The evolution of trainers

Jenessa Williams

Whether you’re a gym bunny or a couch potato, there are few people who can’t profess to owning at least one pair of trainers. But how did this laid-back style get so popular? 

Trainers in the 19th century

school plimsolls

The rise of the trainer, or sneaker, can be linked all the way back to the earliest invention of the plimsoll—a lightweight, rubber-soled shoe with a coloured horizontal sole band, thought to resemble the "Plimsoll" line on the hull of a ship.

Such shoes were popular with wealthy victorian holidaymakers, looking for something comfortable that could transport them from beach to tennis court with ease. 

"Sneakers were so named because they were perceived to be quiet enough on foot for a person to "sneak up" upon somebody"

With great potential as a hardwearing sports shoe, the US Rubber Company began to experiment with rubber soles and canvas tops to create the "sneaker", so named because they were perceived to be quiet enough on foot for a person to "sneak up" upon somebody.  

By 1916, the Rubber Company had settled upon the name "Keds"—a play on peds, the latin word for feet.

Meanwhile, in the UK, British Company JW Foster & Sons had produced their own running shoes, securing an outfitting contract with the 1924 British Summer Olympics team. With the post-First World War market increasing, the power of this celebrity endorsement paid off, growing the appetite for leisurewear.

 

Trainers in the 20th century

converse shoes

Such endorsement was also proving useful for Marquis Converse. Having produced his own take on a basketball shoe in 1923, he found himself endorsed by Indiana Hoops star Chuck Taylor, who loved the shoes so much that he took on a role as an official Converse salesman. The classic high top, round toe style became known as the Chuck Taylor All-Stars, one of the best-selling trainer styles of all time.  

In Germany, a man named Adi Dassler had created his own shoe with sporting spikes, sold under the Dassler Brother Shoe Factory. Initially aided by his elder brother Rudolf, the pair gained endorsement from Olympic sprinter Jesse Owens, but their relationship soon deteriorated. Rudolpf went on to found Puma, while Adi named his new brand after himself—ADIDAS.

While the sports market was thriving, young audiences in the 1950s were also beginning to wear trainers as an everyday item, encouraged by the devil-may-care attitude of a sneaker-wearing James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. By the 1980s, nearly as many people were wearing trainers as casualwear as they were for sports.

converse shoes

Signing a lucrative deal to produce the now-classic Nike Air Jordans, Michael Jordan became an example of how sporting and street culture could collide, encouraging brands to experiment with bold colours, shapes and innovative comfort technology in order to secure purchases in a now highly-competitive environment.

Hip-hop stars embraced the sneaker and picked their personal favourite brand as something of a uniform—Run DMC with the ADIDAS superstar, NWA with the Chuck Taylor 70s, street breakdancers and b-boys with the PUMA suedes. Much like a gold chain or expensive watch, sneakers—or trainers—had become something of a status symbol among the black community especially, a way to symbolise a kind of sub-cultural capital.

 

Trainers in the 21st century

sneakers

In the 21st century, trainers continue to have mass crossover brand appeal. Huge name collaborations with stars from the worlds of music, sport and culture continue to be a lucrative part of the sportswear marketing calendar—stars such as Kanye West, Serena Williams and Anna Wintour have all gone on to have their own trainer brands or collaboration lines.

"There remain very few high-fashion brands who haven’t released their own take on a sneaker"

Thought of for many years as an urban fashion expression, the acceptance of the trainer as a staple fashion item for all demographics has really taken off in the past 30 years.

There remain very few high-fashion brands who haven’t released their own take on a sneaker, and as the noughties introduced us to the blogger-led street style movement, the trend for athleisurewear followed—a sport-inclined style worn and enjoyed by even those who would never dream of stepping foot in a gym.

sneakers

Although many trainer brands still command enormous prices due to their collectability, there has also been a surge in companies looking to provide a more sustainable sneaker-shoe. Founded in 2004, French brand Veja sold well over half a million pairs of their trainers in 2019 alone, catering for the minimal tastes of the Scandinavian-style market. Brands such as Superga, Vans and Karhu thrive at similar levels, all speaking to different customer demographics.

We’ve come a long way from the simple rubber plimsoll, but if there’s one thing that connects us 21st-century types with the Victorians, it’s the demand for comfort—an all-purpose shoe that can keep up with the demands of work and leisure, and looking good while it does so. In this day and age, who can truly say that they don’t have a favourite pair?

 

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