Sneakers are arguably the most influential type of footwear. (If you’re on our site and reading this post, you probably already believe this to be true.) They’ve been the subject of many think pieces and have even been featured as main exhibits in museums. Why? Because they’re more than just shoes. Sneakers have been described by The Atlantic as the “practical, inexpensive, and casual shoe…central to American identity, on and off the playing field.” As you probably know, sneakers are no longer just for exercise, sports, or casual wear. Today, sneakers are part of both high-fashion and streetwear cultures. With luxury designers creating their own sneakers and traditional brands like Adidas and Nike collaborating with celebrities and athletes, they’ve also become a status symbol. Sneakers have also bred a community of enthusiasts – the sneakerheads.
But before all of the innovations, designers, and multi-million dollar sponsorships, sneakers just had one purpose: to be a shoe. Let’s take a look back at the history of kicks and see how sneaker culture got to where it is today.
In the early 1800s, running had recently become a popular form of exercise. To accommodate this trend, the first running shoe is invented. It’s made out of leather – a far cry from what runners wear today.
The 1830s saw three big innovations that completely transformed sneakers. The first is the invention of rubber soles, developed by Wait Webster in New York. Building off of this idea, John Boyd Dunlop from the Liverpool Rubber Company finds a way to bind canvas to rubber. This gave birth to what was called the plimsoll shoe. Lastly, in 1839 American chemist Charles Goodyear discovers a process that significantly improves the quality of plimsolls. He found that he could make rubber pliable and waterproof if he heated it and mixed it with sulfur. He calls this process vulcanization, and it made shoes sturdier and gave them a longer lifespan.
Things really pick up in the 1900s. New Balance and Converse are both founded in the first decade of the new century. In 1917, Converse releases the All Star sneaker, which was made to be an indoor gym shoe. Eventually these sneakers are dubbed Chuck Taylors, or Chucks for short, when basketball coach Chuck Taylor promotes them in the 1920s. Chucks get even more popular after they become the official sneaker for the US Olympic basketball team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. It’s the first glimpse of the power of athletic sponsorship, which later becomes a huge marketing trend in the following decades.
Up until the 1920s, sneakers were only owned and worn by athletes or the wealthy. This all changes with industrialization. Sneakers are now mass-produced, making them much more affordable and accessible. More and more people are wearing sneakers.
Another significant moment in the twenties is when German brothers Adolf and Rudolf Dassler start creating rubber shoes for long distance runners. Dassler sneakers go on to be very popular for athletes. In 1948, the brothers split and both develop their own companies. Rudolf founds Puma and Adolf starts Adidas, igniting the Puma/Adidas rivalry, which lasts for decades.
In 1964, Nike is founded. Along with Puma and Adidas, Nike becomes one of the biggest names in sneakers. In sixteen years it becomes a billion-dollar brand.
A jogging craze begins in the 1970s. Suddenly there’s a need for low-rise running shoes, different from the high-tops that had been prevalent for decades. This sparks a movement of creating sneakers for different purposes – running, basketball, etc. In 1979, Nike partners with a NASA engineer to create the Nike Tailwind. They designed the Tailwind with a hollowed sole filled with gas, making them a very comfortable and cushioned running sneaker.
1984 is a monumental year for sneakers. Nike collaborates with Michael Jordan to create what is arguably the shoe that changed everything – the Air Jordan 1. The NBA commissioner bans the Air Jordan because the colors don’t meet the league’s regulation, but this doesn’t stop Jordan from wearing them. The NBA fines Jordan for each game he wears his shoes and Nike foots the bill. The NBA’s opposition to Jordans only fuels their demand and they go on to be one of the most sought-after sneakers.
The eighties saw another significant sponsorship. Following the release of their single “My Adidas” on their third album, Run-DMC receives a million-dollar sponsorship from Adidas. It’s the first non-athlete sneaker deal. Eventually, Adidas as well as other sneaker brands, go on to do more partnerships with musicians and celebrities.
Sneakers’ popularity continues in the nineties and into the new millennium. This is in part due to the steady increase in sports marketing and also the rise of nineties hip-hop culture. Sneakers become a fashion staple for rappers, which makes them all the more popular in urban communities. As rap’s influence spreads into small-town American, suburban teens join the sneaker movement too. The sneakerhead community really takes off with young people collecting and trading sneakers.
The sneakerhead community is still as strong as ever. E-commerce is overtaking retail stores, making it easier for sneaker lovers to connect with each other and get their hands on more shoes. They scour the internet for retro and limited edition sneakers which can go for hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of dollars. Kicks that were once nearly impossible to find are just a Google search away.
One of the defining trends in sneaker culture this decade has been celebrity influence. Social media’s takeover – Instagram in particular – allows the general public to get their eyes on the latest fashion trends faster than ever before. We can now see what our favorite celebrities and social influencers are wearing every day just by following them on Instagram. While streetwear has been around since the eighties and nineties, it’s become more mainstream in recent years. Celebrities have embraced the movement by mixing athletic wear (sneakers, leggings, hoodies, sweats, etc.) with everyday clothes and even high-end fashion pieces.
In 2013, Kanye West receives a deal with Adidas to launch the Yeezy brand. This collaboration is one of the most famous partnerships and has expanded outside of footwear into clothing as well. The hype around each release of new shoes skyrockets their demand, making them one of the most sought-after sneakers on the market. Yeezy’s success adds more fuel to the fire of the streetwear trend. Many call this the “Yeezy effect” because Adidas has doubled its market share and more people have jumped on the streetwear style bandwagon.
In addition to Adidas, other sneaker/sportswear powerhouse companies like Nike and Puma have seen the power of celebrity influence and started increasing their celebrity sponsorships. There are now more sneaker deals with celebrities than with athletes. Celebrities such as Rihanna, Kendrick Lamar, Kevin Hart, and Kylie Jenner have received sneaker deals and sponsorships from these companies. Luxury designers have also noticed the growing demand for streetwear and athleisure clothing. Fashion houses such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, and Chanel have partnered with sneaker brands and even launched their own sneakers.
We’re just one year away from a new decade. History tells us that each decade brings in new styles, new brands, and new trends. Will we see a big change in sneaker styles? Are there technological innovations that can make them even better? Will indie sneaker brands overtake the power players? Only time will tell.