Essay on Cultural Symbols
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“Republicans buy sneakers too.” This was a controversial utterance muttered by arguably one of the greatest basketball players of all time, Michael Jordan. Almost everyone wears or has worn sneakers in their lifetime, be it when relaxing in the house, jogging in the city, playing a game of hoops or even when walking to school. The Air Jordans are one of the highest selling sneaker brands produced by the powerhouse apparel retailer company Nike (Ozanian, 2014). While sneakers and shoes in general are traditionally used to protect our feet from damage, Air Jordans have surpassed this function in more ways than one. In popular American culture, Air Jordans, simply known as Jordans, have made their mark in fashion culture, sports, music and as a financial status indicator.
Popularized and named after former NBA player Michael Jordan, the sneakers were originally designed by Nike for Jordan to play basketball in (Sayles, 2020). In 1984, the debut pair, the Jordan I was displayed on the court for the public. The Air Jordan I was a high-top sneaker with black laces and featured red, black and white color ways with the now famous Nike brand logo, The Swoosh, displayed on the side of each shoe. The next year, Nike made the Jordans available to the public market with a string of ads featuring famous celebrities such as Spike Lee. They were originally intended as a sport accessory but have had far-reaching impact in television, music, movies and in pop culture (Choi and Kim, 2014). People of all ages wait in huge lines for countless hours so as not to miss out on the latest release. Michael Jordan’s extraordinary achievements in the basketball court made him a cult hero and an icon especially for black youth in America. Want to Be Like Mike? Wear the sneakers (Choi and Kim, 2014).
In modern day society, Jordans symbolize financial prosperity. When first released in 1985, the Jordan I’s retailed for 65 US dollars. Now they go for almost 200 US dollars. When sneaker culture took off in the late 80’s, sneakers became a rare commodity. Limited releases sell out fast and become hard to own. This drives up the demand and hence the price. Nike was quick to take advantage of this trend and capitalized by doing a limited re-release of the most popular editions. By continuously doing this, Nike has sold more sneakers to new and return customers. Sneaker heads also buy the shoes and keep them as a collector’s item or sell them to the highest bidder for a price much higher than the retail price (Choi and Kim, 2014). The shoes also became popular in rap culture and in the hip hop scene. All the rappers, celebrities and movie stars wear Jordans which has only heightened their popularity and made them a valuable item. As millennials rush to own a pair, the prices keep going rising and the more costly the Air Jordans are, the more coveted they become.
In the fashion world, Jordans have become a prevalent accessory. As previously mentioned, Air Jordans were originally designed for athletic performances on the basketball court. They have since joined items such as diving watches and military fatigues in overcoming their primary functionality and crossing over to the fashion world. Casual wearers have always been appealed by the design of the shoe which features an elegant element. They were often made from tumbled leather and suede with strong elastic rubber soles. Fashion labels all over the world such as Dior and Public School have included the shoes in their luxury catalogues. It is not unusual today to see women include a pair of Air Jordans with their outfits. Tank tops, denim shorts and Jordans for example are an acceptable summer look. Most YouTube vloggers and fashion bloggers will more often than not do a video tutorial on how to incorporate or accessorize Jordans. The success off the Air Jordans has also enabled Jordan to collaborate with apparel brands in the fashion industry. Whilst most fashion trends find their origin on the runway and infiltrate the public domain, the Air Jordan fashion trend was different.
Air Jordans also serve as a significant cultural symbol especially in America. Inner-city kids and other minority communities from all over the world envisioned themselves as Michael Jordan, a man whose iconic statues made every little kid want to be like him and adults admire him. During that time, rap music and black cinema was exploding and challenging the pre-conceived notions about African-American culture and demanded that everyone be more in touch with African-American culture. Shoe designers were no exception. This led to the perception of sneakers as a tool for cultural expression and not just a sporting accessory. The sneaker head culture driven by economic success and a freedom of expression has also raised issues concerning race. Since its success, sneaker culture has been associated with violence and even death after fights have broken out over sneakers. This is not a frequent occurrence but has been sensationalized by the media, who are known to portray African-American culture in a particular way. This may be explained by a lack of minority representation in media organizations and newsrooms, which only propagates the negative stereotypes linked with sneaker culture. Despite that, the Air Jordans still symbolize the inventive methods in which black cultural perceptions of chic, hip and cool have shape the broader American cultural scene.
So how does a shoe make its way into a political discussion? Michael Jordan when asked whether he would support an African American democrat running against a notorious Republican replied by saying that Republicans buy shoes too (Bontemps, 2020). This was taken by many, including former US president Barrack Obama, as a disappointing lack of stand on social issues especially for a prominent figure in the African-American community. Michael Jordan considered himself a basketball player not a politician or activist. This did not stop his comment about shoes being taken controversially and led to him being ostracized. The Air Jordans have and continue to make their mark not only as proper shoes but as a fashion statement, a cultural expression and a socio-economic indicator.
Certain objects are a symbol of the culture of certain people and the Air Jordans is a symbol of the greater American culture. Such symbols have changed the meaning of what it means to own a pair of sneakers and what the shoe says about you and your background. Air Jordans say much more than just a pair of shoes. For Americans, it is the symbol of affluence, style, sport affiliation and so much more.
Bontemps, T. (2020, May 4). Michael Jordan stands firm on ‘Republicans buy sneakers, too’ quote, says it was made in jest. Retrieved July 29, 2020, from ESPN: https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/29130478/michael-jordan-stands-firm-republicans-buy-sneakers-too-quote-says-was-made-jest
Jin Woo Choi, a. M. (2014). Do the Sneakerheads Just Want To Be Like Mike? International Textile and Apparel Association, Inc. (pp. 17-18). Charlotte, North Carolina: International Textile and Apparel Association, Inc.
Ozanian, M. (2014, July 10). The Forbes Fab 40: The World’s Most Valuable Sports Brands 2014. Retrieved July 29, 2020, from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikeozanian/2014/10/07/the-forbes-fab-40-the-worlds-most-valuable-sports-brands-2014/#6dead49f3885
Sayles, J. (2020, May 4). The Once and Future Sneaker King. Retrieved July 29, 2020, from The Ringer: https://www.theringer.com/nba/2020/5/4/21246027/air-jordan-1-nike-michael-jordan-sneaker-king-legacy-the-last-dance