collection includes works by van Gogh, Degas, and Picasso, but it would take more than cultural treasures to draw four young men 60 miles on their day off. We drove to Toledo specifically to see another kind of art: canvas expressions, yes, but with a heritage far removed from the traditional. We came to see sneakers.

The crux of the exhibit (and its superb catalog, "Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture") is that athletic shoes have transcended their role as purely functional performancewear to become modern art.


"The Rise of Sneaker Culture" tells this story through a winding array of display cases, editorials, and wall-mounted video screens that play videos of cultural moments involving sneakers. Visitors start in the late-18th century with the invention of the first rubber outsole, which was crudely affixed to leather shoes of the era to cobble together the world's first "sports shoes." These precursors to the sneaker were, by modern standards, positively impractical and borderline dangerous.

The first real athletic shoes were canvas high-tops developed for basketball players around the turn of the 20th century, beginning with the 1892 introduction of Keds brand sneakers. Despite advances in materials science and manufacturing capability, canvas high-tops were still the athlete's strategy du jour until the 1960's. Over the next twenty years, basketball shoes from Adidas, Pony, Puma, and Converse would pave the way for future developments. At the same time, an upstart shoe maker from Oregon would begin a running shoe arms race that would push competitors Brooks, Saucony, and Adidas to innovate or risk extinction. These dual influences would come to fruition in 1985 with the introduction of the Air Jordan 1, billed as the world's first high-performance, athlete-developed basketball shoe. Clever marketing (and the insistence that the shoe was developed, not endorsed, by Michael Jordan himself) would drive sales of the shoe above $100m in its first 10 months on the market. It didn't hurt that the shoes looked great, either.

The fierce competition of years prior had pushed shoe makers worldwide to combine performance and aesthetics into models desirable enough to keep themselves afloat. Now, a hungry public would reap the benefits. Modern sneakers (like the sport-training shoes designed by architect Tinker Hatfield - more on his legendary career here) are industrial design objects: seamless blends of form and function that wrap athletic performance in an aesthetic skin. 


Sneaker culture post-1985 would grow into a mass market leviathan that, close to 30 years later, has produced billion-dollar revenues for producers and rabid brand loyalty for fans. The proliferation of the Air Jordan line (which now counts 29 signature shoes and hundreds of others), the gradual casualization of fashion, and the increased access to broadcast sports are all cited as reasons for this boom. Whatever the reason, sneakers have gained a cultural foothold that is impossible to dislodge. From designer collaborations to the NBA Finals, sneaker culture is everywhere. This exhibit chronicles its meteoric rise through a curated selection of sneakers that made it possible. 


If you were looking for an impartial exhibition review, you'd be better off looking elsewhere. I agreed with The New York Times' review of the exhibit: beautiful collection, good narrative, but without much appraisal of sneaker culture's wider significance within the exhibit itself. For an exhibit based on the premise of explaining sneaker culture's wider significance, to the casual observer, "The Rise of Sneaker Culture" reads more like a greatest hits of footwear design. To sneakerheads like my friends and I, we know why the adidas Originals x Kanye West YEEZY BOOST 750 (below) is significant in the narrative of sneakers as fashion objects. But unless you've spent years immersed in the data of sneaker culture, that significance as presented is a little less clear than one would desire.

That being said, this information exists in connection with the "The Rise of Sneaker Culture": the exhibit's catalog (written by Elizabeth Semmelheck, the Senior Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, ON) is an amazingly comprehensive account of sneaker anthropology and is required reading for anyone seeking the full experience. While it's worth acknowledging that this information wasn't presented comprehensively within the gallery space, I don't know how it could be without distracting from the objets d'art on display. You get hints of anthropology here and there, but again - you're in an art museum. The focus is solely (ha) on sneakers as art.


Conclusion: as a 19 year old growing up in what is perhaps the peak of the sneaker craze, I'm infatuated with these shiny (and comfortable!) new symbols of cultural identity. Above all, I gravitate to sneakers as a medium of expression. I've spent long nights awake anticipating midnight releases and endless hours debating a shoe's worthiness. I've wasted irrational sums collecting footwear for no reason other than personal happiness. John Stuart Mills would call these pursuits fruitless, and to an extent, I agree.  For a medium that started out rooted firmly in utility, sneakers have evolved into industrial design objects that permit a means of accessible individual expression to billions around the globe. It makes perfect sense, then, that they are at home in an art museum. 


If you go: "The Rise of Sneaker Culture" is on display at the Toledo Museum of Art through February 28, 2016. Admission to the museum is free; parking is $5; and the whole Toledo collection is spectacular. I highly recommend the visit.


AS RAKESTRAW | The personal site of Alex Rakestraw.