First introduced back in the early 19thcentury, sneakers are now an industry worth billions worldwide. Sneakers have a much more complex social history and cultural significance than you might think. Representing everything from race to national identity, class and even criminality, sneakers have a political and social meaning that makes them unique and distinct from other types of footwear. From humble, functional beginnings to the phenomenon they are today, we look at the rise of sneaker culture.
Birth of an icon
The term ‘sneaker’ is usually attributed to Henry Nelson McKinney, an advertising agent who popularised the phrase way back in 1917. Once only worn by the privileged who played tennis, these so-called ‘sneakers’ soon became known as the footwear choice of muggers and burglars thanks to their stealthy rubber sole.
Synonymous with the basketball court
It was politics, as much as sport, which fuelled the rise of sneakers. After World War I, it was clear that many had been physically unprepared for war. This prompted a large-scale push for fitness. Sneakers then became mass produced, and prices grew more affordable. In the 1930s, the canvas-and-rubber high-top also became the signature shoe on the basketball court with Chuck Taylor pioneering the era of celebrity shoe endorsement.
Embodying youthful rebellion
Although worn by nearly everyone for comfort at the end of World War II, by the 50s/60s and beyond they had become a firm footwear favourite with young rebels. The sneaker industry grew alongside the rise of mods, Beatniks, rockers and skateboarders, primarily because they were cheap, authentic and worn by musicians like the Ramones and Sid Vicious. Inspired by mod monkey boots of the era, our white Oyama sneaker and black Nagano sneaker are both set on a sporty rubber sole.
Running shoes as a fashion statement
Leather and suede sneakers were introduced in the early 70s, and when pro basketball players in Harlem Rucker Park started wearing them, they became increasingly popular. Our black Atlantic sneaker features a retro runner aesthetic with a classic casual cupsole and premium suede and leather detailing.
Around the same time, sneakers moved beyond function and into the realm of fashion. With luxury brands entering the sneaker game, it soon stopped being just a fitness shoe. Low-rise, state-of-the-art sneakers were no longer just for running; they became a fashion statement. A contemporary take on the running shoe, our Sime sneaker has an internal neoprene sock that allows maximum movement and comfort and is crafted from a single piece of premium black leather. Our Trelawny sneaker also updates a comfortable cemented rubber runner outsole with metal d-rings and a premium suede upper.
Cult of the sneakerhead
The perception of the sneaker was changed further in the 80s by basketball and hip-hop, where it became a tool for cultural expression within the urban black community. Michael Jordan’s basketball shoes are widely considered to be the catalyst for modern sneakerheads, and RUN-DMC are also attributed to increasing the popularity of sneaker culture with the release of the track ‘My Adidas’.The rapper-DJ trio defended the ‘felon’ sneakers they wore with the lyrics “I wore my sneakers, but I’m not a sneak.”The sneakerhead movement continued to grow, with the goal to wear the freshest, hardest-to-find styles, and what began as a sub-culture soon became mainstream.
Sneaker culture continues to be influenced by sports and music and shows no signs of slowing down. Transcending age, gender and status, sneakers are worn by millions, and many still find meaning in their sneaker choice. Whether it’s a sneaker associated with anti-fashion, alternative culture or unique styles that embody the newest thing, they show different values about what the wearer wants to express about themselves. Sneakers now go way beyond fashion or function.
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