If it’s true that you can tell a lot about a person by looking at their shoes, what does our footwear tell us about ourselves as a society? That’s the question that Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, spends her days pondering. In her new book, Collab: Sneakers X Culture (available Oct. 29 from Rizzoli), she delves into the history and lore of collaborative sneaker design from the Chuck Taylor high-top to the Air Jordan and beyond. More than just a tribute to these iconic shoes, Semmelhack’s book, along with her work at the museum, is an attempt to understand what fashion can tell us about our desires, our beliefs and ourselves. Semmelhack spoke to The Globe and Mail about fashion crimes, sneaker culture and the inevitable rise of Crocs as fashion footwear.
I understand you were recently in London. What were you working on there?
I was working with my co-investigator, Alison Matthews-David, on our exhibition coming up on fashion crimes, so that was super interesting.
Is that like crimes of fashion, or the things people wear while committing crimes?
Both! We did an exhibition called Fashion Victims, which looked at that term and tried to be as flexible with it as possible. It was set in the 19th century, so we were looking at labour practices, death of animals, slavery and the cotton trade, toxic dyes… it ran the gamut. Fashion Crimes will be similar.
We spend so much time focusing on newness and trends in fashion, I love that you’re able to take such a deep view of it.
I think one of the things that I love the most about what I get to do is look at how what we put on our bodies is prescribed. We are fed a bit of a line that we use fashion to express ourselves, but I think that, in fact, fashion is a central economic engine to capitalism. It’s not something that’s feminine and frivolous, it’s literally central to culture, and it’s only now that people are starting to take its meanings seriously.
What do you think fashion tells us about ourselves?
When somebody makes something to sell and it does take off it means that that object is speaking to a large group of people. And it’s through looking at these mass-produced things that you’re able to take the pulse of a time, because there’s something desirable about that object and it’s meeting some larger social need. If I see something that’s popular, I always want to know who’s consuming it and why.
So what makes sneakers so popular?
One of the complaints that we hear a lot today is that the lines between private self and public self are increasingly blurred. We’re now showing up to work not in a uniform but increasingly in clothing that they would wear on the weekends, and sneakers are part of that.
When did that change begin?
Sneaker culture began to signify cutting-edge masculinity in the mid-eighties. Michael Jordan signs with Nike, Run DMC signs with Adidas and, at the same time, personal computers are invented. So sneakers are front and centre in a number of important cultural shifts: the men of the future who are going to run this new technology are going to wear sneakers. The coolest culture to emerge in the eighties, hip-hop and rap, they’re all going to be wearing sneakers. We’re still riding a lot of those meanings established in the early eighties today. Sneakers are kind of a signifier of this new world order.
What other fashion trends are catching your eye these days?
If you look at what younger people are wearing, Crocs are having a huge revival at the moment and I’m interested to see what will be made of the Croc by the up-and-coming generation. For them, it’s somewhat nostalgic to what they wore when they were kids, but I think once we land on a pair of comfortable shoes, potentially those are here to stay.
I’m into it. From fashion crime to fashion statement.
Even somebody who thinks that they’re anti-fashion, they’re buying and wearing something and that’s making a statement. It’s interesting, because if you think about the Victorian interior, the middle classes have gone from having a home that’s brimming with all of the stuff from our travels and interests, to now, when abodes are smaller and smaller, young people are carrying that information increasingly through what they wear. You might have a Supreme T-shirt and a pair of limited-edition Air Jordans, and all of these tiny bits of culture that you wear on your body are easily read by people you pass on the street. They’re taking on more of the responsibility of conveying who we think we are.