Sneakers today are the norm to wear for much of America. Whether it’s going to school or going out, the vast majority of people we see are wearing one of the myriad fashions for kicks. But how did this come to be?
You can say the historical record started in 1908 when a 47 year old Marquis Mills Converse, a well groomed and lifelong respected manager started his own company, Converse Shoes. They made rubber soled shoes for winter first, then in 1915 for tennis players, and in 1917 the company introduced the All-Star basketball shoe.
During this time, in Indiana, a basketball player at Columbus High by the name of Chuck Taylor fell in love with the All-Star basketball shoe. Chuck was a lanky white kid, with a prominent nose and insightful eyes. By most accounts, he was a good basketball player at best. But he was likable, and he understood the footwear needs of basketball players. He was also a gifted salesman who knew how to pitch himself and his ideas. In 1921, Converse hired Chuck Taylor after he arrived unannouced at their Chicago office.
With his drive and passion, Converse introduced the Chuck Taylor sneaker, and it became the shoe to wear for basketball players. In 1936, the sneakers were the official shoe for the US basketball team participating in the Olympics. Then “during WWII, Taylor became a fitness consultant for the US military. GIs were soon doing calisthenics while wearing Chuck Taylor sneakers that had become the official sneaker of the US Armed Forces (Wikipedia).”
In the 1950’s, sneakers extended beyond sportswear and became the norm for daily wear. Much of this was the result of James Dean and his love for the Jack Purcell’s, a sneaker designed by a former world badminton champion (and which was later acquired by Converse). The Jack Purcell sneakers were similar to Chuck Taylor’s, but appealed to a different segment of society. These sneakers were prominent in the rebellious rock culture of the time, broadening the overall appeal of sneakers.
Stories such as the rise of sneakers as a cultural norm remind me of the Harriet Tubman quote, “All dreams begin with a dreamer.” Chuck Taylor wasn’t the only reason sneakers became popular, but he was certainly the catalyst to usher in the change. And as a result, more than 600 million pairs of Chuck Taylor’s have been sold. It’s remarkable how influential just one person can be in driving cultural change.