The Legendary All-American Shoe

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It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Converse sneakers will never go out of style. Sure, there have been periods in which they have been more popular than others. But there hasn’t been a time since their introduction to American sports and fashion a century ago when they have been considered passé.

A quick glance at the parade of the many young, Converse-soled Brooklynites walking the sidewalks in my neighborhood confirms what I suspect: Converse shoes have been, and always will be, cool.

Of course, Converse sneakers were first made as basketball shoes. In 1917, the small, rubber-soled shoe company of Marquis Mills Converse in Malden, Massachusetts, began manufacturing its patented “non-skid,” all-American basketball shoes. With rubber bottoms and canvas tops reaching up to the ankle, the shoes were designed to provide support and traction for athletes playing the sport. Basketball had only been around since 1891 but was already extremely popular, especially as a distinctly all-American game. Rubber-soled shoes were recent, as well; the first ones made for running appeared in 1895. Around the turn of the 20th century, rubber-bottomed shoes were increasingly worn by tennis and croquet players and used more and more in physical education. People at leisure, too, quickly caught on to flexible, rubber-bottomed shoes—sneakers, as we called them, due to the fact that prison wardens wore them and because of their silent tread—creating that casual look that is now so much a part of contemporary American life.

Thus, when Converse introduced its line of athletic shoes, a burgeoning market awaited. That market really took off after World War I, when young American men demonstrated patriotism through sports showcasing their athletic abilities. The athletic shoe was poised for greatness, and Converse offered no-slide shoes for young basketball players dribbling down shiny, varnished courts. Yet another company, Spalding, had beaten Converse to the game, having introduced a line of basketball shoes already.

Enter a new strategy. To bolster its marketing and sales, Converse introduced its own basketball team, the “Converse All Stars.” Fortune further shined on the company when, in 1921, a young man by the name of Charles “Chuck” Taylor joined the basketball team and the company. He had been wearing Converse since his days playing on his high school basketball team and was a big fan. But he had some suggestions about how to improve the design.

Converse took his advice and made the shoes more pliable and supportive, with patches at the ankle for better protection of this vulnerable spot. The patch’s design eventually integrated Chuck Taylor’s signature to become the iconic, starred medallion used even today. “All Stars” was added to the shoe in a rubber emblem across the back heel of the sole, providing the shoe’s name. These changes paved the way for other names besides “All Stars.” The shoes also came to be known as “Chuck Taylors,” or simply, “Chucks.”

Chuck Taylor promoted the shoe and the sport by driving back and forth across the nation in a white Cadillac—its trunk filled with the shoes—and conducting workshops for coaches and players. He generally took on the role of spokesperson for the sport and the company. Young people looked up to the dynamic and personable athlete, and soon, Converse basketball shoes dominated the sport. But they also went beyond the initial concept. Not just for basketball players, Converse became the preferred shoes for school athletic programs and were issued to soldiers for basic training during World War II.

Though made for physical activity, perhaps more enduring has been the Converse shoe’s legacy in fashion. Initially a brown shoe with black detailing, Chuck Taylor changed the color to white in the 1930s. He also designed the U.S. basketball team’s sneakers to match the uniform. He then branched out to the classic black high top in 1949. The company introduced its low-top “oxford” version in 1957. This made the brand even more remarkably popular. There was something about these shoes that captured the spirit of American youth, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. James Dean famously wore them, epitomizing the youthful counterculture role these shoes had gained. Converse starred on the silver screen as the chosen footwear of gang members in West Side Story; likewise, the T-Birds in the movie Grease all wore black high-top All Stars. Other movies of the ’80s, like Back to the Future, solidified the shoes’ place in popular culture and mainstream fashion, though edgier characters in movies like The Breakfast Club kept them part of “alternative” fashion.

Such popularity, then, didn’t stop Converse from being the shoes of choice for rebels. Punk in the 1970s and ’80s embraced the shoe. The famous punk band, The Ramones, liked them for their looks and comfort while on stage. The early 1990s grunge rockers, led by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, were Chuck fans. Inexpensive and casual, the sneakers embodied the feeling of disenfranchised, anti-preppy young men and women across America.

By then, the association with basketball had been lost. Most kids didn’t even know who Chuck Taylor was, other than to recognize the name on their shoes. Basketball players had stopped wearing classic Converse in the 1970s, when the basic design was superceded by new trends in basketball fashion as well as athletic-wear technology. Converse’s new line, the Converse One Stars, lasted in the sport until the mid ’80s. But the flatfooted sneaker was no longer deemed sufficient support, and Converse was unable or unwilling to further reinvent its design. It had lost the irreplaceable Taylor in 1968, which may have had a hand in halting the sports trajectory of the company.

Converse evolved into something else outside of its basketball origins. The company introduced numerous colors in 1971, providing the basis for the colorful stylizations of the last few decades. Today, Converse shoes are made in such a wide variety of colors, patterns, and materials, all of them customizable, that they truly can be used as an expression of personal style. The canvas material had already been used as a medium where creative types could paint or draw on their own sneakers. For many, just one or two pairs is not enough; besides the classic black or white canvas, bright colors, leather, or knit, a choice of laces—these options create entirely new ways to wear the shoes.

A Google search of “Converse and fashion” will turn up literally hundreds of style blogs advising readers how to wear these enduring closet staples. Just last year, a group of musicians and actors featured in a short video were discussing the amazing trends in which the classic Converse shoes have been an integral part of the look, as well as new ways of wearing them. From lazy Saturday afternoon outings with jeans and a T-shirt to dressed up for an evening out, Converse remains an American fashion icon.

Katherine Adams is a professional writer and speaker who lives in Brooklyn, New York.

ABOVE: Vintage ads from 1919 and 1932.
Chuck Taylors, circa 1917 and 1934. (Courtesy of Nike)