A History of Sneakers: How They Became Staples of Modern Fashion

Sneakers are not just worn for sports anymore, but have become a must-have in people’s wardrobes. Read on for the history of sneakers, staples of modern fashion.

Jan 26, 2021By Adrienne Howell, BA Integrated Studio Arts & BS Apparel Design
shoe timeline sneakers
Shoe timeline including a pair of 1925 heeled women’s sneakers; a 1957 Chuck Taylor All Star (Converse) sneaker; a 1985 Air Jordan 1 high top sneaker; and a 2017 Balenciaga Triple S Mesh & Leather  men’s sneaker

Sneakers express individuality and personal identity more than any other fashion item. Nowadays, the sneaker can come in a variety of shapes, colors, finishes, and an unlimited amount of uses for the contemporary consumer. Worn by everybody from athletes, performing artists, and fashion models to kids on the playground, the sneaker has had a unique place in fashion history as being a catalyst for accessible style to the masses. Read on for the history of sneakers and their influence on modern fashion.

Modern Fashion, Sports, And The History Of Sneakers

One of the major reasons sneakers became popular among consumers was their introduction into sports, especially basketball. There was never a particular shoe associated with basketball until Chuck Taylor came along. He was a semi-pro basketball player who became a salesman with Converse Sneakers in 1921 and promoted it so well that he eventually became the face of the sneaker. It was the first celebrity-endorsed athletic shoe and the Chuck Taylor All-Star was born. It became one of the first sneakers predominantly used for basketball from the early 1900s up until the 1960s and 1970s. The growing popularity of basketball made Converse popular to consumers, and the shoe gradually transcended into other arenas including music, skateboarding, and everyday wear.

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The Converse All-Star 1982 Advertisement, via Smithsonian Magazine; with Michael Jordan with Air Jordan 1, via HypeBeast

The first NBA player to have a signature sneaker was Walt “Clyde” Frazier with the PUMA Clyde. Frazier was known for his fashionable sense of style on and off the court. He made a major contribution in the look and design of the sneaker when it was endorsed by him in the 1970s. The shoe is known for its suede exterior and the multiple colors it comes in. Like Chuck Taylor, Frazier’s name was placed on the actual shoe, but it is a rendition of his actual signature. While not the most well-known basketball shoe, it did have a comeback with dancers in the 1980s and is still worn by players today.  

Michael Jordan wanted to sign with Adidas as it was his favorite brand. However, a turn of events ended up creating the biggest shift in the history of sneakers. Michael Jordan’s Nike Air Force Sneaker debuted in 1985, becoming a part of pop-culture legend. Not only was the shoe marketed towards sports, but for everyday life. Jordan’s mass appeal made the sneaker desirable for fans of the athlete who wanted to wear the same sneaker as their idol. It became one of the most coveted sneakers in modern fashion and is still a highly popular choice among sneaker lovers to this day.

Musicians As Trendsetters  

Similar to sports, the music industry was pivotal in the history of sneakers for making them a product that appealed to the masses. Listeners of music could emulate their favorite artists and wear the same shoes as their idols. Rap, reggaeton, and hip hop were catalysts in making sneakers a staple of modern fashion and in people’s wardrobes. 

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Kurt Cobain wearing black converse sneakers photographed by Kevin Mazur, via ABC News; with Run-DMC x Adidas Superstar sneaker 2020, HypeBeast

PUMA Suedes and Clydes were a popular choice for b-boys/girls during the 1980s while Nike Air Force 1’s were a favorite for rappers and musicians alike. Converse sneakers were starting to be worn by rock and punk artists including Kurt Cobain, Joe Strummer, or Billie Armstrong. Music and sneaker culture became intertwined even further with popular artists creating their own renditions of sneakers with sportswear brands.

Collaborations between artists and major modern fashion brands started with Run-DMC collaborating with Adidas after they released their song “My Adidas.” They created a version of Adidas Superstar sneakers which debuted in 1985. In 2020, another collaboration between the two was released commemorating the anniversary of the Superstar sneaker. Jay-Z’s collaboration with Reebok created a sneaker inspired by Gucci’s 1984 sneaker, making a similar style more accessible to the masses. Kayne West has been involved in many different sneaker collaborations, including his most popular and notable Nike Air Yeezy. He has also worked with Louis Vuitton and Adidas.  

Rihanna’s collaboration with PUMA was a defining moment in the fashion industry and the history of sneakers. Not only is she a female entertainment star, but she was also named creative director of the brand in 2016. Her brand revitalized PUMA which had declining sales. Her influence over younger females changed the way consumers viewed this sneaker brand once popular in the music industry. It is a testament to how the influence of an individual has the potential to revamp modern fashion brands that have lost favor with the public. 

Movies And Marketing To Audiences

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Seu Jorge wearing Adidas in the movie Aquatic Life of Steve Zissou, 2004, via IMDb; with Micheal Jordan wearing Air Jordans in Space Jam, via Nike

Certain shoes will forever be cemented in pop culture history as the catalyst for making sneakers a household name. The Nike Cortez, already a style sold by the brand in the 1970s solidified its cult status when it appeared in Forrest Gump. The Vans’ checkered slip-ons became widely popular after Sean Penn’s character wore the sneaker in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Baby’s white Keds from Dirty Dancing made such a huge impact that they drove the brand’s sales ten times that year, and the white sneaker is still marketed towards women to this day. Sneakers and marketing play a huge role in a brand attempting to reach consumers. 

Some sneakers featured in movies became so popular that consumer demand eventually made it possible for real-life versions to be sold years later. This was the case with Wes Anderson’s Aquatic Life of Steve Zissou, where the crew wore Adidas sneakers that were white and blue with yellow laces. Adidas released a limited-edition sneaker reportedly of only 100 pairs in 2017. Another example is the 1996 classic Space Jam when a collection of shoes that were inspired by the film was released in 2016 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the film

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Retro and nostalgic releases of favorite films generate hype over new products. Sneakers have the power for people to identify with specific eras throughout time. Being reminded of a style that was all the rage during your childhood makes these “re-releases” more enticing. Creating limited edition products from cult-favorite movies makes these sneakers more desirable for collectors. 

Pushing Gender Boundaries

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Vintage Sneaker Advertisement for women’s tennis shoes, via Public Domain Pictures; with 2020 Reebok “It’s a Man’s World” Campaign Advertisement, via HypeBeast

Made for both men and women, sneakers have helped to blend the lines between what was considered fashion for men only. Women’s fashion started to change during the early 1900s. Women were starting to go to work and become active in sports and exercise. However, their sneakers still resembled high-heels meant to give a ‘feminine’ appearance. Women still had to wear dresses and skirts during sports participation even up until the 1950s and 1960s. The participation in sports and the desire to wear what traditionally was men’s clothing, including sneakers, was a step towards women wanting to shed the restrictions placed on them.

With more women entering the workforce during the 1980s, high heels were not going to cut it as comfortable work shoes. Think of the movie Working Girl and Tess McGill wearing her sneakers through the streets of New York City while trying to establish a career on the heels of a male-dominated industry. Sneakers became a port of women’s lifestyles and were not just reserved for sports anymore. Society’s standards of dress have changed significantly. Men, but particularly women, are not as pressured to “dress to the nines” during their everyday lives. 

The inclusion of females not only participating in sports but being recognized as sports/entertainment figures that could sell sneakers just as well as men is another battle. The push for women to have collaborations with major sneaker brands or be featured in advertisements is still a boundary being tested in the industry. Game-changing collaborations include Cardi B and Reebok, Rihanna and PUMA, and Reebok’s “It’s a Man’s World Campaign”. Women are adding to the sneaker category because of their increasing buying power and demand for representation in the modern fashion market.

From Streetwear To Luxury Fashion

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Sneakers from Louis Vuitton Fall 2020 Ready-to-Wear show photographed by Armando Grillo, Burberry and Versace Fall 2018 Ready-to-Wear shows photographed by Marcus Tondo, via Vogue 

How did the affordability of brands including Nike, Adidas, or Fila start to compete with luxury brands including Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga, or Prada? Streetwear can be defined on the scarcity and knowledge of what or what not to buy. Modern fashion brands such as Supreme, Stüssy, and Palace produce products in limited edition quantities and styles that would be sold for only a short period of time. Part of the streetwear culture is being one of the few to nab these items, thus creating a higher demand for items that could be resold at higher values. Streetwear has a freshness and an edge that higher-end retailers try to capture in a market where traditional retail stores are closing shops.

One of the things that makes luxury exclusive is the high price tag placed on it. Luxury designs were the norm for the few who could afford them, but now fashion has become attainable on a variety of levels which streetwear excels at. Sportswear brands including Converse, Vans, Nike, or Adidas became essential in the streetwear culture because of their accessibility. The casualness of streetwear that stems from surf, hip-hop, or skater culture contributes to the growing athleisure trend. Wearing casual clothing is seen as fashion-forward and preferable. 

Sneakers on the runway have the potential to create new designs that have not been seen before. Modern fashion brands have the freedom to design unique shapes, interesting color combinations, and use quality materials. The history of sneakers and their rise in fashion has also led to brands including Supreme to collaborate with Louis Vuitton or Anna Wintour/Vogue with Nike. This will most likely continue to be an upcoming trend as more brands are collaborating with each other to create hyped up and special renditions of the sneaker.

Change And Controversy In Modern Fashion

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Pharell Williams x Adidas “Now Is Her Time” Campaign, 2019, via HypeBeast; with LeBron James’  “Equality” basketball shoes, 2017, via Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C.

Sneaker companies have the capacity and ability to change more than any other footwear category. The sneaker’s reach to practically everyone from sports fans to fashion influencers has great potential to spread messages more than just a modern fashion statement. Nowadays, consumers pay attention to a company’s practices and how environmentally friendly or ethically moral they are. 

Partnering with celebrities also gives sneaker companies the chance to further enact changes to their brand that take stances on issues that are important to the consumer. Pharell Williams’s collaborations with Adidas since 2014, including his HU (human) line, have centered on addressing diversity and inclusion. Both released a “Now Is Her Time” campaign that featured pregnant females and breastfeeding mothers. It was meant to empower females from all walks of life. LeBron James wore the Equality sneakers (seen above) during the Cleveland Cavaliers game against the Washington Wizards in 2017. It shows how individuals can use items, such as sneakers, to voice their opinions on subjects ranging from political to social issues.

Sneaker companies have also dealt with controversies that impacted how their brand operates. Nike dealt with extreme controversy with using sweatshops and violations of child labor rights during the 1990s and early 2000s. It was consumer demand for change that ultimately forced the brand to make changes to the way they operated. It was a big wake up call on how certain areas of the modern fashion industry operate partially overseas. This eventually led to Nike’s sustainability program and was a pivot for the company to appeal to a section of the market that was becoming increasingly environmentally conscious. 

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Controversial sneakers including Pharrell Williams x Adidas “Holi Festival” sneakers, via HypeBeast; and Adidas “Shackle Shoes” sneakers, via NPR

Cultural insensitivity is another issue faced by sneaker brands for either name, imagery, or colorway choices that insinuate racial stereotypes or appropriate cultures. Pharell Williams and Adidas created a Holi-inspired collection (Holi is a traditional festival in India) in 2018 which sparked an outcry. Even though the brand wants to focus on humanity and equality on a global scale, it was still called out for appropriation. People voiced their opinions on social media and even though they continued with the launch it still left consumers divided on the issue. 

Another large controversy was the Adidas “shackle shoes” designed by Jeremy Scott in 2012. Reportedly inspired by the toy “My Pet Monster,” it was met with a huge backlash from the African-American community and NAACP as it resembled images of slavery. The brand canceled the shoe after the criticism it received. Even years later it still brings up the question as to a brand’s motives for creating items that can be viewed as harmful to others. It was seen as either ignorant or intentional marketing amongst the public.   

Consumers can demand modern fashion brands to practice what they preach and most times they listen. Brands know that without the consumer they have no product to sell. The relationship between public consumers and sneakers is a strong bond. Established through celebrity endorsements to features in popular music/movies, it has continued to evolve and grow with each passing decade.

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By Adrienne HowellBA Integrated Studio Arts & BS Apparel DesignAdrienne currently works as a photographer and visual artist in the Midwest. She earned degrees from Iowa State University with a BA in Integrated studio arts, focusing on drawing & painting, and a BS in Apparel Design with an emphasis on fashion and textiles.