December 2, 2022

How sneakers came to be cultural currency

3 min read


This article is adapted from the eighth episode of “Downwardpodcast, hosted by CNN editor-at-large Chris Saliza.

When both of my boys have free time, they like to go to the mall. No, they’re not shop-a-holics. They want to look at the shoes.

These are not the shoes you find in a foot locker. They’re limited editions — usually Nikes — that cost $250-$900 or more. There is Chunky DunkiesA collaboration between Nike and ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s. And Space Jam Jordan. And dozens of other pairs of shoes — all of which he knows by name and all of which are very, very expensive.

When they’re not at the mall ogling those shoes, they’re doing the same online — via sites like GOAT and StockX.

All of this made me wonder: How did this sneaker culture develop? After all, when I was a kid, I also wanted Jordan brand shoes. But they cost $100 and I will wear them until they fall apart. Now, my boys find shoes that cost ten times that much — and if they ever find them, they’ll never think about wearing them and scuffing them up.

It all started during the Industrial Revolution, when the very wealthy began to realize that they had leisure time, Elizabeth Simmelhack, who runs the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, tells me on the latest episode of her podcast. Told forDownward

“These ‘nouveau riche’ industrialists wanted to show that they had arrived. And so, the ancient game of tennis was revived,” explained Sammelhack. “But the problem with lawn tennis — one, lawn tennis lawns are very expensive, so they didn’t want people running around in leather shoes and digging up the court. And two, when you play on lawn, you could achieve their beauty. So the rubber-soled shoe, the shoe, was invented as something the wealthy could wear as they pursued the wealthy pleasures of lawn tennis.”

At that time rubber was quite expensive and hence having rubber sole shoes was seen as a status symbol.

(Sidebar: The word “shoes” entered the language in the 1870s because rubber-soled shoes allowed children to “sneak” around undetected.)

Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan (23) in action vs. Washington Bulls Jeff Malone (24) at the Capital Center.  Jordan is wearing red Nike Air Jordan 1 shoes.

Chicago Bulls Michael Jordan (23) in action vs. Washington Bulls Jeff Malone (24) at the Capital Center. Jordan is wearing red Nike Air Jordan 1 shoes. Credit: John Iacono/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Our modern era of shoes as a fashion — and status — statement began with two major events in the 1980s.

First, basketball phenom Michael Jordan signed a sneaker deal with Nike in 1984.

Then rap group Run-DMC came out celebrating the shoe in 1986 with their song “My Adidas.”

“Jordan and Nike, the timing was perfect. It was literally the perfect time for it to explode,” Jack Slade, a shoe and sneaker blogger, told me. The collaboration between the world’s best basketball player and the world’s largest sneaker company was “the inflection point of basketball hitting an upward slope on the graph and sneakers hitting an upward slope on the graph at the same time.”

But still, for most of us, shoes were something you wore — nothing. You collected.

The growth of the Internet — and especially sites like eBay — changed all that. Suddenly, older versions of the shoes could be bought — and collected. And sneaker companies, notably Nike, got into the trend.

“I think one of the things that really changed the desire around the shoe was when Air Jordan came out with a different model every year,” Sammelhack said. “And so, seeing that the Air Jordan, now we call it the 1, was so different from the 2, and the 3, and the 4, and the 5 and the 6, that helped justify the collection. , because if you have 1, 2, 3, 4, well, then 5 comes out you have to add it to your collection.”

And Semmelhack doesn’t see himself putting together a sneaker collection anytime soon. In fact, she envisions him launching into the metaverse.

“Clothes are one of the primary ways we unite, [how] We express who we are,” he said. “And so, it’s no surprise to me that you have virtual shoes to put on your avatar as you go into (the metaverse). Can be a closet.”



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