05/06/2013 08:00 EDT | Updated 07/06/2013 05:12 EDT

From canvas to Air Jordan and beyond: Sneaker exhibit shows history behind shoes

TORONTO - That the sneaker has come a long way from its plain, canvas-and-rubber origins should be no surprise to anyone who's seen the flashy, tricked-out kicks proudly trotted out by stars and style-savvy teens.

Its evolution — from accessory for an upwardly mobile middle class to a symbol of patriotic devotion and its current role as a form of privileged self-expression — is laid out in the newest exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

If nothing else, "Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture" is an excuse to admire iconic footwear coveted by young athletes and shoe aficionados the world over, as well as some elaborate (and perhaps less practical) designs.

Multiple incarnations of the famous Nike Air Jordan, including the original from 1985, mix with studded gold pony-hair slip-ons by renowned high-heel designer Christian Louboutin and the controversial Adidas Totem by Jeremy Scott, whose aboriginal inspiration has sparked criticism over cultural misappropriation.

A discreet black low-top marks a poignant Canadian contribution: the lone Adidas Orion sneaker worn by Terry Fox during his Marathon of Hope in 1980.

The exhibit, which runs until the end of next March, also shows how something so easily dismissed as trivial or mundane — what we put on our feet — reflects the deeper shifts in society.

And it proves that women, whose stereotypical love of fancy heels is etched in popular culture, aren't the only ones who care about pretty shoes.

After all, most so-called "sneakerheads" are men, said museum curator Elizabeth Semmelhack, who called bright and whimsical sneakers "the most baroque aspect of men's attire today."

Almost everyone has worn sneakers at some point, whether for public school gym class or private tennis lessons at a club, making them "the most democratic form of footwear," Semmelhack said during a recent tour.

At the same time, "I wanted to show how its history is very much embedded in issues of status," she said.

Touch-screen TVs placed between glass display cases allow visitors to see what was going on in the world when each shoe was released and how history and design overlapped.

Some play video clips of famous athletes and performers — from sprinter Jesse Owens to rap stars Run-D.M.C. — whose endorsements turned shoes into objects of desire.

With their off-white canvas uppers and vulcanized rubber soles, the first models appear humble, particularly compared with what's worn today. But they were destined for a middle class that aspired to a wealthy lifestyle of leisure, "so they actually represented privilege," Semmelhack said.

Dainty heeled sneakers made for women in the 1920s show an attempt to balance femininity with the wearers' sudden move into the masculine world.

A few years later, the rise of Nazism brought sneakers to the European masses as exercise was embraced for the greater good.

It's only after the Second World War that working out turned into a quest for the personal best and athletic shoes returned to their role as a status symbol.

Some of the best-known designs emerged in the 1970s, when the "Me" generation transformed what had been a utilitarian accessory into something more decorative.

Among those on display are "athleisure" classics such as the lightweight Nike Waffle Trainer, with the prominent swoop logo on the side, and the Asics Tiger Corsair, which still makes the rounds today largely unchanged.

"Stuff (people) have on today actually dates way back," Semmelhack said.

The bold high-tops of the 1980s proved the biggest draw for teens who visited the museum recently on a school tour.

"This is the best area," said J.P. Dela Cruz, 15, pointing to a wall full of Air Jordans.

An admitted fan of the "sneaker game," Dela Cruz said he owns roughly a dozen pairs, including various colours of the Air Jordan 5.

But he was less than impressed by the most recent model, this year's 28, a black zip-up with a neon-green tongue.

"No one wears those," the teen scoffed.


If You Go ...

The Bata Shoe Museum ( is open daily except Christmas Day and Good Friday. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except Thursdays, when it stays open until 8 p.m.

Admission is $14 for adults. Thursdays between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. are pay-what-you-can.