THE SNEAKER: A TIMELINE OF CULTURAL EXPRESSION AND IDENTITY
WRITTEN BY SOPHIA YAKUMITHIS
JANUARY 21, 2022
We all know at least one person who seriously loves art but isn’t a connoisseur. These people tend to have a soft spot for paintings, at least the “famous” ones, and go to the art museum for aesthetic appreciation. This is the closest analogy I can come up with to describe my sneaker habits. I’m not a sneakerhead, but rather a sneaker “voyeur” who’s just on StockX for a good time, hoping to cop some classics.
Honestly, I just love shoes in general. They’ve always been my thing without much thought other than how a pair looks and fits. My relationship with sneakers, though, has a special place in my heart.
My gateway into footwear was through hand-me-downs from my grandmother, who I graciously share a shoe size with. She’d give me some gorgeous steals from back in the day, and I always wanted to know what these styles meant on a deeper level; what made this brand better than another? What made this shoe different from its knock offs? I’d do research on each acquisition and my brand and style preferences quickly broadened. My preferences also got more pretentious, but that’s besides the point.
The shoe collection I amassed saw a major deficit in athletic and lifestyle sneakers (it’s not like my grandma was walking around in Yeezys or anything), so I filled this gap at my own volition. I think my affinity for sneakers came out strong because it developed so independently, placing myself in the position of shopper and curator
All of this is to say that sneakers were a pretty organic interest for me, and my taste is generally a result of the energy and hype of a design, or it evokes something nostalgic for me. I’m not wealthy enough to sustain a sneaker collection I want to sustain, and I don’t want to insert myself in a culture I have no business fucking with. I just like being along for the ride and learning about how the industry gets from point A to B. I suppose it’s like the only sport I follow.
But before I understood how the industry “works,” I, like most kids, viewed sneakers as something to wear for physical activity rather than to make some kind of a statement. I was in tune with how people interacted with brands, who wore what, and how different makes carried different significance. And aside from the styles worn by musicians and artists I look up to, I was always into whatever stuck with me around my town or on the internet.
Also vital to my relationship with sneakers was my Midwest upbringing in the gritty, industrial landscape of my hometown in Toledo, OH. The former automobile and glass producing hub reeks of the roll-up-your-sleeves mentality which defines blue collar America, which I would attribute to the modest integrity of its large immigrant population; my own family included, who came from Greece with essentially nothing to establish small businesses and a lasting sense of identity.
Identity construction was certainly not a motive for immigration unique to my family, though. This factor brought many immigrants to the Midwest in the 20th century, and is also deeply embedded in the history of sneaker culture. The latter is a manifestation of the stories, sojourns, and success of its visionaries, most of whom grew up with the odds stacked against them and used their craft as means to see mobility or to propagate self-expression.
The mid-1970s are when sneakers really emerged as vehicles for a sense of identity. Adias and Nike signed various celebrity endorsements — among them basketball trailblazers and hip-hop superstars — which gave a voice to Black urban communities, the otherwise voiceless in an exceptionally depressed socio-economic era. Certain sneakers therefore signaled a level of confidence and style motivated by the narrative behind the shoe’s design and production.
Despite the eventual wave of theft triggered by the rise in price and social stigma attached to specific models, most notably Nike’s Air Force 1, many sneakers’ “cool factor” drove a sense of identity by representing something intentional and within the consumer’s control.
Lately I’ve noticed a lot of white girls wearing the AF1, which became popular in the late 1980s and were sold strictly to inner city markets. Kind of ironic, but that’s how gentrification works. Nike did very little marketing for the sneaker, its popularity fuelled by dope dealers and hustlers who set a high standard associated with living the fast-life.
On that note, I thought I’d lend my interest and knowledge to throw together a sneaker timeline. That way, anyone reading this will have a better perspective as to how popular styles came to be, along with the cultural significance stapled to shoes we see everyday.
And maybe next time you see a group of rich kids in matching all-white Lows, you’ll laugh to yourself as you’re reminded of its origins in the NYC hustler scene.
1525 - Going way back, Henry VII has the first custom kicks made by his personal shoemaker, Corenlius Johnson.
1830s - Liverpool Rubber Co. drops the “beach shoe,” or the first shoe marketed for athletics. This design changed the industry by gluing together a canvas upper with a rubber sole.
*Fun fact! Beach shoes took on the nickname “plimsolls” because their model resembles the reference mark found on a ship’s hull by the same name.
1850s - The first “track spikes” or “cleats” are released as lightweight, leather shoes with spikes driven through the sole for grip and cohesion on dirt and cinder surfaces.
1916 - Keds markets world’s first “official” sneakers, the Keds Champion. Vulcanization enabled the mass production of canvas, rubber soled athletic shoes for a new sport you may have heard of...it’s called “basketball.” Ring any bells?
*Fun fact! Sneakers earned their name because rubber soles are practically silent, meaning basketball players could easily sneak around the court while their presence remained noticed.
1923 - Chuck Taylor signs a Converse endorsement after the brand consulted him on his experience wearing Non-Skids, its basketball sneaker. A small fabric patch was added to the shoe’s ankle and marketed as “Chuck Taylor All-Stars.” They quickly became a bestseller and proved the power of celebrity influencers.
1920s - Adidas founder Adi Dassler enters the sneaker industry with his brother, Rudolf, designing and producing performance footwear in their mother’s laundry room. Over the next two decades, the former would supply World Cup and Olympic champions with the top-notch performance footwear that made Adidas a household name
1936 - American track icon Jesse Owens brings Adidas to international fame after winning a record-breaking four gold medals in his hand-made leather track shoes.
1948-Rudolf Dassler abandons his brother’s company and starts his own: Puma. The “black sheep” of the Dassler family’s personal reputation was evoked in the brand’s edgier, unconventional approach to athletic footwear.
1950s - Converse moves away from athletic footwear and taps into alt-fashion upon the release of Rebel Without a Cause. For the movie’s promotion, James Dean was photographed in the brand’s Jack Purcell sneakers. The adoption of these kicks by 1950s alternative culture was passed onto the punks, rockers, and grunge stars of the next several decades.
*Fun fact! The Jack Purcell initially dropped in 1935 in honor of a Canadian badminton champion by the same name.
1968 - The Puma Suede becomes a symbol of cultural representation after Olympic champion Tommie Smith takes the podium, his Suedes in one hand, the other raised in a fist. The “Silent Gesture” symbolized Smith’s protest against racial inequality, making these kicks a staple among Civil Rights and social justice activists.
1969 - Adidas Superstars revolutionize the basketball sneaker by replacing Converse’s famous canvas upper with leather, allowing players to move more swiftly in start-stop motions. It saw its origin in 1965’s Supergrip, which demonstrated advanced ankle protection and surface grip, hence the name.
*Fun fact! The Celtics donned Superstars in their championship winning 1969 season, designating the shoe as a basketball staple.
1970 - The Puma Clyde gives Adidas a run for its money as the most recognizable basketball sneaker with its Walt “Clyde” Frazier endorsement. The custom design was a lighter, wider version of the Puma Suede with Frazier’s nickname stamped on the side.
1971 - Nike Inc. is born out of Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman’s Blue Ribbon Sports following the company’s separation from Onitsuka Tiger (now ASICS).
*Fun fact! Its signature “swoosh” logo was purchased for $35 and designed by a Portland State University student.
1971- Adidas Originals debuts its Trefoil logo, a symbol representing “performance.” Implying that anyone can perform like an athlete reflects the decade’s aerobic craze and the popularization of physical activity for leisure and pleasure.
1972 - Nike drops its first shoe post-rebrand, the Cortez, and signs its first athletic endorsement with Romanian tennis player Ilie Natase .
Adidas Originals debuts its Trefoil logo, a symbol representing “performance.” Implying that anyone can perform like an athlete reflects the decade’s aerobic craze and the popularization of physical activity for leisure and pleasure.
1974 - The Nike Waffle Trainer enters the scene when Bowerman, hoping to improve traction technology, finds inspiration in a handy waffle iron. That’s right — he poured rubber into his wife’s waffle iron.
1976- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar signs Adidas’ first celebrity endorsement deal.
1978 - Air sole technology becomes Nike’s most innovative contribution to date when aerospace engineer Frank Rudy suggests the brand use pressurized air pockets to cushion running shoes. The Tailwind was an instant success.
1982 - Air Force 1s are the first basketball shoe to use Nike’s air sole technology. Thousands of variations have been released since the shoe’s re-release in ‘86 and they remain one of the brand’s most popular designs.
1984 - Michael Jordan signs with Nike, kicking off the Air Jordan legacy and, arguably, the sneaker market as it’s known today. While Jordans didn’t hit the market until a year later, the five-year contract quickly became its own brand, earning roughly $3 billion total as of 2020.
*Fun fact! Jordan himself wasn’t a fan of Nike’s original prototype. According to the athlete, the Air Jordan 1’s black and red colorway represented “devil colors,” an NBA violation resulting in a $5,000 per-game fine. Nike, however, promised to cover the expenses, along with $500,000 per year to Jordan; his mom ultimately convinced him to take the deal.
1986 - Run-DMC’s hit “My Adidas” proves non-athletes can do sneaker endorsements, too. After selling out Madison Square Garden, Run-DMC performed their new song which hailed Superstars as both an on-stage and street staple. The shoe immediately became a global phenomenon, and so did the group.
1988 - “Just Do It” becomes Nike’s slogan.
*Fun fact! Serial killer Gary Gilmore’s famous last words, “Let’s do it,” before execution by firing squad served as the inspiration for Nike’s iconic tagline. Not such a fun fact, I guess…