Why women are "sidelined" at the Brooklyn Museum's sneakerhead exhibit. Image 1.

Mike Sheffield

Author

Why women are "sidelined" at the Brooklyn Museum's sneakerhead exhibit. Image 2.

Alexandra Mossa

Additional reporting

Why women are "sidelined" at the Brooklyn Museum's sneakerhead exhibit. Image 3.

Julie Jamora

Photographer

 

“Sneakers are a means of enfranchising men into the fashion system — they allow men to break out of the uniformity of dress in which all men are expected to dress similarly.”

Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture, a show almost entirely comprised of men’s shoes, opened this past weekend at the Brooklyn Museum. In an April New York Magazine feature, curator Elizabeth Semmelhack (quoted above) describes her interest in the relationship between sneakers and masculinity. As the Senior Curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, Semmelhack is quite immersed in the subject, but with exploring sneakers historically comes a stubbornly male focus (and a particularly ironic tie to New York's current Men's Fashion Week). She told me, “I think that there are many women who are engaged, but in some ways, they are still sidelined for a variety of reasons, from lack of sneakers in their sizes to the fact that I think that a lot of sneaker culture is about masculinity. That part of this dates back to a historic reluctance to let women engage in sports [and] femininity being called into question when women [were] interested in athletics.” By saying that, Semmelhack wasn’t negating female sneaker collectors, but rather making a point about the history of sexism in sports and athleticism, in sneaker brands and shops, and therefore in sneaker culture.

 

Semmelhack classified the cult of sneakerheads as the “link between street ball, urban culture, basketball, bravado, masculine identity, rugged individuality, and fashion.”

Why women are "sidelined" at the Brooklyn Museum's sneakerhead exhibit. Image 4.

Semmelhack explained how sneakers were originally designed for men and women, specifically because in the middle of the 19th-century lawn tennis came into fashion and comfortable footwear was essential to this upper echelon activity. But as basketball came into prominence, so did the heroic basketball star: the Kareem Abdul-Jabbars, the Walt Fraziers, the Michael Jordans. Watching these extremely talented men perform at such a high intensity became the selling point for the sneaker and sneaker companies began to follow suit. “Basketball's certainly a team sport, but there's something about the individual and the individual's movements that allow these superstars to really stand out,” Semmelhack told me. Although women's sneakers make up 10% of the market, Semmelhack classified the cult of sneakerheads as the “link between street ball, urban culture, basketball, bravado, masculine identity, rugged individuality, and fashion.”

A larger than life portrait of Michael Jordan hangs on the back wall, as the iconic basketball player's role in sneaker culture is undeniable; Jordan's are present in droves. Other highlights include Christian Louboutin's 2012 Roller-Boat sneakers, that look like they could be worn on the runway or in a Mad Max dystopian future. The 1989 flick Voguing: The Message plays looping on the right wall. (The caption describes voguing as "an athletic and competitive dance style" "pioneered in New York City by economically disadvantaged young people in part as a way to express their identities and group affiliations." Here too, it choses a masculine focus, adding: "Although voguers who identify or present as female do not typically wear sneakers, contestants in ballroom categories based on the ability to display male heterosexual “realness” often do wear sneakers, to authenticate their look. Once again, sneakers play a significant role in constructing masculinity.")

A plaque at the Sneaker Culture exhibit, entitled "Women and Sneaker Culture," addresses this issue: "Female interest in sneaker culture has largely been redirected to shoes that refer to sneakers and yet aren’t the real thing, like the wedge sneaker. This shoe is a part of a larger continuum of footwear made for women, dating back to the 1920s, that flirts with, but doesn’t admit, women into the sneaker game." And, unfortunately, there's embarrassing evidence of that all around. Just look at the name Lady Footlocker, because women need lady shoes for their lady feet

But while the voice of female sneakerheads may not be heard by certain sneaker brands and outlets, it is certainly heard in the sneakerhead community. Kicks On Fire, a widely read sneaker blog and app, recently launched its #ChicksOnFire campaign. The campaign celebrates female sneaker culture by profiling certain collectors and uniting them with others in the movement over social media. Affirming and glamorizing, a hashtag check on Instagram or Twitter portrays the community as emboldened sneaker lovers (though it is occasionally hijacked by porno-trolls). Yet at the Rise of Sneaker Culture, a framed picture by Hank Willis Thomas hangs on the left wall of the exhibit portraying a woman posed to kiss a sneaker, the red of her lipstick matching the red heel of the shoe. There seems to be a tension between owning one's sexuality and keeping women out of sneaker culture, co-opting their sexuality to sell a product marketing towards men. When I approached Semmelhack about the erotic undertones of sneaker culture, she had a lot to say.

 ↑ Nadia Kaanan and her sneakers photographed by Julie Jamora in Brooklyn

Why women are "sidelined" at the Brooklyn Museum's sneakerhead exhibit. Image 5.

 

“The other focus of my academic research has been the history of the high heel, and one of the things that has been so central to the importance of the heel as an icon of femininity is its place within male pornography,” Semmelhack explained to me. “Even when high heels go out of fashion in women's fashion, they remain central in male pornography. I am now seeing male pornography featuring women in sneakers. I think that the entrance of sneakers into pornography is suggesting perhaps a shift [towards sneakers signifying beauty], but it's still a shift that's problematic [as it seems based in] objectification. I think that [this] is suggesting a new kind of sexy.” But do these erotic campaigns objectify women or do they empower and allow one to embrace sexuality and fashion choices as the basis of what Semmelhack deemed “rugged individuality?”

Another plaque at the exhibit quotes Details fashion assistant Katelyn Cervini: "Sneakers have become a prominent trend in menswear but have also slowly emerged as a key item in the women’s market- starting mostly with the classic Stan Smith. As a woman working in men’s fashion, I’ve found that sneakers are the item that bridges the gap between menswear and womenswear for me. Sneakers have become part of my daily uniform."

As Cervini mentions the "bridging of the gap" it seems abundantly clear that ideas of masculinity and femininity have become more fluid. Even out of the 10% of the market womenswear makes up, many women I talked to admited to buying men's sneakers; even if the player the shoe was named after is a man, the demographic is unisex. Missy Elliot's “Loose Control” video loops on a television screen, as does Rick Owen’s “Vicious” Collection: Women’s Runway Show, featuring female step dancers performing in Adidas. The whole time, I'm surrounded by men and women; the only sidelining I'm seeing is the one that's constantly repeated on paper, under a plaque, adorning a store, or in a press release. The rise of the female sneakerhead and the female superstar athlete is already here. But there is still a language war. 

Semmelhack's "male-centric" show actually does a good job to highlight what needs to be changed, a subconscious achievement of the show shown through the viel of history. The war is against condescending language, against co-opted sex, and against a history of sexism that just needs to die already.

There's millions of women out there collecting, all with stories. Hanging out with three sneaker aficionados in Bushwick, Nadia, Nandi, and Anna all utilize sneakers to illustrate different aspects of who they are and they couldn't be more different. 

 ↑ Nadia Kaanan and her sneakers photographed by Julie Jamora in Brooklyn

 

I don’t like to flex but making conversation pieces or putting conversation pieces on my body just makes me memorable. I don’t expect you to remember my name, but you remember what I wore.

Nandi Loaf

Why women are "sidelined" at the Brooklyn Museum's sneakerhead exhibit. Image 6.

NANDI LOAF IS A BED-STUY BRED ARTIST and Cooper Union graduate that sees sneakers and clothing as self-expression. She showed up to Hopes&Fears headquarters in vintage baby blue Gucci print overalls that she cut into shorts, rocking a Spongebob chain. “I am just as definite and open to analysis as a painting on any wall.”

The stars of her collections were her classic white Nike Air Force 1s that she painted pastel pink with acrylic paint and another pair that she found with Spongebob drawn on the side with marker. She gets stopped constantly about these modified classics. For Nandi, it’s less about brand loyalty, more so about the fact that “they’re lit.”

As a child, Nandi pined to wear the Jordan’s she saw adorning passersby in New York City. “My mom refused to buy me Jordans until I was twelve, when my feet stopped growing. But before then I used to make a big deal about whatever sneakers the mom would buy me, I always looked at them as a 'collection.' I remember taking books out of my bookshelf and replacing them with my sneakers. I’m from New York. I feel like sneaker culture is really important here, especially in grade school. What you have on your feet is a type of social validation.” A plaque at the Rise of Sneaker Culture echoed these same sentiments. The founder of urban fashion brand Walker Wear, April Walker recounts her childhood: "As a youngster, living in the heart of Bed-Stuy, I learned early on how important the kick game was. It was a status symbol and associated with the cool factor... I wasn’t even a teenager yet."

  ↑ Nandi Loaf and her sneakers photographed by Julie Jamora in Brooklyn

Why women are "sidelined" at the Brooklyn Museum's sneakerhead exhibit. Image 7.

I appreciate the editorials that offer more context.

Anna Sian

   

↑ Anna Sian and her sneakers photographed by Julie Jamora in Brooklyn

Anna Sian is from the East Village. Growing up, she played basketball and touch football in the schoolyard with the boys and always dressed to be comfortable before anything else. She admits that she had her struggles early on as a tomboy, balancing assertiveness with delicacy, but eventually came into her own. She's got a lot of sneakers, sporting Jordans for basketball practice to a more achromatic look for everyday life, “I'm obsessed with neutral, all day everyday black and white running sneakers.” When asked about the sneaker that changed her game, she said “it all started with the Nike Blazer.” A musician and artist, her style reflects her ambitions and prolific creativity.

Her first choice of the day was a pair of white Converse Allstar Hi-Tops and she’s not getting rid of them anytime soon. She says, “Until they start breaking down on me, I won’t spend any money on a new pair.”

When asked about using sexism to sell sneakers, she was hardly surprised. “Sneaker culture has always been male-dominated, that's nothing new. I can't confidently generalize about all sexy sneaker ad campaigns, but I definitely think they straddle the line between misogynistic and empowering. I appreciate the editorials that offer more context.”

 

Why women are "sidelined" at the Brooklyn Museum's sneakerhead exhibit. Image 8.

Nadia Kaanan is currently in the process of moving from Brooklyn to Berlin. She grew up in Saudi Arabia where her “primary window into western culture was through music videos, VHS rentals, cereal boxes and literature.” As an active youth, Nadia “played volleyball, basketball and was class president throughout high school.” What started out as an obsession with white keds has since led to a life of working in fashion, specifically sneakers. As a PR & Trend Marketing Coordinator at Adidas, her team forged luxury collaborations with designers like Rick Owens and Yohji Yamamoto, something the company would become known for. She remains active and can be caught DJing Bossa Nova Civic Club, playing basketball, or biking, on the regular. “I’m definitely an active person, I like to be comfortable, and those two things lend themselves to me wearing what I wear.”

Nadia sees the value of embracing your sexuality within the sneaker world. “Sexually confident women in positions of power or strength should be a step in the right direction if you allow yourself to see it that way. I'm not talking about Instagram personalities that are 97% booty and 3% sneaker but generally speaking, there should be nothing wrong with a sexy confident woman owning her femme.” Nadia says her dream shoes are this current season’s Adidas x Raf Simons mesh platform sneaker. Shoes like that bring her joy. Joy in sexuality, joy in athleticism, joy in art, joy in self-expression.

I'm not talking about Instagram personalities that are 97% booty and 3% sneaker but generally speaking, there should be nothing wrong with a sexy confident woman owning her femme.

Nadia Kaanan

   

↑ Nadia Kaanan and her sneakers photographed by Julie Jamora in Brooklyn

↓ Anna Sian, Nadia Kaanan and Nandi Loaf

“To sum it, that’s what I want my shoe to represent: me being happy.” 

Why women are "sidelined" at the Brooklyn Museum's sneakerhead exhibit. Image 9.