How sneakers became cultural currency

Chris Cillizza, CNN editor-at-large

When my two children have free time, they want to go to the mall. No, they are not shopaholics. They want to go look at the sneakers.

These are not the sneakers you find at Foot Locker. They are limited editions, usually Nike, ranging in price from $250 to $900 or more. There’s the Chunky Dunkys, a collaboration between Nike and ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s. And the Jordans from Space Jam. And dozens of other pairs of shoes, all of which you know by name and all of which are very, very expensive.

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

All of which made me wonder: How did this sneaker culture develop? After all, when I was a kid, I also wanted Jordan brand shoes. But they’re $100 and I’d wear them until they’re gone. Now, my kids crave shoes that cost ten times as much, and if they ever had them, they wouldn’t even think of wearing them down by wearing them.

It all started during the Industrial Revolution, when the very rich began to realize they had free time on their hands, Elizabeth Semmelhack, who runs the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, told me for the latest episode of my “Downside Up” podcast. .

“These ‘nouveau riche’ industrialists wanted to show that they had arrived. And so, the old game of tennis was revived,” Semmelhack explained. “But the problem with lawn tennis: One, lawn tennis courts are extremely expensive, so they didn’t want people walking around in leather shoes and digging in the grass. And two, when you play on the grass, you can get those delicate feet wet. So the rubber-soled shoe, the sneaker, was invented as something that the wealthy could wear while pursuing these rich pleasures of lawn tennis.”

Rubber was, at the time, quite expensive, so having rubber-soled shoes was considered a status symbol.

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

Sneakers as a fashion and status statement in our modern age began with two major events in the 1980s.

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

Then the rap group Run-DMC released their song “My Adidas” celebrating their shoes in 1986.

“Jordan and Nike, the timing was perfect. It was literally just about time for that to explode,” Jacques Slade, a shoe blogger and sneakerhead, told me. The collaboration between the world’s greatest basketball player and the world’s largest sneaker company was “the tipping point where basketball hits the upward slope on the graph and sneakers hit the upward slope on the graph by Same time”.

But even then, for most of us, sneakers were something you wore, not something you collected.

The development of the Internet, and in particular sites like eBay, changed all that. Suddenly, older versions of shoes could be bought and collected. And sneaker companies, especially Nike, jumped on the bandwagon.

“I think one of the things that really changed the appeal of the shoe was when Air Jordan released a different model every year,” Semmelhack said. “So since the Air Jordan, we now call it the 1, was so different from the 2, so different from the 3, and the 4, and the 5 and the 6, that helped justify collecting, because if you have the 1, 2, 3, 4, well, then 5 comes out, you have to add it to your collection.”

And Semmelhack doesn’t think sneaker collecting is going away anytime soon. In fact, he envisions him launching into the metaverse.

“Clothing is one of the main ways we make alliances, [how] we express who we are,” he said. “So, I’m not surprised that you have a closet of virtual sneakers to put on your avatar as you enter (the metaverse).”

The CNN Wire
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