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Toledo Museum of Art exhibition examines how the athletic shoe has shaped style and culture

From Converse All Stars to Nike Air Jordans, sneakers have evolved from their 19th-century origins to become international icons of style. “The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” a traveling exhibition organized by the American Federation of Arts and Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, provides a comprehensive survey of sneaker history, showcasing 160 pairs of shoes. We asked Halona Norton-Westbrook, Mellon Fellow at the Toledo Museum of Art, where “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” is showing through Feb. 28, to walk us through some of the footwear on display.

1830s: Pre-vulcanized Rubber Overshoe

This precursor to sneakers cost five times the price of leather shoes of the time, but it was a fashion statement that wouldn’t last. “They weren’t that practical, being an early form of manufactured rubber,” says Norton-Westbrook. “In the summer, they would not stand up to the heat.”

1917: Converse All Star
Converse All Stars bring to mind images of mid-century America, but the iconic sneaker was first produced during World War I. “We have the earliest Converse ever made on display from the Converse archives,” says Norton-Westbrook. Originally sold as a basketball shoe in 1917, Converse All Stars were redesigned with suggestions from Converse employee and former high school basketball player Chuck Taylor, whose name was added to the iconic sneaker in 1932.

1985: Nike Air Jordan I
Air Jordans have become a cultural force  during the past three decades, spawning collectors around the globe. “Those really changed the sneaker game,” Norton-Westbrook says. But they originally created some NBA controversy. In 1985, Michael Jordan was fined $5,000 for each game he wore a red-and-black-only version of his signature shoes because they lacked the color white, which NBA uniform guidelines required for Chicago Bulls players.

2011: Adidas/Run-D.M.C. 25th Anniversary Superstar
Run-D.M.C. made history in 1986, when it became the first hip-hop group to get a major sneaker deal, garnering a $1 million endorsement from Adidas. In tandem with the rise of Air Jordans, it set the stage for the multimillion-dollar deals that continue today. A 25th anniversary edition of the shoe Run-D.M.C. made famous is on display in Toledo. “[The exhibition] looks at not only the evolving aesthetics ... but also references some of the larger social and cultural phenomenon going along with the rise of sneaker culture,” says Norton-Westbrook.

For more information about “The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” visit toledomuseum.org.

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