By David M. Shribman
WDRB Contributor from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
TOLEDO, Ohio -- Let us now praise the modest American art form, fashion trendsetter and cultural icon known as the sneaker.
Let us recognize that no American garment, no American leisure accessory, no American piece of footwear, is so prevalent and redolent. Let us agree that of all the things we have packed in our closets, none is so revered as our old Air Jordans, or our Converse All Stars, or our Stan Smith Adidas. And let us also acknowledge that today, when Americans of any age, even older ones who remember Dean Martin and Carol Richards, use the phrase "the old soft shoe," we no longer are referring to a tap dance. We're talking about the sneakers we gave away to Goodwill. They were probably high-tops, and we wish we still had them.
So if it is not unusual that we stow old sneakers under the bed, and if it is not shocking that Carnegie Mellon University has had a student-run course on sneaker culture (Sneakerology 101) since 2008, and if is not remarkable that women have been commuting to the commanding heights of industry and law in sneakers for a generation, then we should not be surprised that here in Toledo, a distinguished art museum, which owns works by Rubens, Rembrandt and El Greco, is playing host to an exhibit on sneaker art and culture. It originated at the Brooklyn Museum, is at the Toledo Museum of Art through the end of the month, and then moves to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and to the Speed Art Museum in Louisville.
Take the Sneaker Walk -- please don't blame the museum for that phrase, for it's irresistible -- and you will take a stroll through sneaker nostalgia, sneaker technology, sneaker art and sneaker fashion. You'll learn that Jesse Owens wore a bespoke pair of Gebruder Dassler Schuhfabrik shoes, named for the German national track coach, when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, and that the 1974 Nike Waffle Trainer, constructed of nylon uppers and cushioned insoles, was fashioned by the waffle iron owned by the designer's wife. And you'll be reminded that the watershed moment in sneaker history may have come in the 1980s with the first Air Jordans. (Michael wore those shoes while scoring 63 points in a single 1986 NBA Playoff game -- and was fined $5,000 because his red and black shoes didn't conform with league strictures requiring white shoes.)
Now, of course, men and women in white-shoe law firms wear sneakers, sometimes even in the office, and not only on Fridays. In an age of flex jobs and flex hours, a flexible shoe is totally consistent with the times -- but a departure from history.
"The idea that you'd have shoes that you'd wear just because they felt good is a relatively new development in the story of humankind," says Brian Kennedy, director of the museum, which ordinarily emphasizes European art over basketball-court attire. "An exhibition like this makes us think about who we are and what connects us and what is important to us. It makes us think about brand loyalty and how it develops, and it makes us think about what exactly is a cultural icon."
And about who helps create those cultural icons.
Listen to Bobbito Garcia, hip-hop disc jockey, part-time sneaker designer and street basketball aficionado, from his introduction to "Out of the Box," the exhibition catalogue: "What sometimes gets lost in this history is that we, the progenitors of sneaker culture, were predominantly people of color -- scratch that, kids of color -- who grew up in a depressed economic era and who experienced lack of resources."
Today the sneaker has cross-cultural appeal, and not only in the United States. But here it has a special sentimental lure; we've been wearing sneakers for so long that they're part of our national identity. We can almost believe that, if Mount Rushmore showed the feet of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, at least three of them would be wearing sneakers. We cannot say for sure what Jefferson would be wearing, for we know today that he had feet of clay.
"Sneakers are an integral part of our American fashion," says Halona Norton-Westbrook, the director of visitor engagement and associate curator of contemporary art at the museum. "Everyone who sees these sneakers sees their childhood."
That's because the sneaker is a symbol of ease and, in a way, a carefree outlook we associate with youth. Wouldn't Richard M. Nixon have looked a lot more authentic if, in that famous picture of the 37th president walking along a Pacific beach, he had been wearing sneakers rather than black wingtips? The Stride Rite "Made 2 Play Reagan" sneaker, created for toddlers, has no known connection with the 40th president, though if you search the Web you can find a sneaker embossed with Ronald Reagan's likeness.
Among the 160 sneakers in the exhibition are limited-edition Nike Supremes with gold stars, as well as shoes named for the 44th president, who in fact often is pictured in sneakers. The sneakers are called Obama Force One, a 2008 masterpiece with the legend "Black man runs and a nation is behind him" laser-embossed on the sole. Now that you think of it, every person running for president needs a running shoe; no doubt Donald J. Trump has a closet full.
In fact, all of us vote all the time with our feet, which is why we all have a closet full of sneakers. So, apparently, do the security guards at the museum here in Toledo; the sneaker exhibition has made it acceptable, even preferable, for them to be attired in sneakers rather than more formal shoes. A sizable chunk of the visitors come in sneakers, too, and, if you do not believe it, stroll over to the wall where museum officials have established a spot for "shoe-fies" -- that's right, selfies taken of visitors' sneakers. Might I beg permission to say that it is a runaway success?
Some of the running shoes in this exhibition were produced mainly for fashion-show runways. You probably haven't seen the 2015 oversized bright-red puff sneakers with oversized Velcro snaps designed by Giuseppe Zanotti -- another onetime DJ cum sneakerman -- being worn by anyone in your local dry cleaner or beer outlet. For that, you have to come to Toledo.
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (email@example.com, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.)
Copyright 2016 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and WDRB Media. All rights reserved.