Women’s Historical Exclusion from Sneaker Culture
By Kash Aboud
Despite being frequently trivialized and looked down upon, fashion not only significantly impacts pop culture but is also an important way for individuals to express themselves (Gronow 99). Moreover, through fashion, people can form communities and group identities which give them a sense of belonging. While women are often pegged as being more style-conscious than men, one major fashion item has historical roots in male consumption: the sneaker. At the start of the 1900s, rubber-soled men’s work shoes were introduced and became known as “sneakers” since their bottoms were quieter than their clunky boot predecessors. The shoe’s historical association with men has made it difficult for women to break into the sneaker community over the years. Complicating women’s involvement in the subculture is the intersection of sports and music- both affected by race and masculinity- that has historically existed at the culture’s core.
In the early 1900s, the sneaker gained popularity on the basketball court with the introduction of the Converse All-Star, which dominated the market through the 1960s when other brands such as Adidas, Nike, and Keds began to make competing models (Miner 79). When the National Basketball Association eventually became racially integrated, the court was a site where the previously disenfranchised Black man could experience “American masculinity” for the first time (Miner 77); through the exhibition of athleticism in a ‘manly’ sport, Black men earned the respect of white Americans, even if white people only respected their athletic abilities. Historically, Black athleticism has been portrayed as an innate characteristic, while white athletes are only able to achieve competing athleticism through extreme dedication to their sport (Miner 90). As a result of this narrative, in the 1980s, when Black players worked with brands such as Nike to release their own shoes, white Americans were eager to buy them. It was as if wearing a talented player’s sneakers could help them transcend their racial limitations and inferior athleticism.
Sports companies took full advantage of this phenomenon in their marketing campaigns. In 1992, Gatorade aired a commercial with the slogan, “Be like Mike,” suggesting that drinking Gatorade would help average people, especially white people, play more like the American hero Michael Jordan (Rovell). To this day, nearly two decades after he retired, Jordan Brand produces several retro Jordan sneakers each month, and they frequently sell out within minutes. Given the success of Jordan sneakers, Nike, Adidas, Puma, and Reebok still work with professional athletes to produce shoes. Many Americans idolize current players such as Lebron James and Kevin Durant, so their wildly successful shoes play a large part in today’s sneaker culture. Americans tend to value women’s sports less than men’s, so female athletes rarely receive any kind of sneaker deal, which prevents them from gaining a legitimate foothold in the community.
In addition to sports, music- particularly made by Black and Latino men- also strongly influences sneaker culture. As hip-hop began in the 1970s and 1980s, the artists’ shoes and clothing styles became almost as popular and iconic as their music. During the beginning stages of the genre, rappers were known for wearing Puma Suedes, track pants, and gold jewelry (López Godosh & Hancock 22). As a result, Puma’s popularity became cemented in American culture, and the Puma Suede still remains a popular sneaker today. Additionally, popular rap group Run DMC signed a deal with Adidas in 1986 after the success of their track, “My Adidas” (Mellery-Pratt). Their shoe was a version of the hard-toe Adidas Superstar, often sported by breakdancers and b-boys because of the shoe’s durable toe box. The Superstar is one of Adidas’ best-selling sneakers, and will always be remembered for its influence on early hip-hop.
During the 1990s, rappers moved away from wearing Pumas and Adidas to mostly wearing Jordans, oversized clothing, and backwards fitted baseball caps (López Godosh & Hancock 22). During this decade, when hip-hop’s influence on American culture was well ingrained, Michael Jordan won back to back NBA championships, and many believed he was the best player that basketball had ever seen. As a result, Jordans dominated American sneaker culture, and rappers often wore the latest Jordans in their music videos and on stage. Since hip-hop artists were idolized and considered to be the epitome of cool, everyone interested in the genre wanted to wear the same Jordans that their favorite rappers were wearing.
During the early 2000s, Latino reggaetón artists also became style icons. In 2005, Daddy Yankee’s hit single “Gasolina” ushered in reggaetón’s popularity with non Spanish-speaking Americans. Similar to rappers, reggaetón artists had their own unique style of dress. In their music videos, the artists frequently wore bandanas, expensive jeans, and diamond bracelets, which partly caused the designer jeans trend of the 2000s. Since reggaetón and Spanish-speaking artists influenced clothing styles in the United States during the late 2000s, items from Jennifer López’s Sweetface fashion line and Daddy Yankee’s sneaker collaboration with Reebok, the shoes that reggaetón artists wore and released became must-haves in for American sneakerheads (López Godosh & Hancock 25).
The exclusion of women from today’s sneaker culture can be directly traced back through the culture’s historical roots. Since the idols- athletes and musical artists- responsible for making sneakers popular are all men, and primarily men of color, race and masculinity have become intrinsically tied to sneaker culture. As a result, the sneaker has become a designator of male social identity.
Despite the sneaker’s historical ties to masculinity, because female athletes and musicians have been given increasingly similar opportunities to their male counterparts over the last several decades, they have shown the world that female sneakerheads can and do deserve respect. For example, basketball players such as Lisa Leslie, Candace Parker, and Sylvia Fowles- all of whom have impressive sneaker collections- can perform impressive dunks, and could definitely hold their own if given the opportunity to play in the NBA. Female rappers and reggaetón artists such as Cardi B, Nicki Minaj, Karol G, and Natti Natasha continue to dominate the charts and have become fashion icons to many women around the world. The only reason why some men in the sneaker community consider women to lack the same ‘cool’ factor is that they continue to question female legitimacy in any area that is not domestic or overtly sexual. To combat this discourse, there needs to be a countercultural approach to sneaker culture that not only includes but also encourages women’s contribution and participation.
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