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A Brief History of the Modern-Day Sneaker

Updated on December 7, 2017

Sneakers For all

Mother and Daughter
Mother and Daughter | Source

In the beginning

It all started with a basic necessity, which goes beyond protecting your feet from sharp sticks and stones. Sneakers have a rich history of function and style, with the earliest shoes sporting rubber soles known as plimsolls. These functioned merely as a slight durable upgrade to the moccasins and loafers people wore in the 1800’s.

At the turn of the century, in 1892, these crude rubber shoes were fitted with comfort in-mind and dubbed the brand name Keds. These were the first real sneaker-like shoes, they were both comfortable and easier to manufacture, and so the sneaker blueprint was officially born. Ask your grandparents about Keds, they probably owned a pair at some point.

Rubber Soles

soles | Source

Iconic Brands

We continue the sneaker timeline into the first celebrity branding venture, made by Converse, endorsed by basketball superstar Chuck Taylor of the Indiana Pacers in 1923. These shoes were created out of a lesser understood demand for the government, who wanted to get the civilian population in shape, in the event of a national crisis that called for implementation of a military draft.

As the population started hitting the gym and playing more sports, Converse developed their sneaker to stand out from all the Keds-cloned brands out there, who then took it to Chuck Taylor to solidify it as the athletic shoe to have during the 20’s.

On a Global Scale

Shortly after the Chuck Taylor’s blew up, German designer Adi Dassler introduced his own vision of the sneaker, which appealed more to runners and outdoor activities: the Adidas shoe. This new low-top standard of comfort was used by track and field legend Jessie Owens, when he swept the Olympics in Berlin, under Nazi Germany ruler Adolf Hitler. Another famous low-top sneaker brand icon, Puma, was created by Adi Dassler’s brother, Rudi.

With the Converse and Adidas introductions to the sneaker industry, the international community starts to explode with more people wearing sneakers as fashionable, not just functional. By the 1980’s, styles and fads of sneakers start to become centerpieces of outfits and the epitome of coolness for kids all around the world.

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yikes! | Source

Sneakers with Magical Powers

Shortly after Jordan signed his first contract, Nike introduced a shoe that essentially became the standard for casual sneakers, known as the Air Force One’s. These shoes were not only stylish, they also raised the bar on comfort, utilizing air pockets for cushioning. Reebok had their own version with their manual pump cushioning that pumped air into the shoe by pressing on the shoe’s tongue.

The Pump was more of a gimmick than anything, as early adopters quickly found out on the court, so the Reebok fad quickly faded away, while the expertly-crafted Nike’s still survive as the classic sneaker.

The 90’s also brought a fairly popular trend of lights built into the soles of shoes, which lit up on every step on the ground.

Since there was no way to replace the batteries that powered the lights, the shoes had a built-in lifespan that could potentially run out in their first year. It’s too bad they didn’t have LED technology and rechargeable batteries back then.

Sneakers and Hip Hop Culture

The innovation and style of the modern day sneaker is primarily owed to hip hop and all that it encompasses. This isn’t just about rappers wearing shoes, the fact that all major U.S. brands center around legacies of American black culture quickly dispels that thought.

We know about MJ and Chuck Taylor’s part played in the success of two of the most iconic brands, so while Adidas didn’t get their big break in basketball back then, they were responsible for pushing their iconic low-top shell-toes into the mainstream, thanks to hip hop legends Run-DMC.

As hip hop exploded into the mainstream, the biggest acts were sporting the iconic three-stripes and cannabis leaf, which served as a multi-purpose fashion statement of rebellion, protest, and the uniform of performance of that era.

More about sneaker history

Lace care

clean laces
clean laces | Source

The Future of the Sneaker

The look of the sneaker hasn’t changed drastically since the major brands broke ground in their respective ways in the 80’s and 90’s. Sure, there were some noteworthy styles that came and went, like the foamposites, Vans, Sketchers’ skateboard shoes, Timberland boots, and other outdoor niches, but when you look at today’s sneakers, they are essentially the same shoes with different coats of paint.

The price of the sneaker hasn’t changed much either, only a bit more expensive, overall, than what they were 20-30 years ago. Take for example the line of shoes designed by Kanye West, his shoes are almost as popular today as when Jordan started his line of shoes. Rather than a basketball shoe, though, it is more aimed at a simplistic luxury niche, which other more famous brands like Gucci and Prada have dipped their toes into the sneaker market as well.

These shoes are undoubtedly popular with younger generations, however, they are a far cry from impressive or “must have” as the sneaker pioneers in previous generations were. As a matter of fact, these previous generations are still among the most-purchased sneakers from sneaker collectors, new and old. Retro Air Jordans, Air Force 1’s, and Adidas Shell-toes aren’t going away anytime soon.

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