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Our love affair with trainers

The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto has seen its fair share of specialist exhibitions. In 2001, they put on Every Step a Lotus: Shoes in the Lives of Chinese Women from Late Imperial China. Before that there was Little Feats: A Celebration of Children’s Shoes. Most recently they went with Socks: Between You and Your Shoes. Far be it from me to speculate on the popularity or otherwise of these shows, but last winter they hit upon a subject that proved an unequivocal smash hit.

Brooklyn, New York, 1985, when sneakers became hip-hop uniform. Photograph: Jamel Shabazz/Getty Images

Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture was seen by more then 150,000 people. This month the American Federation of Arts takes it on a US tour, beginning at New York’s Brooklyn Museum. A hardback book of the same name is released this week by the upmarket publisher Rizzoli. Featuring almost entirely men’s shoes, Out of the Box puts paid to the notion that most shoe obsessives are women, and its success comes as no surprise to its curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack.

“Sneakerheads are a voracious crowd,” she says. “I didn’t know at the beginning if I was putting in too much early material; if people only wanted to see 1980s-and-later sneakers. But there’s been amazing enthusiasm for the historical material.”

This isn’t the first time someone has compiled a history of sneakers (in the UK, marketing and fashion people seem to be determined to supplant “trainers” with “sneakers”), but it’s the first time anyone’s done it with this authority. Semmelhack’s research is meticulous. It starts with a pair of pre-vulcanised Brazilian rubber overshoes from the 1830s; takes in the Goodyear rubber company’s 1890s low-tops (with their canvas body they’re arguably the first sneakers as we’d recognise them today: they look a lot like a pair of Jack Purcells); and the first celebrity endorsement in the shape of some original 1930s Chuck Taylor All Stars, named after the basketball player and salesman who would shift 600m pairs of shoes but receive no commission from Converse.

There are super-rare Adidas sports shoes from 1960; the 80s boom years of trainers as both athletic footwear and hip-hop uniform (Air Jordan; Adidas Superstar); the style staples of the 90s (Air Max 95, Insta Pump Fury); and the luxury items of today – Prada caused fashion outrage when it launched a sneaker with its debut Prada Sport collection in 1997; now every designer has one.

Farrah Fawcett-Majors wears Nike in Charlie’s Angels. Photograph: Getty Images

Why have trainers endured? They may be the perfect fashion item: a literal blank canvas, one that attracts constant devotion to innovation and new technology. Trainers remain covetable at their most basic (£60 Adidas Original Stan Smith – a style classic) and their most outlandish (the rapper Tinie Tempah recently paid £24,000 for a pair of Nike Mags, the previously fictional self-lacing shoe from Back to the Future II). They seem to hold a particular fascination for men – that cliche of the sneakerhead obsessing over colourways and limited editions. But Semmelhack argues, this goes deeper than trainspotting by another name.

“When women lost the hat, the shoe gained in importance,” she says. “Now as a man’s uniform gets increasingly streamlined, the shoe becomes the one element that can convey class, age, tradition, nostalgia, elegance or authenticity. When men seek out ways of expressing individuality, they often start at the footwear level.”

Such basic footwear can wield considerable power. I still remember the first time I saw someone wearing trainers outside sport, almost 30 years ago – my friend Bayode, who’d returned to school from summer holidays in London wearing a gold Soul II Soul T-shirt and early Nike cross trainers. (He’s now a menswear designer.)

Today, with fewer jobs requiring men to be suited and booted and the catwalks full of relaxed tailoring and sportswear, trainers are more popular than ever. “Sneakers have allowed more diverse images of male success to be imagined in mens’ fashion,” says Semmelhack. “When you think about the tech genius or the athlete or the rapper, none of them look like a Wall Street banker. They’re expressing new models of masculine success. The sneaker is central to that.”

With luxury sportswear in the ascendent, our enthusiasm for trainers may just be getting started. Semmelhack agrees. Even as we speak she’s checking her emails: someone is supposed to have found her a pair of original Air Yeezys, Nike’s long sold-out collaboration with Kanye West – and one of the hottest sneakers of all time.

Johnny Davis is deputy editor of Esquire. Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture by Elizabeth Semmelhack is published 10 July (Skira Rizzoli £27.95). The Brooklyn Museum exhibition opens 10 July

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