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Do you have the guts to wear sneakers with a dress?

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 5/16/2022 Beth Teitell
Serena Williams showed off her dress and Nike x Off-White sneakers at the Met Costume Institute gala in New York in May 2019. © KARSTEN MORAN Serena Williams showed off her dress and Nike x Off-White sneakers at the Met Costume Institute gala in New York in May 2019.

It’s one thing to know — on an intellectual level — that sales of shoe shoes are falling and athletic footwear is on the upswing, or to hear a fashion analyst from the NPD Group declare that “sneakers are the new dress shoes.” But it’s a whole different story to find yourself shopping for a chic event and to realize that the only options you’re considering have rubber bottoms.

“They would look so cute with your dress!” a friend said when I texted her a picture of camel suede Tretorns.

Sneakers. Cute with a dress. On an adult.

What is going on?

Perhaps our fashion overlords have been humbled by the pandemic-accelerated comfort trend. Or they’re looking for another way to squeeze money out of us in yet another category. Or they’re aging like the rest of the population, and heard the cry of the bunion.

Whatever it is, the industry seems to have let down its guard and anointed footwear that is, dare we say it without jinxing things . . . not punishing.

You can get married in Allbirds, moderate a real estate panel in New Balance, bar hop in high tops. And not just if you’re Ellen or Bob Kraft.

Nicole Higgins, a massage therapist from Medford, showed up at the Opera House in sparkly Converse All Stars

“Which I never would have done before,” she said. “I’ve always felt we should have places where we should dress up. But I decided I looked cute.”

Kerry O’Brien, founder of BeingFit Financial, wore Chuck Taylors to a business breakfast in downtown Boston. “I felt like an imposter in heels,” she said. “I just couldn’t do it.”

Babu Krishnamurthy, a neurologist with Steward Medical Group, went to work in electric blue Giessweins.

“I was trained to believe that how you are dressed affects how people think about you,” she said. “But what I’m learning from people in their 20s is that clothes can mask a lot of unprofessional behavior and attitudes.”


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The trend has been building for a while. “It’s been five years since Balenciaga first showed the clunky Triple S [sneaker] that motivated many high-fashion brands to launch their own signature styles,” Vogue reported recently.

Many sneakers cost more than dress shoes — and sit right next to stilettos in the footwear sections of high-end department stores.

But it’s still early enough in the sneaker game — especially for non-fashion-forward people — that each decision to wear sneakers in a (formerly) shoe situation still feels kind of illicit.

Like smoking a joint right after pot was legalized.

Consider the story of Erica Kotin, of Natick. Leaving a recent bar mitzvah — where all the girls were, of course, rocking sneakers, while she suffered in heels — she simultaneously vowed to wear sneakers to her own son’s bar mitzvah and worried about her mother’s opinion.

“I’m afraid she will be appalled,” she said.

But reached by phone, Erica’s mother, Nancy Rashap, said proudly that she would not be appalled. “I’m fine with it,” she responded.

Then she lowered her voice. “Did she say whether she is planning on wearing them to her brother’s wedding, too?’’

Footwear expert Beth Goldstein, an executive director and industry analyst at the NPD Group, said the “blurring” of the fashion and athletic spaces has made sneakers acceptable at work and social situations.

In 2021, sales in the “sport lifestyle” category were 17 percent above what they had been pre-pandemic, in 2019, according to NPD. The fashion category, which includes dress and casual shoes, sandals, and boots, declined 10 percent over the same period.

Note to readers: Don’t make the mistake of thinking you are no longer being judged by your footwear! You are, it’s just that the metrics have changed.

The status that was conveyed by designer stilettos some 20 years ago (thanks in part to “Sex and the City”) now comes from having sneakers with the desired vibe, said Elizabeth Semmelhack, director of the Bata Shoe Museum, in Toronto, and the curator of the 2013 exhibition “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture.”

“Sneakers can also be used to signal interest in, or alignment with, a wide range of cultural issues,” she told the Globe.

The European brand VEJA, recognizable by an oversized and partially cut off “V” logo, might be used, Semmelhack said, to suggest that the owner cares about sustainability and economic justice, or at least wants to project that image.

Or you could demonstrate your insider status by going for a very limited release, or convey authenticity by wearing Chuck Taylors, a la Vice President Kamala Harris on the campaign trail, said Semmelhack, who is poised to open a new show in late May that explores futuristic sneaker designs.

Of course, no fashion trend comes without some pain, but now it’s mental, not physical.

In Newton, a doctor who had been planning to wear a lacy black sheath and platform sandals was thrown into sartorial panic when the formal invite to the event arrived.

“Come dressed to party,” it read ominously, “but leave your heels at home.”

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