The sports shoe: from field to fashion

Dr Thomas Turner writes on the hidden deeper, roots of sneaker fashions and obsessions; the subject of his PhD in History at Birkbeck, which he has now turned into a book.

Sports shoes are an inescapable part of modern fashion. We see them everywhere, from the sports field to the catwalk, the classroom to the battlefield. Comfortable, convenient, inexpensive, and accessible, for many of us shoes that have roots in sports are our go-to everyday footwear. The big names – adidas, Nike, Puma, Reebok, Under Armour – have some of the most widely recognised and well-established brands in existence. Alongside them an array of smaller, more niche companies flourish. It amounts to an industry worth billions of dollars, a truly global enterprise with design, manufacturing, and sales spread around the world.

Sales are one indicator of the popularity of this type of footwear, but recent years have also seen the growth of a rich and diverse culture around sneakers. Global communities of obsessive sneakerheads and collectors now connect the worlds of art, design, music, fashion, and popular culture. Yet these groups only reflect a wider appreciation for athletic footwear. Whether they were Dunlop Green Flash, adidas Samba, Puma States, Reebok Classic, Nike Air Max, or Yeezy 350, many of us remember our old shoes with nostalgic warmth, and almost everyone has a particular model that magically transports them to a specific time and place. In this respect, sports shoes have developed a cultural significance much greater than other forms of footwear or clothing.

I got my first pair of adidas in the mid 1980s, when I was in primary school. I thought they were fantastic. I have had countless pairs since then but my fascination with sports shoes has only grown. It was this that led, eventually, to my first historical writing on the subject. Studying at Birkbeck for an MA in Social and Cultural History, in spring 2005 I had taken a course organised by Professor Frank Trentmann on the history of consumption. I wrote my end-of-term essay on the adidas Superstar, a 1960s basketball shoe that in the 1980s became closely associated with hip hop and the New York rap group Run-D.M.C. The essay did well and later formed the basis of a proposal for a part-time PhD on the broader social and cultural history of sports shoes. My goal was to uncover the hidden, much deeper, roots of sneaker fashions and obsessions. I wanted to establish how sports shoes had come to be as they are as objects, but also to investigate the ways in which people in the past had thought about them. This meant finding how sports shoes were perceived and portrayed by makers and consumers, but also how they were integrated into popular fashions and cultures away from the sports field. Crucially, it meant looking at a broad sweep of global history, from the mid 19th and to the early 21st Century, and considering sports footwear against a changing landscape of society, sport, fashion, industry, and technology.

Thomas Turner

I began work on the PhD in late 2006 and finally completed it in autumn 2012. Throughout, I benefited from the supportive environment in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, whether it was advice from my supervisors or the encouragement of fellow PhD students struggling with their own projects. With the viva a surprisingly pleasant memory and the thesis submitted to Senate House, in 2015 I set about transforming the PhD into a book for a more general readership. I secured a deal with Bloomsbury, and in the years afterward juggled the book project with teaching, professional work, and other academic research and writing. The final result, The Sports Shoe: A History from Field to Fashion, expands on my PhD to tell the transnational story of sports footwear over 150 years. With 160 archive images, it moves from the tennis courts of the 1870s to the streets of 1980s New York to the global advertising campaigns of the 2000s. It is inevitably a very personal story, documenting and sharing my own love for this type of footwear, but it demonstrates that the humble sports shoe is one of the most culturally rich and economically significant products of our time.

The Sports Shoe: A History from Field to Fashion by Thomas Turner is published by Bloomsbury, £30.00

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Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes in Law and Literature

Professor Adam Gearey from Birkbeck’s School of Law writes about the horrific scandal of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes, and how its representation in literature may play an important role in the recently opened Commission of Investigation.

A conference this weekend in Dublin City University is dedicated to ‘law and literature’ in Ireland. What is law and literature; and how can this kind of scholarship shed light on matters of public concern? Literature compels us to think about matters that are left unresolved when courts have ruled. In particular, the poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s book Bloodroot asks its readers to think about the lives ruined by the abusive regime of the Mother and Baby Homes. Mother and Baby Homes operated throughout Ireland from the early 1900s to more or less the present day. They were institutions run by the Catholic Church for women “who became pregnant.” Women who survived Mother and Baby Homes describe them differently—there are many stories of duplicity, exploitation abuse and forced separations. As Emer O’Toole has written: “women were incarcerated in state-funded, church-run institutions called mother and baby homes or Magdalene asylums, where they worked to atone for their sins.” Mother and Baby Homes were thus part of a system of institutions that served to discipline women and girls; enforcing codes of sexual morality and social conformity. Although not unique to Ireland, recent events have forced a confrontation with the traumatic legacy of Mother and Baby Homes- themes that animate Ní Churreáin’s poems.

Survivors of Mother and Baby Homes have long maintained that church and state presided over the systematic abuse of mothers and babies. However, only recently have Mother and Baby Homes become the subject of a Commission of Investigation. In 2014 Cathleen Corless published research suggesting that there was a mass grave in the grounds of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Taum containing the remains of over 800 babies and young children. A Commission of Investigation was charged with gathering evidence on conditions in Mother and Baby Homes, mortality rates and adoption practices. Excavations carried out by the Commission established that there had indeed been a mass burial of human remains in a sewage tanks in the grounds of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home.

Although the Commission is yet to publish its final report, the “hospital empire” has been denounced in the Dáil, and Taoiseach Enda Kenny came under pressure to make a public apology. The Commission is seen as an important way of establishing the truth. But it is only a partial victory for survivors. The Commission has no power to consider those mothers and adopted children who were subject to forced adoptions. As Tanya Gold, has put it: the possibility of ‘restorative justice’ seems remote to those whose histories have been effectively erased, and who remain outside the scope of the commission.

The poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin’s addresses the lived realities of this history. She has described herself as a “daughter” of the Mother and Baby Homes. Her grandmother gave birth to her father in Castlepollard Mother and Baby Home in the early 1950s. As a single mother, she had to give the baby up for adoption.

How can the horror, the systematic ruin of so many families and so many lives be understood? As an introduction to Bloodroot, Ní Churreáin’s has written:

“If I remain wary today of State care systems and policies, it’s because they disappeared from my life, without explanation or proper support, many of the people I have loved. It is at least in part the State that has taught me what I know in my poetry about space, power structures and the unsaid.”

Ni Churreáin talks of her ‘wariness’ towards the state. ‘Wariness’ stems from words that mean being attentive, heedful or watchful. As a poet, Ní Churreáin is invoking an attentive heeding of those who have disappeared. Heedfulness is linked to an old Irish word which describes weeping and lamentation. Bloodroot is an elegy, a lamentation for loved ones and for what remains ‘unsaid’. The power of law and the state may be able to silence, and to compel speech, but Ní Churreáin remains attentive to those who cannot speak. When the Commission publishes its final report, Bloodroot will be read as its essential supplement. If the Commission cannot recover evidence relating to the trauma of survivors, then perhaps poetry can remain heedful. If the suffering of many survivors is absent from official record,  Bloodroot affirms: “[w]hat comes from desire cannot be erased”.

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Me Too: the history of political change through personal stories

Dr Tanya Serisier, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, recently authored Speaking Out: Feminism, Rape and Narrative Politics, a critical study of feminist practices of ‘speaking out’ in response to rape. At the launch of the book she was joined in discussion with Dr Kiran Grewal (Goldsmiths, University of London) and Alison Phipps (University of Sussex).

On October 15, 2017, the actor Alyssa Milano tweeted a response to the growing public revelations of film producer Harvey Weinstein’s sexually predatory behaviour. It read, in part: ‘If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem’. The tweet inspired a viral hashtag and a political uproar, with women across the world sharing their experiences of sexual violence in workplaces and elsewhere, with at least some of these stories leading to the public downfall of powerful men.

‘Me Too’ has been called a ‘movement of revelation’ and even a ‘revolution’, inspiring countless debates about sexual violence and the ethics of public accusations. What many public discussions shared, particularly in the first few months, was the sense that this was both revolutionary and unprecedented. A year later, however, there are growing questions about the long-term legacy of ‘Me Too’. Stories of sexual violence have become less prominent and several men exposed by these stories have begun to resurrect their careers. It has begun to feel that this moment might be less revolutionary than had been hoped or feared.

In my book, Speaking Out: Feminism, Rape and Narrative Politics, I argue that the cultural power and limitations of events like ‘Me Too’ become clearer when they are placed within a feminist history of telling personal stories of sexual violence to achieve political change. As slogans like ‘Break the Silence, End the Violence’ from the 1970s suggest, feminists have been using the power of personal narratives to shift cultural and legal responses to sexual violence for over half a century.

My book traces this history from the first public speak-out against rape in 1971, held in a small church by the ‘New York Radical Feminists’ collective. At the time, even many feminists did not see sexual violence as a political issue, and so the speak out’s theme, that ‘Rape is a Political Crime Against Women’, marked a significant shift from a view of rape as simply the result of individual pathology. Despite the misgivings of some collective members, the speak-out attracted over 300 women, including journalists from Vogue and New York magazines. While ten women had planned to speak, the organisers were startled when thirty audience members joined them onstage to tell their own stories. These stories of personal experience inaugurated the feminist movement against rape, with speak-outs spreading globally, including to London in 1972.

“The book allows people to look beyond the current moment and ask critical questions about the strength and limitations of women’s public stories of their experience of sexual violence. It traces the history of this activism from the consciousness-raising groups and public speak-outs of the 1970s to the talk shows of the 1980s, books of the 1990s and social media activism of the 2000s.

“The launch discussed the book’s origins in my own experiences of feminist activism and rape crisis work in Australia, and my frustration with the limits and blindspots of some of this feminist politics. And this sparked the investigation of the book. The discussion at the launch was wide-ranging, exploring the difficulties of mainstream feminism in speaking to the experiences of women of colour and women from the global south and the problems with presuming that the criminal justice system is able to solve the problem of sexual violence.

“The size and vibrancy of the launch showed that people are interested in looking beyond #MeToo as a moment and thinking about what it would take to really make a difference to high rates of sexual violence and the social stigma that surrounds victims and survivors.”

From the early 1970s to today, women speaking of their experiences has challenged denial and myths surrounding sexual violence, shifting public understandings of sexual violence from a rare act committed by criminal strangers to a common form of violence frequently committed by respectable men, many of whom are friends, colleagues or even family members of the women that they assault. Women’s personal stories have combatted stigma and challenged cultural and legal tendencies to ignore and excuse the acts of men like Harvey Weinstein, instead seeking to make them increasingly socially and legally unacceptable.

At the same time, this history reveals a profound and disturbing lack of change. Far from being unprecedented, ‘Me Too’ is one of a series of moments of heightened public attention to women’s narratives of sexual violence that have occurred from the early 1970s onwards. These moments are often marked by public optimism that, finally, the silence has been broken, and that profound change will inevitably follow, expectations that are frequently disappointed.

The late 1980s, for instance, saw significant public interest and concern in sexual violence, which was a common topic in both news and entertainment media, reaching its most prominent point with Jodie Foster’s ‘Best Actress’ Academy Award for her portrayal of rape survivor Sarah Tobias in the film, The Accused. Importantly, the era also saw the birth of what I call ‘public survivors’, unknown women, such as Jill Saward in the UK, who achieved a public profile and campaigning platform on the basis of speaking about their experience of rape. Much contemporary media commentary referred to the era as a ‘watershed’, in terms not dissimilar to those used today. In the following years, however, these expectations slowly waned and Elly Danica, a Canadian ‘public survivor’ from this time, commented in the mid-1990s, ‘I now see that I and numerous colleagues over the years have been breaking the silence over and over again, only to have it subsequently swallow us up again moments after we speak’.

Ensuring that silence does not similarly swallow up the voices enabled by ‘Me Too’ requires learning from this history. Real cultural change depends not only on women speaking out, but on a wider cultural determination not to let their voices fade away over time. This would make the ‘Me Too’ moment truly unprecedented.

 

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Photography and identity

Lorna Robertson, graduate in MA History of Art with Photography, discusses the representation of women in visual culture as explored in the Jo Spence Memorial Library.

The Jo Spence Memorial Library (JSML) holds a range of visual material that Jo Spence had collected, which includes photographs, greeting cards and cartoons. I have found the collection valuable for research into the relationship between photography and identity and also the ways that Spence used existing visual material in her work.

Much of the material in the JSML explores the representation of women in visual culture, and the collection includes photographs that Spence took of women’s magazines during Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. I was initially struck by the number of advertisements that used images of heterosexual courtship to sell products, from tights to kettles.

Other materials, such as greeting cards, highlight the way that children are represented from a young age in heterosexual gender roles.I also began to see how these magazines used photography to reinforce tradition values around the family, and with this in mind, I began to consider issues around the representation of domesticity. Here, the image of woman as sex object is joined by a domesticated image of wife and mother, both of which may be used to sell domestic products.

In these contexts, the white, affluent, heterosexual family is presented as an aspirational lifestyle, but Spence also noted the way that other adverts play on the fear of not living up to these roles in order to sell medication for anxiety and depression.

The JSML collection also holds a collection of newspaper cartoons and I found that when looking at the cartoons in conjunction with magazine images, the cartoons often undermined the ideologies of the magazines.

Issues on the visual representation of men are also addressed in the collection, for instance the materialism of advertisements is countered by the suggestion that consumerism may be a financial strain on married men.

This issue of consumerism in relation to the family also developed my sense of Spence’s engagement with class, which I explored by juxtaposing different images in the collection. For example, the advertisements for a spacious, fully equipped kitchen appears unviable and economically detached from the photograph of Spence standing in front of a small terraced house.

The collection does, however, always underscore the role that photography plays in constructing and maintaining ideologies in Western society. The material points to the frameworks behind a range of photographic practices, such as the male members of the Islington Photographic Society photographing two female models in a studio.

Or how the family album is influenced by the photographic styles of companies such as Kodak and high street photographers, who privilege posed portraits of occasions such as marriage, births and the family get together.

Other materials in the collection also indicate that Spence was concerned with image construction in relation to the wider history of photography, such as images of carte de visite and vintage advertisements for photography equipment.

Spence was clearly an accumulator of visual material and a photograph in the JSML collection gave me an idea of how Spence used the material in her work. The photograph is Spence holding a book, in which she has assembled images associated with female childhood.

Here, Spence has used a school photograph of herself as a child from 1939 (which I identified through cross-referencing with books in the JSML), and placed it alongside an advert for the Miss Pears competition and two stickers of the cartoon character Wonder Woman. However, Spence has made visible a disjuncture between these aspirational images of childhood and her actual experience growing up as a working class child in Britain during the Second World War, through a snap shot of a child standing in front of another small terraced house and the hand written text ‘I HAD A NICE TIME MOST OF THE TIME’.

The process of investigating each of the components in this photograph illustrated to me that Spence had constructed this image. Not only had she assembled the found images in the album, but Spence had also assembled the situation of herself sitting on a chair, holding the album, looking at the camera, the artificiality of which is further emphasised by the back drop of the white wall and poster, which echoes the set-up of studio portraiture. This montaging, like the JSML collection as a whole, touches on discussion presented by Spence in articles from the 1980s on the slippage between images from our personal lives, images of popular culture and the construction of our identity.

Find out more: History and Theory of Photography Research Centre

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