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The Humble History of the Sneaker

You’ve probably owned at least a dozen pairs over the course of your life, but it’s hardly been a hundred years since they’ve been around. Sneakers, trainers, tennis shoes, plimsolls – whatever you call them, athletic shoes have made their mark on the way we live and dress since their invention in the early twentieth century. Today we’re looking back on the origins and transformation of this iconic footwear to see how it got to where it is in the present day.

Charles Goodyear made shoes with rubber soles possible in 1839 when he invented the process for vulcanization, which allowed rubber to be molded to a variety of other materials, like fabric. The application of the substance for shoe soles, however, wasn’t until the mid-1870s when someone had the good idea to make rubber shoes for croquet (stepping on a ceramic ball with a leather sole was apparently not fun).

Winslow Homer's

Winslow Homer’s “Croquet Players”

Slowly but surely, the popularity of these rubber-soled shoes encroached into other realms of athletic footwear in the UK. They called them everything from “daps” to “sandshoes” to “gutties”, but the label that stuck was “plimsoll—an adapted nautical term for the point at which the deck on a ship began to take on water.

The upper edge of the rubber sole on plimsoll shoes often had a similar line and if water went over the rubber and onto the canvas, the wearer probably would get wet too.

Note the green

Note the green “plimsoll line” on this pair of Tretorns

The first plimsoll produced in the States came from the conglomeration of American rubber companies, U.S. Rubber, in 1916. They branded their product Keds as a simple trainer, available to do all the strenuous activity a leather sole just couldn’t.

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The athletic shoe hit its first iconic stride in 1917, when Massachusetts shoemaker Converse debuted their All Star basketball shoe. Unlike prior shoes, the All Star was the world’s first high-top, extending the canvas all the way around the ankle of the wearer to provide the same support as a boot but with the grip and light weight needed to compete.

1920s basketball star Chuck Taylor offered some design changes to Converse and officially endorsed the shoe in 1923. The design has remained largely unchanged for the last 90 years.

Chuck Taylor on the court in a pair of his eponymous shoes.

Chuck Taylor on the court in a pair of his eponymous shoes.

As the All Star began to take hold in the United States, in Germany Adi Dassler founded Adidas (an amalgam of his first and last name) in 1924. Adidas focused primarily on running and soccer shoes and soon became the most popular athletic brand in the world. Jesse Owens even wore Adidas to win his four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Jesse Owens and the shoes that won him four golds in Berlin.

Jesse Owens and the shoes that won him four golds in Berlin.

But as popular as they were on the field, athletic shoes were rarely seen on the street. In the early 1950s, however, the emerging counterculture embraced the anti-formality of sneakers in the same way they did denim. Sneakers served all of their ends: they were cheap, they didn’t require maintenance and they served as an affront to normal society. Marlon Brando and James Dean incorporated sneakers’ outsider identity into their on-screen personas.

James Dean wearing Converse's tennis shoe, the Jack Purcell

James Dean wearing PF Flyers’s shoe, the Jack Purcell

Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire

Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire

And as public school dress codes relaxed in the late 1950s, many parents dressed their kids in Keds and Converse for the same practical reasons as the counterculture. The majority of the Baby Boomer generation grew up under the impression that athletic shoes were acceptable casual wear.

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By the early 1970s this generation had grown up and they brought their sneakers with them into adulthood. Dozens of new brands had matured alongside them and established themselves as staples within American casualwear: Nike, Vans, Reebok, Puma (founded the brother of Adidas creator Adi Dassler), Onitsuka Tiger, Saucony, and K-Swiss all emerged around this time.

Mandy Patankin wearing Adidas Stan Smith's

Mandy Patankin wearing Adidas Stan Smith’s

Before this point, the athletic shoe had a single category. They all pretty much looked the same and could be multi-purposed for practically any sport. But as the jogging fad took hold in the mid 70s, brands capitalized on the idea that you needed specialized shoes for every sporting occasion.

Running shoes, tennis shoes, wrestling shoes, and basketball shoes—among dozens of other varieties of footwear—carved out their own space in the athletic shoe world. This was also the first time that shoe technology integrated with physiological science to provide the most ergonomic designs to the wearer.

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But what cemented sneaker’s status as a full-blown cultural icon came in 1984 when Nike introduced a line of basketball shoes in collaboration with a rookie shooting guard on the Chicago Bulls, the Air Jordan I. The original Jordan’s black and red colorway was against NBA regulation, and every time Michael Jordan stepped onto the court wearing them he was fined five thousand dollars.

Michael Jordan wearing Jordans in 1984

Michael Jordan wearing the Air Jordan I in 1984

The controversy (and that Jordan’s game could back it up) made the shoes an international sensation and helped establish the sneakerhead culture as a whole. The Air Jordan line has spawned over two-dozen mainline models along with numerous collaborations and special makeups and practically every Jordan release guarantees lines around the block at every Foot Locker and Finish Line.

Thus the sneaker transcended the bounds of pure practicality and became an object of fashion in and of itself. Like jeans, athletic shoes have transformed from specific purpose apparel to outsider wear to finally the default clothing option worldwide in just a hundred short years. Who knows what we’ll be wearing in a hundred more.