It is likely that there is at least one pair of trainers in your closet. Many people actually own three or four pairs of these comfortable shoes. However, the concept of an athletic shoe is relatively new, especially when compared with the history of fashion and footwear. How the trainer morphed into its 2016 version is the story of how simple and functional footwear became a multi-billion dollar industry.
The first version of the trainer or gym shoe was worn in the late 18th century. Even at their inception, sneakers were made with athletic endeavours in mind. The canvas covered and rubber-soled shoes were specifically designed for playing croquet. These early trainers were primarily called “plimsolls.”
It quickly became apparent that the rubber sole was better than leather in a number of instances, especially when athletic activity or slippery surfaces were involved. The term “sneaker” was derived from the shoe’s soft-soled ability to move silently, implying that these shoes were good for “sneaking” up on others.
Finding a Purpose
Then in 1917, the first shoe was designed for the purpose of playing basketball. The American pastime was played on solid, wooden floors. As the pace of the game increased, so would the likelihood of slipping or sliding on the varnished surface. A rubber soled and canvas shoe was sturdy and gripped the floor better, but was also lightweight for quick movements and fast play. It was an instant hit among the professional players, and desire for these shoes quickly filtered down to the athletes’ fans.
The industry continued to expand with companies creating specific designs for running, football, soccer, and even tennis. Professional and Olympic athletes became the names and faces associated with these brands, and as individuals tried to mimic their athletic heroes, sales soared. However, athletic shoes were still reserved for that purpose, and it was rare to see trainers as everyday footwear. In fact, it was not until the 1950’s that people started to wear trainers during more than just sporting events.
Becoming Part of Fashion
The 1950’s saw the rise of trainers as a fashion statement. Young people, primarily in the United States, began to imitate film stars such as James Dean by wearing trainers during day-to-day life. It makes sense that trainers would be embraced as everyday footwear; the shoes were cheap, comfortable, and rebuked the formality of fashion that was popular with the older generation. As everyone could afford a cheap trainer, these simple shoes became a countercultural symbol of the workingman, much like the staples of denim and ball caps.
Despite being cost effective for consumers, the industry was seeing incredible financial results. Sales of trainers hit $6 million dollars annually in the 1950’s. This growth would only continue in decades to come, as athletic shoes would become further diversified and more unique. The increased interest in emulating sports stars combined with the popularity of worldwide brands also drove sales through to the 1990’s.
Today, there is a wide range of trainers on the market. Some are unbelievably expensive and show the athletic shoe’s ability to be at the forefront of fashion and design. However, it is still the perfect fashion statement to throw on a simple pair of canvas and rubber trainers.