“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
The shortest sad story ever written, allegedly by Ernest Hemingway, draws on the emotional significance and tragic symbolism of empty footwear.
The capacity of an object to carry such profound meaning isn’t lost on activists. Ahead of the March For Our Lives in 2018, protesters created a memorial for the children killed by guns in school shootings by placing 7,000 shoes on the lawns outside the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
Fashion is increasingly being used to make political statements, with shoes the latest medium for messaging. Artist Sam Morrison turned President Trump’s tendency to flip-flop on policy changes into an actual pair of flip-flops, with each strap displaying a contradictory tweet by Trump on the same topic, including the electoral college, the credibility of media sources and U.S. involvement in Syria.
Footwear’s evolution from activewear to activism-wear didn’t happen overnight. Just over two years ago, amidst the post-election outrage, Nike took out an ad on Twitter challenging people to go running instead of wasting time on political opinions. Today the same brand made Colin Kaepernick the face of its “Just Do It” 30th anniversary campaign for believing in something “even if it means sacrificing everything.” When an athletic shoe company endorses a professional athlete for taking a political stance, it means business. Similarly, TOMS shoes came hot on the heels of gun violence prevention by pledging $5 million to organizations involved with the cause and wasn’t afraid to alienate customers who thought differently.
Enhancing product performance while pushing progressive agendas is an interesting challenge for companies and organizations to take on.
Athletes in major sports leagues have often been dismissed for expressing their political opinions, a leading example being LeBron James recently told by Laura Ingraham to “shut up and dribble” after criticizing the President in an ESPN interview.
It’s no surprise, then, for civically engaged athletes to redirect their energies in a quiet rebellion, and turn their shoes into canvases for the causes they believe in. In 2016, DeSean Jackson wore cleats wrapped in bright yellow caution tape to protest police brutality. Dwyane Wade from The Miami Heat branded his basketball shoes with the name of Joaquin Oliver, a student and Dwyane Wade superfan killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. The mismatched black-and-white sneakers that LeBron James wore to a 2017 Washington Wizards game — with the Nike swoosh and the word “equality” emblazoned in gold — will now be displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Meghan Markle’s outfit choices also echo this sort of discreet disobedience. She once wore wedges to the beach and took them off, thereby breaking protocol that royals are expected to keep their shoes on at all times. Harmless as it may seem, Markle’s gesture has been read as a sign of retaining individuality in an institution that operates on endlessly archaic rules.
Enhancing product performance while pushing progressive agendas is an interesting challenge for companies and organizations to take on. But with a sizable part of the market still believing that the shoe business should stick to making shoes and others bemoaning the Get Woke Go Broke trend, brands that really want to walk the walk should be looking for ways to build common ground. After all, as Michael Jordan is rumored to have once quipped, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” And if there’s one thing people can rally around, it’s a cool pair of kicks.