Remember the “Little, old lady in tennis shoes?” Times have changed. No longer the butt of a comedian’s joke
the lady can now wear a canvas or leather athletic shoe in traditional white or let her imagination range
as far as her feet in colors as varied as grape, sage, camel, red, maroon or sophisticated black. They’re
donned with a sigh of relief after the fashionable narrow skyscraper stilettos worn today are kicked to the far
side of the room. Athletic shoes may be high top or low, laced, zippered, cushioned or platformed. Today,
even orthopedic shoes are designed to look like sneakers. The modern “Little, old lady,” is a fashion icon.
In 1921, the Sears Catalogue advertised men’s and women’s tennis shoes for $3.50. During the Great Depression, the price went down; the 1935 Catalogue sold men’s bleached, white duck uppers with a vulcanized crepe rubber sole for 89 cents, canvas work-shoes sold for $1.49. Today, a pair purchased at your local discount store costs an affordable $4.99 to $9.99, but top of the line models, bearing the imprint of name designers and endorsed by world famous athletes, command prices of $130.00 and up. Teen-age boys will stand in line for hours to buy the hottest athletic shoe.
Sneakers now sport names of high fashion names like Armani, Gucci and Hermes. A pair of Hermes sneakers retailed at $525.00 and according to the Chicago Sun times, the first pair of Air Jordans sold at auction for $3,479.00.
Sneakers: aerobic, fitness, sport, basketball, track, training, running—every sport has developed its own specialized shoe—are comfortable, casual, fashionable and, on some feet, glamorous foot covering. We’ve come a long way from the rough leaves, skins and tree bark worn by prehistoric cavemen 500,000 years ago.
A few milleniums later, our ancestors padded their tootsies with moss or soft wool as they hunted and gathered. Wooden heels were worn all through the 17th century, although the wealthy wore shoes that were gallooned (lace made of silk and woven with cotton, gold or silver.) By the 1700’s, a latex fluid from the Hevea tree was used to mold a rubber shoe in the South American jungles.
Walt Webster, a New Yorker, was granted a U.S. patent in 1832, for a process of attaching rubber soles to shoes and boots. What would he think of today’s woman, dressed in a power suit, (high heels tucked in a tote bag,) walking to her executive office, on the city’s hard asphalt streets, in sneakers?
The vulcanized process for curing rubber was discovered in 1839 by Charles Goodyear and by the 1890’s, a laced canvas upper with a rubber sole was manufactured and sold as a croquet sandal. Spalding followed with a rubber soled, canvas tennis shoe. The term “Sneaker” was first used in 1873. It was also called a gym shoe or “Tenny.” In England, the shoe was known as “The Plimsoll.” Clothing and shoes began to be designed in the 1890’s for newly active women interested in tennis, bicycling and yachting. The turn of the century saw the tennis shoe accepted as casual wear for children. Boys liked to don a baseball uniform, turn up the brim of their cap, tilt it sideways, or like today’s generation—backward. They wore tennis shoes with high tops, made of white canvas with black rubber soles and binding and a round emblem over the ankles.
Chuck Taylor, a young basketball player for the Akron Firestones, chose the All Star, a high-top, canvas and rubber athletic shoe produced in Walden, Massachusetts by the Converse Rubber Company in 1917. In 1923, his signature was added to the logo selling 550 million pairs. He promoted the sneaker and the game of basketball by hosting basketball clinics and received the title “Ambassador to Basketball.” During the Second World War, he became the fitness consultant to the United States Armed Forces. After 70 years, a leather and rubber “Chuck” entered the market in 1996. “Chucks,” are still manufactured today; worn by entertainers as well as basketball players.
The Jack Purcell canvas, athletic shoe, named after one of Canada’s leading 1930’s tennis players and the world badminton champion from 1932 to 1945, was introduced in 1933 by the Canadian branch of B.F. Goodrich. Two years later, the shoe came to the United States becoming the most popular shoe in the 1930’s and 40’s. Until the 1960’s, it was the only shoe worn by the U.S. Davis cup team. Unavailable during the Second World War because of a shortage of rubber, the sneaker by the late 1950’s, became popular with teen-agers. Teen-age idols like Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley gave sneakers sex appeal. Converse bought the B.F. Goodrich rubber division and acquired the Jack Purcell trademark in 1972 and the shoe, with its unpretentious look and rubber toe, became one of the most popular shoes of the 90’s. During its long reign, James Dean, Billy Crystal and Claudia Schiffer slipped their feet into Purcell’s.
New Balance Athletic Shoebegan as The New Balance Arch Company, in 1906, in Watertown, Massachusetts, providing orthopedic shoes and arch supports. Runners turned to the company, in the 1950’s and 60’s, ordering custom-made shoes. The shoes are now available in a wide range of colors and widths; some models offer more than 60 sizes, and are the company’s primary source of business. Offering a full line of athletic shoes, the company is one of the few that manufactures in the United States. Presidents Clinton, George Bush, VP Al Gore and Russia’s Boris Yeltsin have worn their shoes.
In 1920, Adi Dassler, a twenty year old athlete designed his first training shoe; leading to Adidas, founded in 1948. Dassler was one of the first to involve athletes in the development of their shoes. In 1978, he became the first non-American to be inducted into the American Sporting Goods Industry Hall of Fame. The Adidas Sports Shoe Museum in Herzogenaurach, Germany, where Dassler was born in 1900, depicts shoemaking, beginning with ancient Egypt, a cobbler’s workshop, a bicycle-like shoe cutter—a machine driven by muscle power in pre-electricity days and, of course, athletic shoes. Among the exhibits are Jesse Owens track shoes, worn when he won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. The museum is also famous for Muhammad Ali's boxing boots and Wilma Rudolph’s track shoes.
Health and fitness defined the 1970’s. Aerobics and jogging brought special footwear designed for athletes. Millions of pairs were sold. The junior generation enjoyed the informality, older people the comfort. The shoes were broad-based and cushion-soled. Designer labels were “in.” Nike had a wave, Converse a star, Adidas a triple stripe, Pima a flying wedge, Goodyear, the winged foot of Mercury. Status was promoted with sports stars.
The 1980’s featured trainers worn with business suits. Eddie Murphy, Chris Evert, Michael Jordan, Mick Jagger and David Bowie donned them. Cybill Shepherd attended the 1985 Emmy Awards dressed in a black gown and trainers. Tracksuits often accompanied the trainers—the style popularized by young African-American men, soon became fashionable for men and women of every age size and ethnic group.
1990’s television stars, Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres, wore them on-screen; French women during their transit strike.
Adults over fifty are a consumer group with the highest disposable income—they represent a growing market for athletic footwear. The emergence of women’s sports is also had a significant effect. Girls often play as teammates with boys; many dream of playing professionally. They are able to look up to role models like Wilma Rudolph, the track and field champion who overcame double pneumonia, polio and scarlet fever to become the first American woman to win three track and field gold medals at a single Olympic Games in 1960, Steffi Graf, who in 1988 became the fifth player to achieve the grand slam in tennis by winning Wimbledon, and the Australian, French and U.S. opens and Sheryl Swoops who won Award and was one of the first players signed by the Women’s National Basketball Association.
Claes Oldenburg, a Swedish born, American sculptor, envisioned the sneaker – worn by all nationalities – as a symbol of America’s contribution to world culture. He fashioned a giant sneaker of wire, cloth and painted plaster.
The once lowly sneaker, a.k.a. plimsolls, gym shoes, speed shoes, sand shoes, tennys, tackies and bobos, is more popular than ever. It has evolved from an inexpensive sport shoe into a comfortable, casual mode of fashion that allows us—no matter what our life style—to get up and go.