The history of sneakers

Converse-Basketball-Shoe-sneakers-1917

Everything you need to know about these legendary shoes.

I'm going to trace the evolution of sneakers, from elite sports shoes to their adoption by the majority of people, from movie and rap stars to the most prestigious fashion houses.

The history of sneakers, while dating back more than a century, has moved very quickly, with a few bumps along the way. It all began in 1839, when an American scientist named Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization of rubber: this process consists of adding sulfur to rubber to make it flexible, water-resistant and malleable. Several decades later, vulcanization arrived in the world of footwear, offering a longer life to soles. The process is applied to tennis shoes that have existed since the early 19th century, and thus marks the birth of the ancestor of the modern sneaker.

Early 20th century: two companies sought to capitalize on the potential of rubber-soled shoes, by distributing them to the masses rather than the happy few. The US Rubber Company developed Keds, which were marketed in 1916. A year later, the Converse brand released its All Star shoe. In the early 1920s, by associating its image with that of the famous basketball player and coach Chuck Taylor (whose name still appears today on the All Star), the brand took off.

In 1924, German brothers Rudolf and Adolf ("Adi") Dassler entered the sport by designing shoes for athletes from their mother's laundry room. Initially designed and promoted as shoes for sports, sneakers began to gain ground. The U.S. basketball team wore Converse to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, when runner Jesse Owen won four gold medals wearing running shoes designed by the Dassler brothers. The brothers parted ways in 1947, each heading two of today's sneaker empires: Adolf created Adidas, while Rudolf launched the Puma brand.

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As early as the 1950s, American kids were wearing sneakers to go with their brand new jeans (a combination that caused consternation in some educational institutions). This combination was also favored by stars like Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. Sneakers are comfortable, casual and take up little space. In some circles, they have a rebellious character, a desire to free themselves from the too restrictive dress standards of society.

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However, it will take a good ten years before the sneakers are imposed to all as a matter of course. In the 1970s, the Nike brand appeared. The name of the brand pays tribute to the goddess of victory in Greek mythology, and the shoes want to help improve athletic performance. The characteristic embossing of the Nike sole is said to have been discovered after Bill Powerman, a track and field teacher and co-founder of the brand, tried to put rubber in his wife's waffle iron.

At that time, the sneakers are intended for a youth who appropriates the cool of sports and stars, but they are also very popular with fitness enthusiasts increasingly numerous. And whether you look at Kareel Abdyl-Jabbar and his Adidas with flat sole or Farrah Fawcett and her Nike in Charlie's Angels, sports and culture offer many inspirations to wear the sneaker. This vein continues in the 1980s. Michael Jordan follows a path traced by many precursors when he gives his name to the Air Jordan from Nike. During the same decade appeared the Freestyles from Reebok, which developed sneakers specifically for women.

 

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Beyond the courts and fields, sneakers are taking to the streets

Beyond the courts and fields, sneakers are making their mark on the street. Pillars of the booming hip-hop culture, they are admired on the feet of all its heroes, LL Cool J, Grandmaster Flash, Run-DMC. This sportswear aesthetic, which originated in African-American communities in the cities of the East Coast of the United States, has lost none of its vigor today, as evidenced by Jay Z's collaborations with Reebok in 2003 and the great success of the Yeezy, designed by Kanye West for Adidas. Today, sneakers are everywhere, but their meaning is also more fragmented. They reflect a certain vision of class, sporting or musical tastes, a desire not to be encumbered with uncomfortable shoes. On the screen, their existence refers to all these facets: from Jennifer Grey's slightly scuffed tennis shoes in Dirty Dancing, to Uma Thurman's bright yellow sneakers in Kill Bill, from Ben Styler's oddly matched red adidas tracksuit with blue sneakers in The Tenenbaum Family, to the many styles of Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.

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Our love of sneakers shows no signs of abating. Last year, it was estimated that the sneaker market would reach 85 billion euros by 2025. From established brands to prestigious fashion houses (luxury brands like Prada and Gucci have managed to capitalize on the public's envy) the choices are now endless. Among the current trends, we note a nostalgia for the 1990s through wedges - as at Christopher Kane and Maison Margiela - but also classic black and white proposals from Loewe or, as evidenced on Instagram, the Converse-small dress combination. With this plethora of possibilities, no matter which direction you choose, you always start off on the right foot, as long as you're in your sneakers.

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