Ripping the lid off the fashion exhibition paradigm
The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto is housed in a giant shoebox of a building — literally a concrete shoebox with a slightly tipped lid — and with the opening of its latest exhibition “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture” has literally ripped the lid off the paradigm of an exhibition of fashion in the museum.
While most fashion exhibitions focus on haute couture or high-end ready to wear women’s garments or accessories, sneakers are an everyday fashion item, one that transcends gender, age, class, and culture. Making sneakers the subject of an exhibition is a bold choice, especially since they appeal to and are primarily collected by men.
“Men often assume that this museum has nothing for them and with this exhibition, we hope to appeal to a different demographic”, said Senior Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack. This different demographic is young and predominantly male – not your typical museum visitor — and turned the opening event into sold-out happening.
Elizabeth Semmelhack said she “was eager to do the exhibition expressly because menswear is somewhat neglected. I was also eager to focus on sneakers because their history is so storied and their social meaning so nuanced. One of the things that interested me during my research was that the sneaker emerged from a desire to signify status and that today this aspect of sneaker culture remains strong. I also think that sneakers are allowing men to participate in the fashion system to a greater degree. I am calling this the sneakerfication of men’s dress and I see it as part of a larger shift in the construction of idealized masculinity”. She also acknowledged the role of her advisory group, which included sneaker collectors Dion Walcott, Lee Joseph, Ken Yee, Chad Jones, Dee Wells, Thad Jayaseelan, as well as Mayan Rajendran, who came to the museum to look at some sneakers as part of his research as a grad student in the MA Fashion program at Ryerson University several years ago. It was Mayan’s observation that the Bata Shoe Museum had a small collection of sneakers that initially sparked the idea of a sneaker exhibition.
The exhibition design by Karim Rashid is sleek and mod, featuring sneaker pods that feature individual pairs of high fashion sneakers from Prada, Louis Vuitton and Christian Louboutin. The space is animated with film clips from Just for Kicks by Thierry Daher (also available below) and touch screens that offer additional contextual material. The south wall includes blow-ups of Nike sneaker design sketches highlighting the fact that sneakers are designed objects of fashion.
The north wall and east walls are ringed with glass cabinets that trace the evolution of the sneaker, from its earliest incarnation as a lightweight canvas upper and vulcanized rubber sole.
Although I attended the opening, I had to go back to appreciate the depth of research that went into this exhibition and I was surprised to learn that the sneaker had such a long history. Although there are several rubber shoes in the early part of the 19th century on display, the oldest pair of running shoes in existence were made by Dutton and Thorowgood and date to 1860-1865. This pair features leather uppers and small heels similar to men’s dress shoes of the period, but include spikes on the soles, which make them into running shoes. The term “sneaker” was traced to 1873 in reference to the fact that the wearer could pad around noiselessly while wearing rubber-soled shoes. Initially, sneakers were only available in limited quantities and although seemingly humble in appearance, this footwear signified elite status since the owner had the time and the means to participate in sports and leisure activities. It was just over a century later, in the mid-1980s, when two pivotal events took place in sneaker history: Nike signed Michael Jordan and launched Air Jordan and Adidas signed Run DMC, and sneaker culture became mainstream.
I have to admit I was initially reluctant to see this exhibition since I have a deep affinity for historic costume and haute couture. Plus I am not a casual dresser and rarely wear sneakers myself, except in the gym, but, in the end, I was surprised by how much I liked the exhibit, especially a pair of Louis Vuitton sneakers that look like they have Baroque embroidery on them and a pair of Nike Michael Johnson gold spikes 1996 in 24 karat gold covered material. To stay current, it is important to step outside one’s comfort zone. With this exhibition, Elizabeth Semmelhack has ripped open the topic of menswear and sneaker culture. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.