“America at this moment stands at the summit of the world.” –Winston Churchill, 1945.
The second part of the history of the athletic shoe can actually be branded, “The Rise of American Culture”, as global military, economic and consumption patterns shifted their concentration to the United States. Post-war 1950s US can be characterized as a time of economic prosperity, first driven by demographic change in the form of the Baby Boomers. The Baby Boom that lasted from 1946 to 1964 produced an estimated 77 million (40% of the population by 1964) new individuals that heavily influenced consumption patterns and pop culture in the post-war period.
“Many people in the postwar era looked forward to having children because they were confident that the future would be one of comfort and prosperity. In many ways, they were right: Corporations grew larger and more profitable, labor unions promised generous wages and benefits to their members, and consumer goods were more plentiful and affordable than ever before. As a result, many Americans felt certain that they could give their families all the material things that they themselves had done without.—History.com
An increase in the number of children in the 1950s was heavily correlated with the suburban migration. With the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, more colloquially known as the G.I. Bill, returning World War II servicemen were provided a range of benefits from tuition expenses to unemployment compensation. The most important provision to aid in the telling of this story, however, was that which provided low-interest, zero-down home loans, with more favourable terms afforded to new home constructions. This was the main economic driver for the migration from urban apartments to suburban homes and their demand thereof; the suburbs offered more land, newer, more technologically current homes and heralded in the interior design concepts of open floor plans, family rooms and backyards.
The demand for housing in the suburbs was underwritten by another pivotal government policy: the Federal Aid Highway Acts of 1952 &1956. President Eisenhower, after being heavily influenced by Germany’s Autobahn system, introduced the Interstate System where 47,856 miles (77,017 km, as of 2013) of roads and highways were built to connect interstate transportation. Eisenhower saw this system as integral to providing key ground transportation routes in order to move troop deployments and military supplies as a part of a modern national defense system. One thing is true: once an army man, always an army man.
What was most profound about the 1950s is the economic crowning of the United States as a global superpower. The Marshall Plan, or the European Recovery Program of 1948, was an American policy that provided economic aid to war-torn Europe in order to help them to rebuild their economies after World War II and as a secondary motive, to antagonize the Soviet Union.
“The goals of the United States were to rebuild war-devastated regions, remove trade barriers, modernize industry, make Europe prosperous again, and prevent the spread of communism. The Marshall Plan required a lessening of interstate barriers, a dropping of many regulations, and encouraged an increase in productivity, labour union membership, as well as the adoption of modern business procedures.–Wikipedia
Under this Plan, which ran from 1948 to 1952, the American government provided $13 billion dollars in economic aid to Western European countries. It is greatly responsible for the economic prosperity of the 1950s:
“The only major power whose infrastructure had not been significantly harmed was the United States. It had entered the war later than most European countries, and had only suffered limited damage to its own territory. American gold reserves were still intact as was its massive agricultural and manufacturing base, the country enjoying a robust economy. The war years had seen the fastest period of economic growth in the nation’s history, as American factories supported both its own war effort and that of its allies. After the war, these plants quickly retooled to produce consumer goods, and the scarcity of the war years was replaced by a boom in consumer spending. The long-term health of the economy was dependent on trade, however, as continued prosperity would require markets to export these goods. Marshall Plan aid would largely be used by the Europeans to buy manufactured goods and raw materials from the United States.—McGill University
In fact, the Marshall Plan served to open up the European market to tariff-free American goods through trade liberalization. With this increased industrial production and the galvanization and earlier gains of the labour movement (the American Labour Movement recorded its highest participation rate at this time), American life became economically and socially stable. The average American worker worked less than 40 hrs per week, 2 weeks of vacation and had its highest level of disposable income in American history, thereby ushering in the rise of the notable middle class. Due to the aforementioned stability and mass economic and societal trends, a sense of uniformity blanketed the country; although gender roles had been upended during the War Years, they quickly settled into tradition afterwards. To reinforce these cultural norms, enter the greatest unifier of popular culture: the television.
The 1950s, and the advent of television, in particular, introduced our concept of pop culture: the end of the decade saw an increase of TV owners from 3 million to 55 million at the decade’s close. The purpose of television in this era was to be a cultural unifier, hence reinforcing the traditional gender stereotypes with television shows such as Ossie and Harriet:
“But even to its mildest critics, much of what was on the often-aptly nicknamed “boob tube” was mindless junk. It was designed to sell products, it homogenized cultural tastes to the point of blandness, and it created feelings of inadequacy in some, who felt their real lives should compare with the insipidly happy characters they saw on shows like Leave It to Beaver.—For Dummies
Baby Boomer kiddies now live in the suburbs with their parents, a dog and a backyard, they are well-behaved (behavioural conduct was routinely reinforced by television), well-versed in their roles and bored.as.fuck. Cue in the teenaged angst. Let me give you an example of the blandness that would make Xanax jealous:
That was Ricky Nelson, star of the then hit-show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, a 50s teen idol. His style, music and family ties (his real parents were actually Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, patriarch and matriarch of the show, respectively) embodied the 1950s values of conformity and propriety—the boy next door that you can take home to the parents. Enter: the advent of counter-culture.
So now that I have spent three pages in Microsoft Word, using Arial 10-pt font, laying out an excruciatingly—but hopefully informative and interesting—vivid picture of the 1950s post-World War II society, when do we get to the fashion? Next time.
You have to know the rules to break the rules