By Kash Aboud
The sneaker community has long been a boys club.
It started on the basketball court in 1917 with the Converse All-Star. All professional and amateur male hoopers wore All-Stars for several decades until the 1960s, when other brands such as adidas, Nike, and Keds began to make competing models. Prior to the creation of Title IX in 1972 which required all schools to fund women’s sports, most women were not athletes and did not wear sneakers.
A Brief Timeline of Sneaker History
Due to the shoe’s long association primarily with men and male athleticism, even today women have a hard time finding a foothold in the community- unless, perhaps, you’re an athlete.
While female basketball players today do not receive the same respect as their male counterparts, their insider perspective into the sport does give them an advantage in sneaker culture; “I’ve never had an issue where I’m talking about sneakers and men are ignorant about it” says former Division I basketball player, Lauren Parra. “I think you kind of have an in because you’re an athlete so that’s something that gives you cred.”
During the past century, women who were not athletes typically wore saddle shoes or high heels instead of sneakers. Even today, there is an expectation that all women should prefer wearing heels while men should prefer sneakers; “We’re supposed to collect heels and say, ‘Oh I’ve got a closet full of red bottoms’ and dudes are supposed to be like, ‘Oh I’ve got a closet full of Jordans’” says Iris Miller, who works in a sneaker boutique in Washington, D.C. “I think that’s been the standard for men and women, so women typically aren’t into sneakers, just because its been ingrained in our minds since birth.”
According to Dylan T. Miner, artist, historian, and director of American Indian studies at the University of Michigan, before the late 1980s, sportswear companies were more or less unconcerned with creating products for women and catered almost exclusively to men. For example, Nike’s marketing campaigns were solely directed at men, since the company did not want to put its masculine, athletic reputation in jeopardy by marketing their products to women.
When sneaker culture exploded in 1985 with the release of the Air Jordan I, more and more women voiced their interest in sneakers and sportswear. Recognizing this untapped market, sneaker companies began incorporating a small amount of feminine-looking women’s clothing and shoes into their brand.
Unfortunately, sportswear companies still do not go out of their way to make women feel included in the sneaker or sportswear industries today; while women do have more options than they used to, the options still pale in comparison to the men’s selection. Miner states, "Sneakers, as integral components of athletics, represent a dominant form of masculinity. Even though Nike presently markets to women, its basketball-centric material is still principally aimed at men."
According to graduate student and sneaker
aficionado, Kerin Maguire, “There are several
hyped men’s sneaker releases every weekend.
There might be one hyped women’s release
every other month. It’s ridiculously unfair.”
Valeria “Vee” Cruz, assistant store manager
at Stuart Weitzman in Washington, D.C. has a
similar opinion. “I feel like releases are definitely
more skewed towards like men’s...their releases
are way more epic and crazy. With women’s
releases they’re really not that crazy because the
shoe is not that crazy.”
Furthermore, the sneaker sizing system makes it difficult for many women to be able to wear men’s shoes since the smallest size that men’s shoes usually come in is an 8, or a women’s 9.5. As a result, if your feet are smaller than a women’s 9.5- a size that’s relatively large- you can’t wear most of the men’s sneaker releases. On the flip side, women with large feet have a hard time fitting in women's shoes and have no other option but to buy men's shoes; "I have big feet, so it’s hard" says Lauren. "I can’t buy the really nice colored pink shoes that I want in women’s sizes because I have big feet. I just have to buy the men’s."
In addition to sports, music (particularly that 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. For example, popular rap group Run-D.M.C. signed a deal with adidas in 1986 after the success of their track, “My Adidas.” Their shoe was a version of the hard-toe adidas Superstar, which is one of adidas’ best-selling sneakers, and will always be remembered for its impact on early hip-hop.
During the 1990s, 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- mainly from the East Coast- often wore the latest Jordans in their music videos and on stage.
Everyone interested in the genre wanted to wear the same Jordans that their favorite rappers were wearing. “To me, it’s a part of my culture.” says Iris. “Sneakers have always been important to hip-hop culture, to black culture, to city culture, especially the east coast. It’s a way to represent where you come from.”
Similar to rappers, Latino reggaetón and Latin Trap artists have always had their own unique style of dress. In their music videos, the artists frequently wear rare, expensive Gucci, Off--White, and Jordan sneakers, and fans look to them as style inspiration. Wardrobe stylist Mimi Nguyen agrees. “When people talk about sneakers it brings up a lot in music, in fashion, in what’s going on in the world today- it just kind of brings people together.”
The lack of women’s representation in 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 and bonding, which inherently excludes women.
While history may not have been supportive of female
sneakerheads, there are plenty of women holding their
own in the community today who are demanding
representation and respect. Kimberly Marcela Durón,
a graduate student and filmmaker, commented,
“Whenever you hear about a really cool collab, it’s
usually with a male athlete or a male musician...
I love the fact that one of the pairs of shoes that I
bought- the Puma Grl Pwr ones- were actually designed
by a woman in the hip-hop industry. So it’s really cool
when I wear those and people ask about them. The tags
say GRL PWR, and so I can be like, oh these are by
Things are coming around, according to Mimi- “I think women are taking over the sneaker community. We can wear them with dresses...So guys, no shade, but females can really rock the sneakers a bit better than you can. Girls have a little more swag with them than guys do, I think. We’re itching to take over.”
It seems like men are slowly becoming more inclusive and respectful to female sneakerheads, as well; Kerin says, “It’s like with football, where guys can be judgemental, but when you are able to actually convey that you do know what you’re talking about, or you are genuinely interested, they’re more open to kind of embracing and applauding that. There’s an appeal for men to be like “Oh, who’s this chick wearing kicks?”
At the end of the day, it seems like whether or not men make room for women in sneaker culture doesn’t really matter; women are making room for themselves. "Don’t let guys get in the way of getting your sneakers” Vee encourages. "Definitely stand up. And don’t be like “oh I can’t wear this sneaker because I don’t have anything to wear it with. Like, just throw anything on with it, somebody will like it...it’s your style.”
Lauren in her UMass Lowell basketball uniform and team shoes
Iris tying her Jordan I Retro Royals
Lola Plaku's collaboration with Puma
Kerin in her Off--White Converse All-Stars
Kimberly wants to see more concrete action. She argues, “The sneaker community has the potential to be much more inclusive, because at the end of the day, anyone can wear sneakers. They’re not necessarily like heels that have a more traditionally femme connotation. I think just as in other male-dominated industries, in order for women to become more involved in the community, there needs to be more women on the design end and the business decision end. I think that’s a big part of the reason why more shoes are currently tailored towards men and men’s sizes.”