Orchard Park native Elizabeth Semmelhack has made a career out of studying footwear.
The senior curator at Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, she has written multiple books on footwear. But when a graduate student saw the the museum's sneaker collection, told her it was too small and told her she “needed to do something about that,” she did.
The result was a traveling exhibit of the same name (www.riseofsneakerculture.org) in conjunction with the American Federation of Arts, and a book "Out Of The Box: The Rise Of Sneaker Culture."
“As a shoe historian, how could I ignore sneakers?” she sasked.
Semmelhack will lecture on her most recent book and the history of sneakers at noon Friday in the downtown branch of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library.
In a recent interview, Semmelhack said researching footwear in every form is scholarly work. Her examination found that sneaker culture has advanced a new form of masculinity, embodied by moments such as "when the tech genius shows up wearing playground clothing, a T-shirt, and sneakers.”
As a comprehensive footwear specialist, Semmelhack explores sneaker lore and history, beginning with Europeans discovering latex in Central and South America, early tennis shoes for the “sport of kings,” the influence of the YMCA, basketball’s creation and its central role in the sneaker’s function as a shoe for sport and a fashion item, to Nike and the fitness boom, and the sneaker’s place in music, and its related lifestyle.
For people raised on the idea of owning one pair of sneakers and wearing them until they wore out, it might sound odd to hear the word associated with a "lifestyle." But while owning 20 to 30 pairs of sneakers may seem unusual, it is not uncommon. Sneaker enthusiasm ranges from “something fun and innocent,” according to Joe Piecusch, a Planet Fitness manager, to compulsion, all the way to obsession.
Austin Taylor, who played basketball and football at St. Francis High School, said he owns about 25 pairs of sneakers.
“I wanted to have the nicest pair on the court. I wanted to stand out,” he said. He also wanted to “be the first guy to have them,” prompting “Where’d you get those?” questions, a query commonly posed among sneaker connoisseurs.
Semmelhack said she wrote her book from the perspective that sneaker preoccupation is mainly a male issue. It’s not. Emily Kancor, a staffer at Buffalo State’s Butler Library who said she owns 20 pairs, noted that sneakers were more important than clothes in high school. She said she was so fond was she of sneakers that for her high school prom she posed for pictures wearing high heels, then switched to wearing high-top, royal blue, Air Jordan sneakers that matched her prom dress. She now favors Vans and Converse.
Speaking for many, Kancor said: “I love sneakers.”