What is the History of Sneakers?

Sneakers have gone from being an athletic necessity to a wearable asset and way of expression, even driving a new subculture. Here's a brief history from sneakers in running to today's sneakers in high fashion.

What is the History of Sneakers?

History of Sneakers

How did sneakers gain popularity? What is the history behind them? These questions are vital to understanding how sneakers have become a central part of fashion and modern-day culture. Although some may not know how their favorite shoes came to be, each sneaker has a rich history. Even though this footwear was initially designed for athletes, sneakers' firm standing in fashion has expanded over the years.

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Founding Fathers of the Sneaker Industry

The evolution of sneakers didn’t happen overnight. These monumental figures in the history of sneakers shaped the sneaker industry into what it is today.

Wait Webster

Prior to Wait Webster, sneakers lacked a flexible sole. Leather was commonly used as the material for the sole, making the shoe tough and rigid. In 1832, Wait Webster was granted a patent to process rubber soles for shoes, called plimsolls. The rubber gave the shoe a bouncier feeling and more flexibility. However, even though this was an advancement in sneaker design, this sole still fell apart easily.

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Charles Goodyear

Charles Goodyear saw potential in Wait Webster’s model and tweaked key design details. Goodyear found that if you heat up rubber and add sulfur, the sole becomes sturdier while retaining flexibility. Out of this technology, one of the first shoe brands 'Keds' was born and by 1917, the general public was able to purchase them. Keds evolved and in 1935, a cross-hatching design gave the soles extra grip. Athletes started wearing Keds more regularly when playing sports.

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Adi Dassler

The founder of Adidas, Adolf “Adi” Dassler, created the first iteration of the modern running shoe. Made in 1925, these shoes gained popularity over the course of several years. Jesse Owens wore these running shoes in the 1936 Olympics, creating even more commotion about these sneakers. Until 1949, Adidas sneakers did not feature the brand's famous three stripes.

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Converse

Converse started producing shoes in 1917, and the company released a non-slip basketball shoe in 1922 that kickstarted the brand's popularity. Basketball star Chuck Taylor became a part of the Converse team and tweaked the company’s initial design to create the Chuck Taylor All Star shoe. With this rendition, basketball players felt like they had more grip on the court to run faster, fall less, and play better.

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Modern Era Sneakers

Sneakers today are not just for athletes. The shift first started in the 1950s when leisure activities became widely accessible, and adolescents started wearing this type of shoe to school. Sneaker sales continued to soar, forcing leather shoe companies to fight for their traditional share of the shoe market. As sneakers continued to evolve, brand name companies started to differentiate the type of shoe they were creating.

Running Shoes

In the 1950s, Bill Bowerman, a track coach at the University of Oregon, wanted to design a shoe for his team. The majority of runners during this time period wore leather spikes, and Bowerman wanted to create a lighter and faster shoe — the running shoe of today. Bowerman got together with Phil Knight in 1964 to co-found the shoe company Blue Ribbon Sports so that he could produce his running shoe designs. Blue Ribbon Sports evolved into the company we now know as Nike.

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Basketball Shoes

Chuck Taylor’s Converse All Stars were one of the first basketball shoes created that featured stronger traction than other sneakers at the time. Over time, basketball shoes evolved. These sneakers provide ankle stability and flexibility for players to move laterally with ease. Although basketball shoes are bulkier than running shoes, they have shock absorption for the jumping, starting, and stopping actions that players do frequently. One of the most popular basketball shoe brands to date is the Jordan Brand.

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Sneaker Culture

Sneaker culture continues to evolve and expand into the mainstream. Initially, only athletes participated in the love for sneakers, but nowadays anyone can be a sneakerhead. Some sneakerheads try to resell for profit and others are in it purely for their love of sneakers and to expand their collection. Sneakers have widely influenced people, art, music, and business through their integration into society. Let’s see how different time periods shaped sneaker designs and what sneakers are today.

‘80s and ‘90s Influence

Everything about sneaker culture changed in 1984. For the first time, sneakers became a part of popular culture - particularly through sports and music. The famous Air Jordan brand was released exclusively for Michael Jordan and, one year later, the public. While Nike was dominating the sports market within the sneaker industry, Adidas worked to convince the public that sneakers were a great everyday shoe. Sneaker culture was all the buzz during this time, from Run-D.M.C.’s song “My Adidas” to Spike Lee’s movie “She’s Gotta Have It” featuring Air Jordans. Celebrities like hip-hip group N.W.A. started wearing Jordans and sneakers became a part of mainstream culture. These events catapulted sneakers into something to pay attention to at the turn of the 20th century.

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The 2000s

The role of sneakers in fashion and pop culture continued to soar in the early 2000s, leading to the creation of the sneakerhead subculture. People started collecting rare editions of shoes and tracking down the latest trends. Originally buyers haunted underground shops for the newest drops, camping out to cop a rare brand. The advent of the internet turned sneakers sales into a whole new game. Now sneakerheads could trade by connecting on message boards and selling on eBay. To capitalize on the opportunity, StockX and major brands developed their own apps for limited releases and raffles. From there, another subculture emerged — resellers who control prices and hypebeasts who can afford to buy overpriced sneakers.

The emergence of sneakerhead culture really accelerated in the 2000s when websites like Nike Talk brought the global sneakerhead community online. As StockX, GOAT, and eBay started becoming the main places to sell sneakers in the 2010s, the size of the market continued to grow. Musicians started referencing sneakers more and more in media and influencers like Virgil Abloh, Kanye West, and Travis Scott brought sneaker culture to broader mainstream attention.

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Sneaker Collabs

One way brands have kept relevant in modern times is through sneaker collabs. By working with a famous celebrity, musician, or athlete to release a shoe, brands like Nike or Adidas were able to leverage the popularity of their collaborator. Whether it was massive A-list star, a cult hero, or even a video game franchise, the major sneaker brands have increased the breadth of their collaborations to reach an even wider group of communities.

Some notable collaborations include Nike Air Jordan 1 x OFF-WHITE, Wu-Tang Clan x Nike Dunk High, Adidas x BAPE Superstar and Supreme x Vans.

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Sneakers impact fashion more than ever before. Here are some of the most influential trends in the sneaker industry and how they have shaped sneaker culture

Balenciaga

Known for its ballroom hems in the 1950s, this high-end brand danced its way into the heart of hypebeast culture. This brand delighted sneaker lovers across the globe when it came out with its Triple S shoes, retailing for $950. This famous rendition of a traditional “dad” shoe has three soles in it, making the shoe chunky and controversial. Earlier this year, Balenciaga released the destroyed Paris High Top Sneaker, designed to look dirty, cut up, and worn down. The $1,850 price tag — and its hip style — drew the attention of the public and the sneaker community at large. The brand has managed to find relevance by combining both luxury and street wear in a way that other sneaker brands have not.

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Nike Dunk Low

The Dunks have a rich history in the shoe world and have become especially popular over the last few years. When Nike was still relatively young and in its infancy in the basketball performance sneaker world, the Dunk was revealed in 1985. It was a high-top performance shoe geared toward college athletes. The shoes had colorways to match the universities that the athletes played for.

When Nike released its SB line, Dunks served as a modern silhouette. The shoes were comfortable and similar to their predecessors, built for customization. This time, however, the results were far more than different colorways. The Nike Dunk Lows are one of (if not THE) most-customized and collaborated-with shoes today. Famous collaborations include Travis Scott and Virgil Abloh.

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Yeezy

The Yeezy line has dominated the secondary sneaker industry for years, until its recent separation from Adidas. According to Bloomberg, sales for the sneakers reached nearly $1.7 billion in annual revenue in 2020, netting Yeezy $191 million in royalties.

The brand constantly pushes the envelope in terms of modern design, with Kanye West being the main design and creative visionary behind the product.

Yeezy Boosts are arguably the most popular, with the 350 and 700 models selling out regularly. More controversial are Foam Runners, which have a distinctly futuristic design. Most Yeezy silhouettes are highly sought after.

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Air Jordans

This iconic signature line combines performance and fashion. These sneakers are the most collected, with tons of versions, models, and colorways that are re-released. They’ve been the focal point of some of the famous Travis Scott collabs, which broke Nike tradition and inverted the Swoosh. Other fan-favorite silhouettes of Michael Jordan’s signature line are the Air Jordan 1 Chicago, Air Jordan 4 Bred, and Jordan 11 Concord. The brand collaborates with major fashion brands such as Dior, where a collab of the Jordan 1 Retro High Dior goes for $7,300 to $11,343 on StockX. Additionally, the most expensive and sought-after Jordan brand shoe is the Air Jordan 12s from Michael Jordan’s Flu Game where the shoe sold for $104,000 at an auction. Overall, Air Jordans best encapsulate the hype behind sneaker culture.

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The Evolution of Sneakers and Their Influence

Although sneakers were initially designed for athletes, they are now a central part of fashion culture and people's lifestyles, representing shared interests throughout communities. The history of sneakers tells the story of how fashion overlapped with athletes and culture, bringing us a whole new type of shoes we want to wear.

FAQ

Q: How did sneakers become popular?
A: Sneakers really became popular after the launch of Nike Air Jordans in 1984. This launch raised the demand for sneakers across the world and nation.

Q: Who started the sneaker trend?
A: Basketball player Michael Jordan popularized the use of sneakers, but hip-hop stars and celebrities also made these shoes desirable.

Q: What is the oldest sneaker brand?
A: The oldest sneaker brand is Etonic, which was established in 1876.