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They're called sneakers, but they're no escape

I decided recently to buy a new pair of sneakers. This was not because sneakers are ultra-hip this season or because Esquire magazine's Big Black Book of men's fashion insists that "you need a pair in your closet."

I already know how to dress. I just like sneakers. I especially like to wear them with a sports jacket or a linen suit, in my own approximation of business casual, the class of male dress Charles II dreamed up in the 1660s. The only problem is that sneakers quickly become too ratty for cross-genre wear.

So when I saw a pair of brown leather sneakers, modelled on a classic low-cut Converse, in my local Cole Haan outlet, I was immediately drawn to them, albeit warily. The Air Mercury Sport Oxfords, to reveal their full title, were $125, but that wasn't the problem.

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The problem was that they were brown ( cuoio, according to the catalogue), and leather, and sneakers. I find most "fashion sport" shoes too precious for words. Plus there was a portly American lawyer in the store buying two pairs, in brown and black.

"I'll wear them with khakis only," he said to me, "but they're perfect for going to the club." The club reference threw me, as did the appearance of his teenaged daughter, clutching a leather jacket and squealing, "Look what I found! And only $850!" To which her old man said, "Buy it!" I had no interest in declaring my (bogus) socio-economic status via my leather sneakers.

At that point, I descended into shoe turmoil - a state with which you are perhaps familiar. First, I went home and obsessed for four days. Then I returned to the store, tried on black and brown versions six times each, and then purchased both.

The next day, I returned the black pair, arguing in my mind that I could buy the real thing in black canvas for $40, whereas the brown leather pair was actually distinctive.

I started wearing them. They were comfortable. True, my 17-year-old daughter said they looked like "bowling shoes," but a 14-year-old I met in a gifted class told me she loved them. I felt very original.

Then I made a mistake. I began to read about sneakers. There are entire magazines dedicated to showcasing sneakers as works of art: Sneakerhead (online for collectors), Sneaker Freaker Magazine, the Daily Sneaker Release News, and even Solepedia, an online sneaker reference work.

It was the iconic shoe of the 20th century, and for a while in the 1830s as well, during Britain's Plimsoll Sensation. And the craze continues: More than 350 million pairs of athletic shoes are sold in North America every year, for more than $13-billion. I began to sense my new kicks were not the fresh declaration of originality I wanted them to be.

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The brown colour was fine - brown Plimsolls were worn by Indian batmen in the British Army in the late 1800s, an historical allusion I appreciated.

But the Converse part of my new shoes' story? Downer, man! By the time Chuck Taylor, Converse's signature salesman, died of a heart attack in Port Charlotte, Fla., in 1966, he had sold millions of pairs of "chucks" out of the trunk of his white Cadillac. Converse controlled 80 per cent of the sneaker market, but the only permanent residence Mr. Taylor owned was a storage locker in Chicago.

He sounded like a character in a Don DeLillo novel.

Then Converse went bust and was bought by Nike, which now markets Converse sneakers as the go-to shoe for "rock-oriented youth culture," artists, rebels and individualists - 800 million of them at last count. Kurt Cobain owned a pair, as does Lee DeWyze, lately of American Idol.

Lee DeWyze, for god's sake.

Of course, there are people who buy shoes, the things we stand up in, precisely for this reason, to belong to a group. My mistake was to imagine I could break out of one - as I was reminded when I called Elizabeth Semmelhack, the curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

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A kind, funny scholar with an immense store of shoe lore laced into her brain, Ms. Semmelhack broke the news to me gently. Yes, it was quite understandable that I would invest such importance in a pair of sneakers: "Shoes more than any other articles of clothing return a sense of the wearer. We take them off at moments of intimacy, and put them on at moments of leaving. So they can also become symbols of moments of transition."

This was especially true of my knock-off, brown-leather Converse groovers, which Ms. Semmelhack riffed on as "a sporting shoe, then linked to celebrity, to counterculture, to James Dean and punk rock. And it's linked in my mind lately to nostalgia." That hurt.

If I wanted to make a genuine shoe statement, I had to look to West Coast artist Brian Jungen, who unstitches high-end basketball shoes and reforms them into, for instance, Haida masks.

But I was just a guy trying to step outside male conformity while still hanging onto my social power, hoping no one would find my sneakers weird. (Unlike women, who can wear outrageous shoes because traditionally they've had no power to lose.)

Still, Ms. Semmelhack said there was hope. "Men's dress is starting - starting! - to show glimmers of an embrace of individuality. I think sneakers are one of the first signs of that individuality. The male sports shoe, the sneaker, the weekend shoe. Honest but flamboyant. We get a little sense of men's masculine desire from their casual footwear."

"But," I said, "I don't want to wear clothes that mark me as part of the system." I admit it: I can be a wiener.

Ms. Semmelhack laughed out loud. "You're sort of assuming that there is some way out of the system. You have to buy into something. Unless you make it all yourself, in which case you've joined the group that makes it all themselves. You have to choose something."

Too true. Head to toe, and then some.

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