Although your typical rubber-soled shoes have been around since the 1800s when plimsolls were popular, it wasn't until nine small rubber manufacturing companies consolidated in 1892, forming the U.S. Rubber Company, that what we've come to know as "sneakers" even existed. It was due to the fact that rubber had become readily available and cheap to process that America was eventually introduced to a new kind of manufacturing process called vulcanization, a rubber setting method still in use today. This paved the way for Keds, made famous by their simple canvas uppers and comfortable rubber sole, resulting in fierce competition for the plimsoll.
In 1917, the sneaker - along with most of America's other commodities – began to be mass produced. Keds led the way: it was the first mass-marketed canvas top shoe. The same year, advertising agent Henry Nelson McKinney coined the term “sneaker” for N.W. Ayer & Son. Why? Because the shoe’s quiet rubber sole made it easy to sneak up on people.
The sports world followed suit when American footwear manufacturer Marquis Converse created canvas trainers specifically for basketball players, dubbed "Converse All-Stars" - a nod to the sport's heroes. The shoes' "high tops" lent support to the player's ankles, making them the most popular choice for basketball players, including one Chuck Taylor. In 1923, he endorsed the shoes, became a brand ambassador, and helped make Converse All-Stars the best selling basketball shoes of all time.
The next year, sneakers exploded onto the international scene, as German manufacturer Adi Dassler created the footwear brand Adidas, a strong competitor to Converse that became even stronger when track runner Jesse Owens wore Adidas trainers during his four Gold Medal wins at the Berlin Olympics. Sneakers became the official footwear of champions.
Although sneakers quickly dominated in the sports world, the fashion world was slower to catch on. James Dean's character from 1955's Rebel Without a Cause helped turn sneakers from functional to fashionable, and henceforth they started to be seen on the feet of adolescents the world over. The 1970s saw a similar shift as sneakers went from fashionable to fashion statement: hip-hop's burgeoning community of b-boys matched their sneakers to their outfits with loud colorways and bright laces.
Meanwhile, the sports industry marched in a different direction, developing new designs and technologies catered towards athletes: newcomer brand Nike developed high-traction waffle soles and air pocket cushioning. Sneaker sales saw another boost in 1985 when basketball legend Michael Jordan wore Nike's red and black high-top sneakers as a rookie for the Chicago Bulls. Dubbed "Air Jordans," the sneakers gained so much popularity it caused a backlash among sneaker lovers who wanted to stand out: sneaker collecting had begun. "Sneakerheads" soon developed as a subculture of sorts - infatuated with unique designs, Sneakerheads coveted out-of-production, vintage, and rare styles. Spearheaded by sneaker gurus like Bobbito Garcia, Dee Wells, and Eric Koston, sneakerheads have gained steam over the years, with rappers, hip-hop artists, skaters, and DJs alike adapting to the lifestyle.
In celebration of over a century of sneaker culture, the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto is hosting Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture, the first exhibition in North America to take a look back at the history of sneakers and those who love them. Running from now through to March 2014, the show will feature over 120 rare and unique sneakers spanning the past 150 years, including donations from the world's foremost sneakerheads presented along with designs from Pierre Hardy, Lanvin, and Christian Louboutin. The exhibition will also include a lecture series with sneaker experts like Jason Burke, Will Strickland, D'Wayne Edwards, and the BSM's own Senior Curator, Elizabeth Semmelhack.
Images from left: Christian Louboutin, Nike Dunk Supremes, Converse by Damien Hirst, Adidas Micropcers, Bata x Wilson x Woddens, Converse, Pierre Hardy, Prada, Onitsuka, Bata sprinting shoes, New Balance, Nike Waffle Trainers, Keds.