I have recently discovered the TV show, “Murder in the First” starring Taye Diggs (all of a sudden the ladies got interested in this menswear post. I see you.) Given that I am wary of these types of police procedurals ever since I watched, “The Killing” (sometimes that show was worse than watching paint dry. Or baseball), “Murder in the First” has me hooked. The first season of the show deconstructs the case of two deaths that are both connected to a tech billionaire, Erich Blunt (you know something is off when someone spells “Erich” with a “ch”. I mean, how pretentious can you be?) There is a scene in the second episode? where Blunt is testing a new virtual reality device and as a fashion stylist, naturally I took note of how he was dressed. All of a sudden it hit me: he’s wearing sneakers. Why is this remarkable? Think about it: this is a self-made tech billionaire, one who has the world on a string, the American dream of rising from the bottom to attain wealth and status. What do the show’s costume designers use to demonstrate wealth and status? An exemplarily tailored trench coat with a crewneck sweater (probably cashmere) and sneakers. That’s when I knew that sneakers had now crossed its working class origins into sartorial symbols of wealth, status, social elevation and, of course, coolness. Thank you, Michael Jordan.
Sneakers/Runners/Tennis shoes/Trainers are the daughters of the Industrial Revolution on both sides of the pond. The first iteration of the modern athletic shoe appeared in 19th century Britain and was nicknamed the plimsoll, originally known as the “sand shoe”, which acquired its name from the coloured horizontal band that joined the upper to the sole, thereby resembling the Plimsoll line on a ship’s hull. The Plimsoll line shows the maximum loading point of the ship; if the horizontal line above the water, the weight of the ship’s is safe, if not, the ship could sink. Similarly, if water reached above the horizontal line of a Plimsoll shoe, it was an indication of impending wet feet. The canvas upper, a characteristic of the shoe, was particularly useful if you vacationed at the English seaside and needed a shoe to trudge through both water and sand, hence the name “sand shoe”.
Until the 1870s, vacations—the context within which the plimsoll was used—were the privilege of the wealthy who spent much of their time seaside. These early sand shoes were made from a canvas upper and soles made from leather, jute or rope, which made them flimsy and non-durable; these shoes did not gain widespread consumption because the wealthy were the only ones who could afford to replace them with the frequency they required.
In 1871, with the passage of the Bank Holiday Act by the British Parliament, paid holidays were introduced. Given that since the early 19th century everyone had Sunday off, by 1890s an additional half-day on Saturday was added to leisure time and the weekend was born. The introduction of these new working-class vacationers changed the shoe game irrevocably. By then, the Liverpool Rubber Company had been making rubberized soles since the 1830s for beachgoers. Over the late nineteenth and twentieth century, a more durable shoe was adopted in schools for physical education classes, by the British Army and on boats (yachting shoes or boat shoes were first plimsolls, given that the rubber soles would prevent slipping on the deck and the canvas top does not change shape when wet).
Although plimsolls wore better than their cousin, the sand shoe, and kept the feet cool in the summer as well as drying quickly, they were not ready for primetime (they had no left or right foot) until across the pond in America, Charles Goodyear (yes, THAT Goodyear) patented the process of vulcanization in 1853. Vulcanizing rubber added sulfur to rubber at high temperatures and when cooled, formed a much more robust, durable rubber. This is when the plimsolls really took off.
By the end of the 1800s, America was in the swing of Industrialization, as the shift from a primarily agrarian economy to one powered by manufacturing, took hold. In 1870, Congress passed the first federal holiday law, which created four national holidays, New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Christmas Day and Thanksgiving. A similar leisure consumption pattern occurred in the United States, as it had in Britain: the move from farm allowed for more leisure time in the cities, as urbanization dominated the migration patterns of much of the population.
The new manufacturing economy also allowed for the speedy mass production of items that before would’ve taken skilled craftsmen much longer to make. Shoes were no exception, and Charles Goodyear’s son, Charles Goodyear Jr., saw an opportunity to bring his father’s invention into the world of footwear. Goodyear took advantage of recent inventions such as Elais Howe’s Sewing machine and Thomas Blanchard’s gunstock lathe and incorporated them into the production of a new kind of shoe. Using Blanchard’s lathe to shape the rubber soles to exact specifications allowed Goodyear to improve upon the “straight last” shoes of the past and create shoes specifically for the right and left feet. After Goodyear’s first few attempts at shoe making failed, he joined his company with several of his competitors to create the US Rubber Company in 1892. From 1892 until 1916, the US Rubber Company created over 30 different kinds of rubber-soled shoes, none of which became successful. Reflecting on their past success in joining their companies, the US Rubber Company halted production of all footwear and went back to the drawing board. Under a unified front one year later, the company released the Keds, the world’s first sneakers. The word “sneakers” was coined shortly after their release by advertising agent Henry Nelson McKinney, since they made it easy to sneak up on someone without the loud footsteps of the more common wood and leather shoes. —–University of Mary Washington’s History of American Technology
Who knew that Keds was the world’s first modern sneaker brand? Ain’t that something. Unfortunately, I would never buy Keds unless their upped their design game. I used to be on my Keds steez as a child, which has become a right of passage with athletic shoes for generations of children. The 1950s saw a resurgence of Keds as shown by a photo featuring James Dean rocking his kicks.
Marrying the manufacturing process with a technological change shifted individual production to mass production and the cheapness of the sneaker was born, making it one the most socio-economically versatile shoes in history.
In 1917, while Charles Goodyear Jr was experimenting with rubber-soled shoes, Marquis M. Converse of the Converse Rubber Shoe Company created what has come to define the design and look of the classic athletic shoe: the Converse All-Star. With little success in the mass market, Mr Converse decided to take advantage of another emerging trend: athletics. The Industrial Revolution of the previous century had made work more standardized and work schedules more universal. By the time WWI rolled around, the eight-hour work day had been extended to a majority of the workforce. The introduction of the weekend meant that for the first time a large proportion of the population possessed increased standardized leisure time. This allowed for the observance of competitive activities, thereby culminating in the rise in athletic spectatorship.
In 1921, Converse, seeing the change in leisure consumption patterns, decided to capitalize on them by introducing his Converse All-Stars to the feet of a Chuck Taylor, the best and most well-known high school basketball player at the time. This partnership was so successful that the Converse All-Stars became known as Chuck Taylors, or Chucks, in shortened form. These are the best selling shoes of all time, with over 800 million pairs sold since 1917.
Back in Europe, two young brothers, Rudolf “Rudi” Dassler and Adolf “Adi” Dassler, began to manufacture their own sports shoes in their mother’s laundry room and in 1924 formed the Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory. In 1936, the brothers travelled to the Olympic village meet a one Jesse Owens, the top sprinter in the world at the time, and convinced Owens to wear their shoes, the first sponsorship deal for an African-American. Owens won four gold medals and Adidas took off like Owens after a starter’s pistol. In that year, Owens won the 100M, 200M, the long jump and the 4X100M relay.
The performances of Jesse Owens in the Olympic trials in the US had not escaped Adi Dassler’s keen attention as he scoured the newspapers in the weeks leading up to Berlin and he targeted Owens as a potential star of the Games. He asked Waitzer to get some shoes to Owens, but according to Franz Martz, the coach was reluctant: “He told Adi he couldn’t do that, there would be hell to pay if the Nazis found out,” says Martz. “Waitzer was the one most in danger, but he got two or three pairs to Owens to try out. By the third pair, Owens was so convinced by them he said he wanted those shoes or none at all.” —–Adidas Group
The brothers split in 1947, with Rudi forming Puma and Adi remaining with Adidas.
You have to know the rules to break the rules