Although a nineteenth century American lexicographer described sneakers as "shoes with canvas tops and rubber soles," the vernacular meaning has come to include any shoe with natural or synthetic rubber soles. Uppers can be of leather, nylon, canvas, plastic, or combinations of these. Alternative names for sneakers include tennis shoes, gym shoes, plimsolls, felony shoes, cross trainers, boat shoes, and running shoes. The most popular type of shoe, sneakers accounted for just over a third of all shoes sold in 1996 according to Sporting Goods Marketing Association.
Modern sneakers have beginnings in various sports shoes. One ancestor is the expensive British upper-class footwear of the late 1800s, used for lawn tennis, cricket, croquet, and at the beach. Worn by both sexes, these canvas or leather lace-up oxfords—or high tops—had rubber soles. By the end of the nineteenth century they were priced for the average consumer. Field and track shoes are also forerunners in the industry. At the turn of the twentieth century, football and baseball players wore essentially the same shoe: leather high-topped lace-ups with leather soles and cleats. Sears sold leather shoes made specifically for runners as early as 1897.
From 1900 through the 1920s not much changed, but in the 1930s through the 1960s technical improvements that ultimately made sneakers trendy were implemented. The quintessential sneak-er—the Converse All Star—premiered in 1917. In 1922, Montgomery Ward offered high and low top sneakers—for "work, play or everyday wear"—for children and adults. Paul Sperry introduced his wavy sole for boating shoes in 1935 and other shoemakers produced non-skid soles in patterns including diamonds, feathers, and chain-links. Keds offered a variety of colored uppers, and sponge rubber, plastic foam, cushioned heels, and soles adding comfort were later introduced. In addition, it was in the 1940s and 1950s that Dassler Brothers (later split into Puma and Adidas), Converse, Spalding, and other companies were gaining reputations as sports shoemakers. Also during this time, sneakers, coupled with blue jeans, became symbols of youth. Adidas eventually made shoes with nylon uppers and velcro began to be used as a fastener in the 1960s. The 1970s pushed sneakers into the spotlight with the optimum shoe pursued by both consumers and manufacturers. Geoffery Beene, Calvin Klein, and other designers transformed sneakers into fashion.
When jogging became a popular pastime Runner's World printed surveys comparing the qualities of shoes. The running fad of the late 1970s propelled shoe manufacturers such as Saucony, Brooks, and Etonic to develop anti-pronation devices on their shoes so athletes would land flatfooted. Flared and elevated heels, in addition to soft molded and cantilevered soles, were some of the improvements designers offered. One of a number of athletes turned sneaker designers, Bill Bowerman, a University of Oregon coach, created the waffle sole for added traction. With their popularity well established, by 1978 sneakers amounted to 50 percent of all shoes sold.
By the 1980s many shoe brands had become household words. The aerobic exercise trend of this time called for a new kind of shoe that Reebok pioneered. Nike joined in with a gas-filled midsole in the late 1970s, and by the 1980s added windows in the sole to display this air. Hip-hop musicians soon adopted sneakers as part of their style and referenced them in their songs. In 1986 rappers Run-DMC issued "My Adidas," an anthem to the Super Star model they wore without laces. The same year, Reebok came out with a pump shoe for the excessive price of $175: the strong desire to be in vogue, coupled with an inability to afford expensive sneakers, even pushed a few young people to rob, and sometimes kill, others for their costly sneakers.
From the 1980s into the 1990s, the technologically-crafted sneaker looked ready for space trekking—take, for example, L. A. Gear's flashing lights, straps, and intricate lacing systems, along with the sculptured, multicolored soles of Puma, New Balance, and other brands. With lighter materials, shoes could afford to be bulky, resembling moon boots more than sports shoes. Still, despite the style and technology, the questionable labor practices of Southeast Asian manufacturers contracted to make shoes for brands like Nike and Reebok eventually caused consumer boycotts.
While athletic styles were similar for males and females, non-sport sneakers were distinctively for women. Keds advertised low-heeled pumps with toe bows in 1917 for "Milady." Sequin sneakers, stitch-it-yourself needlepoint sneakers, and wedge heeled satin sneakers were all 1970s products. About this time fashion designer Betsy Johnson created high-heeled sneakers, a style that would gain popularity in the 1990s, along with sneaker clogs. Another 1990s style, homemade platform sneakers, was copied by Converse and fashion designer Donna Karan, among others.
Meanwhile, new retail venues were created to meet the demand for sneakers. Into the 1960s, sporting goods stores sold athletic shoes with their low-tech siblings available in regular shoe shops. By the early 1960s specialty stores such as The Sneaker Shop of Bridgeport, Connecticut opened. Department stores had designated athletic foot-wear and accessories sections. In shopping malls, the Athlete's Foot, Foot Locker, and, exclusively for women, Lady Foot Locker, among others, sold only sneakers. By the late 1990s, super stores such as Sneaker Stadium and The Sports Authority dotted the landscape. Nike owners Phil Knight and Bill Bowman, who had retail outlets as importers for Tiger (now Asics), opened Nike Towns, selling Nike shoes, apparel, and accessories.
Athletes' endorsements for sneakers were common after 1920. Chuck Taylor, whose signature was added to the Converse All Star in 1923, had directed basketball clinics for Converse and had been on the Akron Firestones basketball team. Northwestern University coach "Dutch" Lonborg lent his name to the 1932 Montgomery Ward basketball shoe. Jim Thorpe endorsed B. F. Goodrich's "Chief Long Lance" brand sneakers. Female endorsers in the 1970s included Chris Evert for Converse and Virginia Wade for ProKeds. Endorsements, however, created mixed loyalties in the 1970s and 1980s. Some athletes wore favorite shoes with the logo of their endorser hiding the brand they wore. Others changed shoes during the course of a game, giving multiple endorsers equal time. But in the commodified culture of the 1990s, endorsements by athletes like Michael Jordan for Nike propelled manufacturers into hero-selling machines.
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Vanderbilt, Tom. The Sneaker Book. New York, New York Press, 1998.
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Wolkomir, Richard, with illustrations by Lane Yerkes. "The Race to Make a 'Perfect' Shoe Starts in the Laboratory." Smithsonian. September 1989, 94-104.