From Phoebe Philo To The Spice Girls: How Sneakers Became Feminism’s Footwear Of Choice

It’s hard to deny the chokehold that sneakers have had on women’s evolving personal style over the past decade. More than any other shoe, it’s only the humble sneaker that has seen such a meteoric rise in popularity of late — and from the moment Phoebe Philo stepped out onto the Celine runway in that iconic pair of white Stan Smiths back in 2011, comfy kicks have been a mainstay in our day-to-day style. 
But Philo’s fated moment isn’t the only time women’s sneakers have ignited a revolution — style or otherwise. In fact, women’s sneakers have often been at the forefront of feminist debate and female empowerment in a way that no other shoe has ever been. Whether it was the Spice Girls high-kicking in the ubiquitous ‘90s platform sneaker, while teaching us what ‘Girl Power’ really meant, or Melanie Griffith pairing high tops with her power suit in Working Girl as she climbs the corporate ladder; they’ve given rise to more historic feminist moments and more ongoing, heated political debate, than can be expected from any other pair of footwear.
Here’s the story of the women’s sneaker – and why, even today, it’s still breaking down powerful patriarchal barriers.

The Intertwined History Of Feminism & Sneakers

Though some of the earliest Western feminist ideals bubbled throughout literary culture in the 1800s via authors like Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, first-wave feminism really emerged in the early 1900s, culminating in Western women’s right to vote in the early 1900s (Australia) through to 1920 (USA). During the First World War, women began to enter the labour market in droves as men were shipped out to the battlefield. 
Keds was one of the first companies to manufacture sneakers for recreation, using rubber soles and canvas uppers, along with its rectangular Keds logo. The brand was also one of the only companies for many decades that was marketing to girls and women, with a 1928 advertisement in Everygirl’s Magazine touting the benefits of climbing and speed. And although thanks to Keds, women in tennis in the ‘20s were wearing an early form of rubber-soled sneakers, outside of that arena, women were still mostly stuck in their stiff, leather, heeled shoes. In fact, it took almost another 30 years to popularise the style outside of women’s sports. 
As women began to realise their value in the industrial job market, their focus shifted from righting legal inequality (first-wave feminism) to upending traditional gender roles (second-wave feminism). It’s no surprise then, as women entered male-dominated arenas more than ever before, what closely followed was the popularisation and widespread acceptance of women’s sneakers. 
Women’s sneakers began to infiltrate pop culture — in particular, through Hollywood’s most popular leading ladies. Marilyn Monroe donned a pair of Keds Champions in her 1952 film Clash By Night, a style that later featured on Audrey Hepburn in Two For The Road (1967), and of course, Jennifer Grey as Baby in Dirty Dancing (1987). 
These three films, in particular, whether through fate or chance, have their own place in the story of female empowerment and shifting gender-power structures. Hepburn donned her Keds sneakers in a then-controversial story about a crumbling marriage, while Grey’s Baby navigated her own journey through female independence, as a teen breaking away from her father’s influence and discovering her sexuality, practising her ‘dirty’ dance moves in *that* pair of white sneakers. Monroe, on the other hand, waded through a nude calendar scandal as she worked on Clash, and was later credited (perhaps ironically, in retrospect) with the famous quote, “give a girl the right shoes, and she can conquer the world.”
It was certainly a philosophy that women embroiled in the forthcoming 1980 transport labour strikes took to heart. With no public transport options, and now forced to walk to work, women donned their power suits and paired them with comfortable sneakers, inspiring the first pair of sneakers designed and marketed solely for women: the Reebok Freestyle. As a new era of businesswomen took to the streets in their suits and sneakers, their groundbreaking style became emblematic of the labour strikes, and inspired the now-iconic images of Melanie Griffith commuting to work in her high tops in 1988’s Working Girl.
Later, the ‘90s platform and wedge sneaker styles were popularised by bands such as the Spice Girls, and ushered in a new era of brash, in-your-face girl power. Many argued that this airbrushed, top-of-the-pops brand of consumerist feminism was ‘feminism lite’, declaring that it was a backstep. Of course, at the same time, third-wave feminism was emerging, focusing on sex positivity, intersectionality and abolishing feminised stereotypes. However one might argue, particularly in light of today’s so-called fourth wave, that the Spice Girls’ sex-positive stance and embracing of unashamed ultra-feminine feminism, was hardly a misstep.
Meanwhile, in hip-hop, sneaker culture flourished. However, if one was to Google iconic sneaker collaborations in the music genre, one might think there were absolutely none attributed to women. On at least six websites that detailed famous collaborations and relationships between hip-hop icons and sneaker brands, I couldn’t find a single reference to a woman. But who could forget Missy Elliot’s now-iconic and ongoing collaboration with Adidas in the ‘00s? It seems sneakerheads have short (and biased) memories.
Over in the sports arena, women had been waiting a long time for the recognition they deserved — after all, Michael Jordan’s first contract with Nike was signed in 1984. Twelve long years later, our patience was rewarded, as basketball legend Sheryl Swoops became the first woman in sports history to have her name attached to a sneaker. 1996 brought us the Nike Air Swoopes, helping to break down outdated gender barriers in sport and sneaker marketing that persist even today.
As culture website Andscape points out, “in 2021, two-time Finals MVP Breanna Stewart signed a multi-year endorsement deal with Puma after being with Nike for the first five years of her career. The new partnership made Stewart just the 10th signature athlete in league history. By comparison, there are currently more than 22 [male] players in the NBA right now with their own shoes.”

Shoes & Women’s Politics

If you thought sneakers weren’t controversial anymore, just look at the uproar that changing the green M&M's shoes from heeled boots to sneakers caused. And although we’re all staring down a looming recession, the rise in financial inequity and a climate crisis, apparently a fictional candy character wearing sneakers is our most concerning blight on modern societal values.
I joke, but the fact is that high heels are still a patriarchal symbol of power. It was only a few years ago now that Cannes whirled themselves into a PR shitstorm by turning women in flats away from the red carpet, while male attendees had been wearing flat shoes to premieres for the award’s entire history. 
It is, of course, important to note that it is not merely our shoes that restrict us. As this excellent Guardian article about the history of heels states, “What confines, impoverishes, exploits, enslaves, oppresses, sickens, bloodies, rapes and kills women are not generally clothes or shoes, but rather laws and societal norms… The mobility of women is and has been restricted physically through fashion, but most of all it has been restricted legally, financially, professionally, medically, intellectually, sexually, and politically. That is to say, systemically.”
And though that is entirely true — aren’t the physical binds of women’s clothes just as important as the historical, socio-political binds we must endure? How can we convince men that we’re ready to fight for equal pay when we can barely totter into the boardroom?
But if we’re going to talk about the historic socio-political impact of gendered clothing, we also must talk about sneakers within the context of the feminine diaspora. Significantly, the Middle East is also seeing a rise in sneakers on women — particularly within the burgeoning modest fashion movement on social media. Modest style is radically evolving from traditionally feminine outfits to a more street-savvy, degendered fashion identity (complete with the latest sneakers, of course). 
In a recent interview with Arab News online, modest blogger Su’aad Hassan says on the rise of sneakers in modest fashion: “I think modest fashion and sneaker culture go hand in hand, because, as a whole, modest fashion is a push against the societal standard.  
“Whether observing the hijab or not, dressing modestly in the Middle East, especially over the last few years, isn't the cultural norm everyone thinks it is,” she says. “Being able to dress as you wish and to express yourself at your most authentic  — choosing yourself and your comfort over anyone’s expectations of you — requires a level of comfort with your identity, and this ties into general comfort in clothing and appearance. Sneakers make this so easy.” 
There’s no denying that there’s been an increase in representation for women within the sneaker market all over the world. Whether it be the omnipresent white sneaker taking over our feeds a few years back, to today’s chunky sneaker iterations paired with loose, comfortable tailoring, women are more comfortable than ever donning a pair of sneakers with their outfits. So then, where are all the sneakers designed specifically for women?

So Why, Still, Doesn’t The Sneaker Industry Gear Its Products Towards Women?

There aren’t great stats to show the growth of women-specific sneaker market, with many sources missing information on the gender split in the market, but StockX states that between 2016 and 2020, the women’s sneaker market more than doubled, while the global sale of women’s luxury sneakers grew 1,500%. Future Market Insights predicts that trend to continue, with the women’s general sneaker market increasing by a further 90% over the next decade, from US$27 million to US$51.7 billion.
However, even the lack of representation of women as a separate market within statistical analysis of the industry is telling of the persistent bias that exists still to this day. As Rodney “Merritt” Miller Jr points out in his wide-ranging paper, If the Shoe Fits: A Historical Exploration of Gender Bias in the U.S. Sneaker Industry, “bias and discrimination in the United States sneaker industry is the result of bias in the proprietary social factors that are responsible for the growth of the sneaker industry”. That is, male domination in sneaker marketing follows patriarchal domination in the larger culture — one follows the other. 
As a result, sneakers have always been geared towards men’s needs. That value proposition has unfortunately stuck. As a result, the particularly sought-after sneaker drops tend to start from a size US8, which often means it's women who miss out on the more popular styles. And when a women’s drop is released, often it’s accompanied by “patronising gender signifiers, such as classically feminine colours or having a platform.”
In the past few years, we have seen the release of the Nike Air Max Dia, one of the first sneakers designed by women, for women. Though many feminists would argue that tailoring sneakers towards women, rather than extending sizing for men’s shoes, is a step backwards in representation, the Dia has been so popular, that even men are breathlessly declaring it a classic, lamenting their larger feet. What a 180.
Despite the argument that the creation of a woman-specific shoe is actually a step backwards, breaking down gender barriers within the sneaker industry can only result in progress. While chatting with Danielle Soglimbene, Head of Sneakerhub for The Iconic, about the future of women’s sneakers within the larger industry, she points out that despite the growth in demand, representation behind the scenes has lagged behind.
“While demand for sneakers grew dramatically over the past few decades, catering to women in this space has been a slower process,” Soglimbene tells Refinery29 Australia. “It was only during the 1990s that sneaker design was becoming a viable career path for women, and now we are seeing more representation with sneaker collaborations and women-owned sneaker shops, with the likes of Sally Aguirre of Sallys Shoes.”
“Today, women's sneakers are one of the biggest trends we see [at The Iconic]… Females are being represented and respected within this industry more than ever before, and we’re only going to continue to see growth here.”
“It’s also really cool to see that a very influential community of women are behind these brands now, and embrace diversity in so many ways, such as gender-neutral styling.”
As a result of the de-gender-fication of the larger fashion industry in recent years, women have increasingly flocked towards options that represent a complete overhaul of the lexicon of women’s style. Though, arguably, the rise in de-gendered fashion is an excellent way to break down sexist stereotypes and gender barriers in fashion, it’s not the only way. Representation matters; and a high-selling shoe made for women, by women goes well towards proving the case for more women-focused products on the market that deliver inclusive options, rather than excluding them.
In fact, the rise of sneakers within legitimate and elite fashion circles alike has spoken to a quiet feminist revolution: one that values comfort over upholding societal expectations and patriarchal standards. No longer is the commuter sneaker relegated to the tote upon arriving at work — now, the women’s sneaker is a solid style choice, and one that’s gaining increasing steam.
So why wait for the corporations to catch up? Now all that’s left to do is push our way in. As they say, money talks.
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