Applying aesthetic theory, awe, criticism and delusions of intellectualism to footwear design
â€œ A form can continue to exist but the apperception of that form will warp and fade over time and across cultures. The experience of performance will decay. The visual delight will fade.â€?
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A Broken Promise
Haven’t sneakers always promised the future? To men forging new soles in
puffs of toxic rubber steam on waffle irons, sneakers promised a chance to shape the world. To athletes, sacrificing every shred of life outside of the game, sneakers were a tool that promised to push the limits of their bodies. To me, and every other child who ever saved up for a pair of sneakers, they promised that you could run faster and jump higher. Sneakers looked and felt futuristic. Sneakers were an utopian object. More like a piece of future technology than an article of clothing. That is, until around the turn of the millennium, when sneakers brands seemed to stall out in their progressive momentum.
It wasn’t a lack of new technology necessarily but a failure to truly grasp a
new generations imagination. Perhaps it was the boom in competition in the late 90’s as Asian manufacturing became dirt cheap - further expedited by the internet and cheap flights and a booming economy and everyone speaking like three languages because it’s the 90’s and the world is global now, right? - combined with a slew of new subcultures that Nike, Adidas, Reebok and co. had assumed
wouldn’t require special footwear (skateboarding, biking, and whatever the Rave and Mall Goth crowd needed special sneakers for). In response, the sneaker juggernauts started to release their old shoes. They began to fetishize their own achievements instead of promising something new. In retrospect, it’s an odd move. When they didn’t seem to really gel with all the splintering sub-sects of youth culture for the first time in history they decided to put out the shoes that their parents (or in case of Nike buying out Converse, their grandparents) had worn. If American sitcoms have taught us anything, it’s that American teens really hate their parents style. However, it’s undeniably an effective business move if you can pull it off. Why create new styles when you can harness an advertising budget larger than the US military to fetishize what you already have? You can sell cheap products to two or three generations of customers at once and keep them all happy. Parents and children will stride around like 50’s college basketball teams in matching colors. Kids will ignore entire malls full of new styles for the same shoes good-ole-Dad wore back in his day. This was the birth of retro.
Image: Copyright Minna Parikka
“Why create new styles when you can fetishize what you already have?”
Origin Story ( short Version )
Sneakers were conceived around the beginning of the 20th century, an
early byproduct of the military/industrial complex that brought weaponized manufacturing together with new materials (like synthetic rubbers and plastics) for both military and consumer goods. During the peacetime following WWII, sneaker production kept factories up and running, replacing production of military equipment and uniforms. As the conflict between Capitalism and Communism shifted from the battlefield to the living room and the Cold War became less a military stalemate than an ideological catwalk - two nations, two social systems, strutting their cultural and technological best across a worldwide stage. Nothing less than the world was at stake for breeding a new generation of model Americans intended to inspire even the most dedicated communist to break off his USSR shackles for a cherry red Ford with a matching blonde in the passenger seat. Part of that mission was keeping the recently suburbanized Atomic family in peak physical condition.
Since farming or industrial work was no longer part of a childâ€™s everyday
â€œAdvertisements for sneakers typically depicted an antagonistic dynamic between sneakers and dress shoesâ€?
routine other physical activity had to be prescribed. This led to the invention of youth sports as we know them today (as well as the slightly panicky but heavily coiffed ‘soccer mom’ with a backseat full of children she may or may not have brought into this world but would certainly take out of it). The ensuing recreational boom required the use of lots of sports equipment, including, of course, sneakers. There is a remarkable symmetry in early Cold War American culture. In the same way that WWII condensed the entire economy into the slash between military/industrial the Cold War condensed every aspect of American life into a neat symbiotic relationship with the industry that facilitated it. When America needed to portray itself as a capitalist utopia and it’s factories needed to keep producing something made from rubber and canvas children’s sports became ubiquitous overnight and the sneaker was born. It seems eerily concerted yet somehow inevitable.
The post-war child of the 50’s grew up wearing sneakers exclusively for
recreation. They had fond memories of the tongue-click crack of a Louisville slugger sending them sprinting around the diamond, their lightweight rubber soles kicking up purple clouds of chalk and dust in the fading twilight. In addition to town or school organized sports the tightly packed suburban neighborhoods and post-agro/pre-consumer downtime made casual pick-up sports easy. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before sneakers broke out of the locker room and onto driveways and sidewalks.
In this era, advertisements for sneakers typically depicted an antagonistic
dynamic between sneakers and dress shoes. A child in a suit and wingtips would watch another child lace up a pair of sneakers, his mouth in a gaping “O” of
“Rebellion symbolized in footwear”
astonishment and a belted pile of schoolbooks clutched to his chest in jealousy. Two children epitomizing the generational transition from the civilian uniform of the WW crowd to the more recreation look of the baby-boomers. It was also arguably the first new example of teenage rebellion since running off to join the army - which was obviously more dangerous and bold than wearing sneakers outside the gym but also more socially acceptable and actually made your parents extremely proud at the end of the day. It started innocently enough but the James Dean t-shirt and sneaker combo was essentially the birth of American teenage rebellion, especially once Brando added the leather jacket. It was a uniform which symbolized a brooding mobility that somehow reeked of casual sex and physical prowess. It was this rebellion symbolized in footwear that tied sneakers to youth. For the next four or five decades the sneaker was reinvented for each successive generation.
Admittedly, the first retro sneaker (i.e. not continuously produced - like the
Converse All-Star) was the Nike Air Force 1. The AF1 was invented by Nike designer Bruce Kilgore by the end of 1979 but it’s wide release date is usually credited as 1982 (this date is also etched on the original silver deubré). By 1984, it was discontinued and put out of production, like most Nike sneakers, to make way for faster, lighter, newer models. However, in 1986, the AF1 was resurrected. The sneaker worlds first zombie rose from the dead - although there was a relatively short gap between these releases and the AF2 and AF3 came out in the successive years. The same could be said of the Jordan III, originally released in 1988, then widely re-released in 1994. Both of these shoes suffered from their lack of technological edge and didn’t sell particularly well. “Retro” wasn’t born yet.
There was no value system for last year’s sneakers in a market dominated
by the new; technologically, socially, aesthetically or as a generational signifier. There was no natural instinct to own your fathers shoes. It would take another decade of marketing to fetishize the past and transfer the sneaker addicts tastes
toward a recycled product.
In the first few years of the 2000’s the first three AF and Jordan styles were
re-released yet again. This time they were a massive success. It turns out that Nikes masturbatory obsession with a handful of it’s own (sponsored) collectors had convinced an entire generation that it was hip to collect sneakers. Most notably, the iconic Spike Lee, who appeared in several print ads in a bedroom stuffed with dozens of boxes of identical Jordans (and a basketball hoop). At the same time a very different cultural trend had made it “hip” (in a very specifically air quotes way) to wear old sneakers. The alternative culture of the 90’s was all about deliberately weaponizing cultural slag with irony in an attempt to undermine, or at least defang, mass consumerism. Suddenly, it seemed cool, if not incredibility important, to do the exact opposite of what TV told you to do. If Nike says you need to buy lighter, cleaner, newer sneakers than you wear the oldest, heaviest, dirtiest pair of sneakers you can find. This was intended to give Nike the financial and cultural middle finger.
It turns out consumption as social rebellion against consumption actually
worked out quite well for Nike. The only problem was that they couldn’t seduce the new generation with fancy new tech or advertisements. However, once the ideological movement had dissipated into a cultural aesthetic (it’s not completely accurate to say “grunge”... but yeah pretty much “grunge”) they didn’t need to sell anything, they just put out old styles and the advertising work was done for them by the very people who were attempting to undermine them. Also, with the increased social cache of wearing discontinued products demand
“There was no value system for last year’s sneakers in a market dominated by the new”
had inadvertently build up for an increasingly scarce resource. Nike couldn’t have designed a better media campaign. In the early 2000’s all of these forces converged, sending retail shelves twenty years back in time.
A minor side story in an episode of the time travel sci-fi show Fringe depicts
a couple separated in two different realities. In both realities the couple has to make a decision on which one of them would go downstairs and fix a fuse in what turns out to be a faulty fusebox, thus killing one of them. Basically, they are inadvertently flipping a coin to decide who will die. From this decision two universes are created, one which the woman dies, and one in which the man dies. Over the course of the episode the surviving woman and man, each in their respective timelines, become aware of their deceased lovers parallel other and attempt to break through into the alternate universe to be together. However, their attempts cause an unhealthy amount of ghostly glowing and camera shaking and is apparently damaging the barrier between realities and so must be stopped. So the main characters spend the episodes climax trying to convince this woman that the man she is trying to connect with is not actually her husband. He looks the same, he acts the same, he had an identical life up until the fateful divergence, yet he is not the same person. In fact, they have never met. They can’t be in love each other because they are not the same people they fell in love with. Eventually he mentions two beautiful daughters, which she doesn’t remember, and she realizes he is not the man she was in love with and that they should not be together and we all learn a valuable lesson about letting things go and not resurrecting old relationships.
I’m not necessarily endorsing this episode, or Fringe, but I think there is
â€œThe footwear equivalent of a deceased lover in a parallel universeâ€?
a valuable lesson in this episode for brands and customers obsessed with retro footwear. Retro shoes have a two-generational appeal; they offer nostalgia to those who grew up with the shoe and iconic value to the younger generation. Unfortunately for both groups these shoes are not what they appear to be. They are the footwear equivalent of deceased lovers in a parallel universe. They did not share your experiences or your history. They may appear similar (but actually not at all, more on that later) but they have nothing in common with that which you either miss or idolize. You do not love retro sneakers, what you desire is forever lost - retro will not bring it back.
time travel lies
It seems self-evident that retro shoes are, at the very least, visually and structurally the same. A retro Converse All Star or a Nike AF1 or a Reebok Omni-Pump look essentially the same as an original if you put them side by side. However, the important details are not found by comparing two shoes side by side in the present. What retro shoes promise is not an identical version of an artifact from the past but an actual part of the past. It is an attempt to package an experience and signifier from the past as a commodity in the present. This is a critical difference - essentially the difference between visiting a museum and time travel. Retro promises time travel but delivers a museum. Actually, even worse, museum reproductions. A large part of understanding that difference is not build into the limited vocabulary of footwear criticism (or colloquial fashion and design criticism) and lies in viewing footwear as we actually experience it, an apperception - a composition of sensory inputs and accompanying signifiers. By which I mean, quite simply, how a shoe looks and feels, and the wearers response to that information.
For any discussion of footwear, outside of manufacturing or physics, the
apperception of a shoe is the shoe. The shoe is not an object, the physical object only serves to suggest sensory information to the wearer. For example, when the Converse Rubber Shoe Company first launched the Converse All-Star in 1917 it was the pinnacle of footwear performance. Even compared to contemporaries such as Spalding and Keds the All-Star was lightweight, comfortable, supportive and durable. In 1921, the Converse Rubber Shoe Company enlisted basketball star Chuck Taylor to travel across America and offer basketball clinics at high schools and YMCA’s to promote the sneaker. Those who tried on the All Star were blown away and it became the footwear standard for basketball teams across the country. In WWII the United States military adopted the shoe as standard issue for all it’s training exercises. The shoes were used almost exclusively by all American basketball teams, and most international and Olympic teams, until the 1970’s. Without a doubt these were the most comfortable, durable and high-performance shoes on earth. Today, however, the Converse All Star is an undeniably uncomfortable shoe. It has absolutely no arch support, ankle support or padding, the upper is flimsy and ill-fitting and shoe falls apart quickly, even with advances in production quality and rubber purity. Anyone would look pretty ridiculous trying to actually play basketball, or do any physical activity, in All Stars. So, what changed? How did a shoe go from the peak of performance to uncomfortable and impractical? The shoe itself didn’t change. What changed was the experience of the shoe. The object is irrelevant. The All Star felt the same way to Chuck Taylor in 1921 as the Air Jordan felt to Michael Jordan in 1985 as the new basketball shoe feels to the new basketball prodigy whenever you are
â€œRetro promises time travel but delivers a museumâ€?
reading this. A shoe on a foot has no empirical value - it is not comfortable, it is not lightweight, and it is not beautiful. If a shoe did posses any of these values intrinsically then the All-Star would forever be a cutting-edge, lightweight, highperformance sports shoe. The shoe exists as an apperception, barely connected by biased sensory perception to the actual object, as a complex amalgamation of cultural references, social cues, personal bias, codified meaning, associated memories and thousands of other factors. It can only be comfortable, or lightweight, or durable, or any other value, to an individual in a specific time, place and culture. A form can continue to exist but the apperception of that form will warp and fade over time and across cultures. The experience of performance will decay. The visual delight will fade.
This is why the promise of retro is so hollow. Retro cannot offer time travel
and take us back to re-experience a shoe as it was. It can only present an object in the present and thus inherently different than the original shoe. An alternate universe object which has nothing in common with the shoe we miss or idolize. The retro shoe may have the name of itâ€™s predecessor but it will not have the apperceptive pleasure. It is imitation of form, not of value.
However, the experiences of our iconic shoes are not lost. The apperceptive
pleasure felt when slipping on that perfect pair of sneakers can not be found in the same pair twenty years later, but it can still be found again. Where retro reproduces the form of a shoe without the apperceptive pleasure, innovative shoes can reproduce that pleasure in new forms. A new design can trigger the same senses and signifiers to recreate an experience.
I think itâ€™s worth mentioning that Iâ€™m not trying to make you hate retro
â€œRetro reproduces the form of a shoe with the apperceptive pleasure, innovative shoes can reproduce that pleasure in new formsâ€?
shoes.In fact, the innovative aspect of footwear has certainly made a comeback in recent years with new construction techniques like foamposite and seamless uppers on the shelves today and 3D printing and auto-lacing styles on the way. Retro has nestled itself into the sneaker world and will probably always eat up a large percentage of the market. This isnâ€™t a terrible thing but the false aura of apperceptive experience can be distracting to both customers and designers. Itâ€™s important to understand the difference between form and experience. Shoes from the past, especially those with significant cultural and personal impact, are extremely important for designers. The same form will not recreate the experience which was so treasured in these shoes but new forms certainly can. Remember, the All Star felt the same way to Chuck Taylor in 1921 as the Air Jordan felt to Michael Jordan in 1985. Great design can recreate in new forms with the same, or hopefully greater, apperceptive pleasure. The goal of footwear design, as I see it, is to maximize apperceptive pleasure - to create a form which orchestrates experience harmoniously.
This article is part 1 of a series on footwear design. Part 2 will break down apperceptive value and discuss how design turns experience into form.
Origin Story ( Long Version )
With the dramatic conclusion of WWII on September 2, 1945, a generation
of soldiers left the battlefield and returned home. These soldiers, raised on two successive World Wars, found that the war came home with them. The atomic bomb and the Cold War arms race brought the constant threat of destruction from the battlefield into the backyard. The social landscape was in flux, both at home and abroad - women had entered the workplace and taken up traditionally masculine roles, Communism and alternative political systems threatened to halt Capitalist progress and the world seemed bleak about itâ€™s continued existence. In response, this generation of soldiers attempted to re-enforce strict gender roles, buy their way into the Capitalist dream and construct their own shelters (both literally and mentally). Along with these re-established social constraints came uniforms. Material rationing and several generations of military servicemen had reduced clothing down to all but the bare essentials. There were basically two standardized forms of dress for a man - the military uniform and the civilian uniform. â€œSoldiers returning home from [WWII] often did not have suitable
clothing to wear. Many were boys when they left, and their bodies had since changed. As the troops were demobilized, the soldiers were given civilian suits to wear - a tie, shirt, shoes and raincoat.” These uniforms reflected a long unbroken history of codified male clothing and while the suit and tie had evolved - in cut, material, details and articles - male footwear had remained essentially the same for generations. Leather shoes, with a leather sole and small heel (about 0.5”) and three to five eyelets for thin waxed laces in either the oxford (with closed laces sewn together at the bottom) or the derby/blucher (with open laces) style. “Uniforms subjugate individual identity in the conscience solidification of group identity,” explains Kate Cregan, in her text Key Concepts in Body and Society. By 1954, just shy of a decade after the end of WWII, the codified male uniform and the culture around it - even the very concept of submitting to a single group identity - began to unravel. Children raised inside the “mental fortress” of the post-war family began to adapt the uniform to their changing lifestyle. Teenagers shed the old uniform entirely and replace it with a range of looser, more experimental codifications and lifestyles. This is the story of the rise of the sneaker; a small change in footwear that exemplifies a massive breaking point in Western culture.
While other sneaker came before, and hundreds of thousands after, the
Converse All-Star has remained one of the most influential sneakers in Western culture. So, for the sake of historical simplicity, we will be using the lifespan of the All-Star to parallel the evolution of the culture around it.
If the 20th century is the “Century of the Child”, as posited by the Museum
of Modern Art in their exhibit of the same name, then the early 1950’s are truly it’s epoch. In response to the fear and paranoia of the Cold War civilization rallied around the child as a mechanism of change and an escape from the present. An entire generation of young parents barricaded themselves inside suburban shelters and adopted a sort of nihilistic stance toward shaping their own lives, instead seeing children as the only possible agent for a better future. According to Elaine Tyler May, in her book Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, young couples earnestly adopted “traditional gender roles, early marriage, domesticated sexuality and a home life centered on security.” In a study done in the early 50’s, funded by the Ford Foundation, two Harvard sociologists examined sixty-thousand families in order to determine the elements of a Successful American Family. Their results perfectly encapsulate the feeling of the era.
“Russia exploded an atomic bomb, and American scientists monitored
its fallout of fission products. Non-stop simulated bomber flights in the upper atmosphere were now reported by the U.S. as traveling around the world in about forty-five hours. Trouble arose in the Middle East. Hungary broke into revolution. Then came sputnik, space vehicles, ICBM’s and crash programs for training more scientists. The world is like a volcano that breaks out repeatedly... the world approaches this critical period with a grave disruption of the family system... The new age demands a stronger, more resolute and better equipped individual... To produce such persons will demand a reorganization of the present family system
and the building of one that is stronger emotionally and morally.”
The focus on “children as the future” extended far beyond just the single
family unit. Governments felt the same obligation to equip the post-war child and responded by refocusing their effort on the education system and sports programs to hopefully raise a generation that would embody the American dream in both mind and body.
“As the threat of a real war being waged on American soil grew with every
passing day, the nation’s leaders recognized that the youth of the country needed to be physically fit. The establishment of the President’s Council on Youth Fitness was the result. The Communist threat included godlessness, and through sport America responded by reviving the concept of muscular Christianity. Little League Baseball, Pop Warner Football, and Biddy Basketball became tools with which American society could inculcate the moral values deemed necessary for young boys and teenagers.”
It was here, in school gym classes and sports fields of the late 40’s and early
50’s, that America first discovered the sneaker. Sneakers were considered purely athletic equipment during this time and they were bought in large quantities by educational or recreational institutions, often in the school or team colors, and used only for physical activity. It was during this time that the Converse AllStar - originally an obscure seasonal product from a tire company - gained early ubiquity in the emerging sneaker market.
According to Converse itself (now a division of Nike Inc.) their story began
in 1908 when Marquis Mills Converse started a rubber company to produce tires and other goods. By 1918, the Converse product line began to produce sneakers on a seasonal basis, to support the fledgling new sport of Basketball. Most of the shoes were sold to colleges, although leather shoes were considered the standard and were substantially more durable - especially for teams who did not wish to replace their equipment each season. WWII brought the biggest break for the Converse shoe company, and “many products destined for servicemen overseas now became a focus of Converse manufacturing. The product range included footwear, apparel, boots for pilots and army servicemen, parkas, and rubber protective suits and ponchos.” After the war, Converse shifted it’s focus back to sports footwear and turned it’s expanded and streamlined manufacturing force back to producing the Converse All-Star.
This manufacturing power coupled with the rise of government sponsored
sports programs made the All-Star, and sneakers in general, a part of every American childs life. For an entire generation some of their best memories and greatest achievements occurred while wearing sneakers and, as it felt to many children, because of them. The rise in suburban living created new social conditions for the post-war child which lent themselves to a new definition of sport and the need for equipment to facilitate that lifestyle. The physical proximity of houses in suburban neighborhoods led to a culture in which it was suddenly easy to gather a rag-tag team together and play an organized sport without
institutional guidance. Through educational integration, sport had become so culturally ambiguous that everyone knew the rules. At the same time, the rapid social adoption of consumerism began to shift directly onto the post-war child. In Century of the Child: Growing by Design, Juliet Kinchin explains the rise of child consumerism; “the construct of the child as a little consumer replaced previous models used to represent the child in the context of the marketplace as market researchers increasingly studied children and developed tactics to elicit their preferences... children between the ages of five and thirteen ‘make purchases of goods and services for their personal use and satisfaction’.” This put Converse in a unique position outfit these loose suburban sports and move from the gym to the driveway.
The cover of the 1961 Converse Basketball Yearbook showcases the cultural
placement of sneakers in this era. The setting of this cover, a suburban driveway with a basketball game going on in the background, is quite revolutionary organized sports are shown outside of a gym context for the first time in Converse history - however, the child on the left is still changing into his Converse before playing. Despite the neighborhood setting even Converse wouldn’t show the shoes as normal clothing. The child is changing from a pair of leather oxfords into the sneakers in order to join the game. This perfectly describes the cultural placement of sneakers in this era. The dichotomy of the two figures shown in the forefront is also indicative of the time period. The child on the right clearly represents the previous generation, dressing up as the post-war parent, looking down in curiousity at the next generation. He wears the “civilian uniform” of a
suit, tie and leather oxfords, complete with spectacles and a suitcase. The child on the left is shown in a white t-shirt and blue slacks, putting on his sneakers. He is shedding the old uniform in order to dress properly for his new lifestyle, an innocent representative of the cultural revolution to follow.
“The one group of postwar Americans least able to deny reality and to block
out their fears were the young of America, those children and young adults who were emotionally and psychologically susceptibly to atomic nightmares and atomic insecurities. By focusing on the psychological troubles of America’s young and by highlighting the social deviance and rebelliousness of American youth, the culture of dissent illuminated the social and psychological disruption that characterized life in the age of anxiety. The prevalence of youthful discontent called into question the efficacy of the ‘psychological fortress’ built by American families during the cold war.”
As the first children of the post-war generation hit their teen years the
American dream set forth by their parents had already started to show it’s cracks. What the previous generation saw as the foundations of an idyllic new lifestyle the next generation saw as hollow cultural facade. The new suburban lifestyles seemed forced and detached, hollow and artificial. Teenagers felt an urge for authenticity, true emotion, mobility, and new lifestyles carved out of their personal urges instead of a national cultural agenda. “The youthful impulse to go, to move, to seek something, and the young impetus for an all-encompassing rebellion infused the delinquent youth culture that
expanded from the mid-1950’s forward. Against the ordered purposefulness, the stasis, the silence of their elders, the young flaunted their mobility, their stridency, their emotionalism, and their search for a spiritual and existential way out of an unfulfilling, ugly and unsafe world. Emblematic of the vocal and mobile expression of youth was the new philosophical and musical “beat” that increasingly captured the tones of the youth cultures rejection of America’s unemotive stance in a troubled world.”
While the adoption of the automobile remains iconic for fulfilling the youth
urge for mobility in this era, it was also part of their parents lifestyle. It didn’t offer true rebellion or a unique lifestyle. Sneakers on the other hand, offered an authentic sense of mobility derived from a shared childhood experiences unique to their generation. Sneakers stripped the old generation of the last element of their uniform. James Dean had already effectively outfitted the next generation, in both character and dress. In Rebel Without a Cause he personified his generations plea for emotional authenticity and mobility. His outfit - white t-shirt, blue jeans, a leather jacket and sneakers - held the same powerful expression. The rise of Rock&Roll also helped define the youth rebellion of the 50’s and 60’s and every big name, from Elvis to the Beatles, wore Converse All-Stars. Music captured the spirit of this era, it provided a soundtrack, acted as an ambassador for social change, created new personas and set up a social framework for youth rebellion.
When the Beatles first arrived in America they played a relatively non-
confrontational style of Rock&Roll in thin black suits and polished leather shoes, only a minor variation on the American uniform. The suits were thinner and
the shoes higher, but the uniform remained the same. However, within less than a decade their style shifted dramatically and the Beatles were playing socially challenging woozy psychedelic pop in Converse, wide-legged jeans and t-shirts. Similarly, Elvis starts his career oscillating between military hero in leather boots and a flight suit and his “blue suede shoes”, which in themselves speak volumes about the era. Blue suede shoes defy mobility - they are about isolated luxury, you cant run in blue suede shoes, they are merely a fragile but eye-catching shackle to a lifestyle in which you only move between home, car, work and possibly a wellpolished dance floor. As Elvis transitions into wearing sneakers, about the time he records “Jailhouse Rock”, it exemplifies the shift away from isolated luxury and into rebellious rejection of the materialistic mainstream. Converse advertisements remained almost exclusively basketball focused up until the 90’s. However, in the late 60’s and early 70’s there are a few exceptions. One advertisement features a man and a women running out from the page with a series of sport activities framed in abstract shapes behind them. Interestingly, the figures are clearly not wearing athletic clothing, but contemporary alternative fashions. They are running, but not in the context of sport. They are running as a message, away from the sports behind them, to express their freedom. This is the first time a woman had appeared in a Converse advertisement and here she is seen running with a man, slightly ahead of him even. This was the era of equal rights and sexual revolution and although men and women still rarely played sport together they share the lifestyle embodied by their sneakers. Grammatically, this ad is certainly awkward - “for years the pros have been putting us on” - until one considers the other meaning of “putting someone on”, meaning to trick or deceive
someone. Viewed in this sense, it becomes clear why a decidedly modern couple, decked out in new non-athletic fashion, literally running away from sports. The ad asks, “how about you?”, are you still stuck in the old uniform or forging new paths in your Converse. It’s a message of subversion and freedom embedded in footwear; the ascribed meaning of the early sneaker adopters becoming mainstream cultural codification.
Another ad which appeared in the late 70’s is much more sexually suggestive.
Three figures are seated at a table; two men in heavily patterned slacks and buttondowns with heavy black socks and a women in a skimpy bikini. The men wear Converse and the women remains barefoot, one foot arched upward on it’s toes and the other running up the leg of the man sitting across from her. Her hand rests on the hand of the other man, implying a relationship. The text reads, “Converse Coach and Jack Purcell, for guys who want to keep playing after the game is over.” While this ad speaks volumes about the sexual revolution of the time in terms of the sneaker history, we can see the sneakers here appearing in a completely fashion related context. Sneaker, by this time, have been completely adopted as an embodiment of the new youth culture which reflects the dramatic cultural shifts which took place between this ad and the 1961 Converse Basketball Yearbook. Sport is only mentioned in word play, hinting that sneakers, as “equipment for sport”, are taking on a new meaning, as equipment for “the game” of sexual promiscuity. This double meaning, which appears in both of the advertisements from this time period, reflects a sort of cultural subversion that served to ease the rebel generation into the idea that buying something could be a subversion of consumerism - or least the culture in which it grew up around them.
“In the 60’s, the baby boomers declared their implacable opposition to the system, they renounced materialism and greed, rejected the discipline and uniformity of the McCarthy era, and set out to build a new world based on individual freedom,” explains Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, in their book A Nation of Rebels: Why Counter-Culture Became Consumer Culture, “forty years later, ‘the system’ does not appear to have changed very much, if anything, consumer capitalism has emerged from decades of countercultural rebellion much stronger than it was before.” As it became necessary to outfit this rebel generation the substance of subversion evolved into underhanded consumerism perfectly exemplified by Converse in these ads. The act of buying a piece of childrens gym equipment and using it to embody a statement of cultural, social and sexual subversion enabled consumerism to thrive on the rebellion of youth. It was not an entirely empty gesture either, this adoption of consumerism actually did have a profound influence on diffusing these ideas into the mainstream and realizing the counterculture agenda. In this way, we see sneakers outfitting youth rebellion, codifying its message and harnessing consumerism to spread those ideas into broader culture.
The history of Converse transforming itself from a military manufacturing
company into a consumer icon reflects the “sword into ploughshares” mentality of the post-war era. As a result of the World Wars there was a substantial sustained investment in new technologies and materials, as well as a military-industrial complex which enabled the creation of large-scale production systems. When the wartime manufacturing force was turned back toward peace-time applications the
result was a period of intense transition and innovation. So far we have studied the social adoption of the sneaker but now we will look at the sneaker itself and how it represents the Cold War culture even as a self-contained object.
The material which defines sneakers is the rubber, and more specifically
vulcanized rubber, which makes up their revolutionary soles and affords them their look and performance. “Rubber” originally meant the milky emulsion of the rubber tree, Hevea Brasiliensis, however the term now also includes vulcanized rubber and synthetic rubbers. Converse originally used rubber treated with heat or chemicals to form crosslinks between polymers, turning soft, sticky natural rubber into a strong, durable material through a process known as vulcanization (after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire). The principals of vulcanization were originally discovered in the early 19th century by Charles Goodyear when he applied heat to rubber in order to create a durable material to replace leather in friction padding for industrial machinery. However, it was the early 20th century discovery of the rubber-aniline reaction - or chemical vulcanization - which made rubber manufacturing possible on a large scale with consistent performance. Less than a decade later Converse began to produce products using this method. This process, and it’s industrial proliferation, can be indirectly attributed to the extensive research and manufacturing of new artificial chemicals during WWI, often referred to as the “Chemist’s War”.
By WWII, Converse was part of a massive industrial force of rubber
manufacturers. Large-scale government funded demand led to a huge rise in manufacturing ability and technical proficiency for chemically vulcanized rubber
products which Converse expertly adapted to post-war sneaker manufacturing. At the same time, thousands of new materials and factories were also adapting to post-war customers. One of the most iconic evolutions of a wartime material was molded plywood, as designed by Charles and Ray Eames. Shortly before WWII Charles and Ray were experimenting with molding plywood, using a homemade machine which used a bicycle pump to inflate bladders that forced the plywood against a electrically heated plaster mold. With WWII came a lucrative government contract with the United States Navy for molded plywood leg-splints, as well as access to classified developments in synthetic glues and plywood production. Moving from an apartment operation to a manufacturing force overnight and producing hundreds of thousands of leg splints for the military enabled the Eameses to mass-produce their furniture. Their most iconic pieces, including the DAR, LCM and Lounge chairs, used the plywood techniques they had developed during the war and their manufacturing ability allowed them to mass-produce on a scale which substantially impacted the American aesthetic landscape. This success story, one of the most famous examples of Cold War design, perfectly mirrors the story of Converse - a small start-up with a simple idea who harness the military-industrial complex to perfect and mass-produce their products in a way that permanently shaped post-war America.
As society began to universally adopt the sneaker as itâ€™s footwear of choice
a series of alternative brands entered the marketplace including Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Puma and New Balance. Up until this point Converse had stuck to itâ€™s traditional silhouette, however as new brands brought new competition it became
important to create new and exciting designs that appealed to Cold War youth. The resulting designs tapped directly into the root of Cold War culture and the very objects which inspired both an overwhelming fear of destruction and an excitement for the possibilities of the future. Footwear designers (an entirely new profession at the time) looked to the rocket and the atom for inspiration - attempting to tap into the futuristic appeal of the space age and the chilling technological progress of the atom.
As sneakers began to borrow heavily from Cold War aesthetic culture they
became much more complicated - featuring at least four times as many materials as the All-Star with new features such as air vents, plastic inserts, foam rubber and ABS soles. Each of these elements draws directly from military technology. The air vents and geometric lines trimmed with aerodynamic angles reference WWII planes and missiles. Plastic, and itâ€™s derivatives PU, TPU and ABS, appear throughout the design - referencing in form and function their original use as airplane control panels and radar hubs. Each eyelet is reinforced in plastic, as well as several decorative elements suggesting ammunition or vents. A tough ABS frames the soft TPU sole, cushioning impact while maintaining durability. This is a basketball sneaker designed as a weapon - drawing on the materials, techniques and vocabulary of Cold War armaments.
One advertisement for the Converse Energy Wave hi-top frames these
references literally by depicting the ERX 300 sneaker as a missile or rocket,
launching (“Converse ‘launches’ the Energy Wave”) upwards, framed by white clouds in a blue sky. Another mimics the form and actions of a missile. The missile was a terrifying object but it also held powerful connotations of power, innovation and progress. By this point in the Cold War society had come to accept the duality of modern innovation - it brought both innovation and threat. The key to manipulating these inseparable values was to align each in the right direction. In the same way that a missile pointed toward Russia would represent innovation for an American while simultaneously instilling fear in a Russian, the Energy Wave (proudly depicted in red, white and blue) signalled American progress for Converse while instilling fear in Nike and Adidas.
In response to the proliferation of competitive sneaker brands an arms
race began to capitalize on war-time technologies for better performance that would capture the imagination of a tech-obsessed generation. In response to the Converse Energy Wave Nike launched the AirMax, which featured an air-filled plastic bubble inside the heel of a foam-rubber sole. The plastic inflatable was first developed by the U.S. military as part of an experimental program attempting to launch rockets from the bleak snowfields above the arctic circle where supplies were not available to build a launch pad. Other designers had also adapted this technology for commercial use, such as Quasar Khanh and his Apollo sofa.
By the time the Cold War began to draw to it close the sneaker had become
a symbol of modernity and a generational dividing line. More so than perhaps any other Cold War object it has maintained it’s youthful value - there are always sneakers which culture “leaves to the young”. By embodying the Cold War
value of innovation, and constantly striving for new aesthetics with the same desperation as those who believed they were designing their way out of nuclear annihilation, the sneaker continues to evolve into designs and shapes too modern for all but the most daring youth. The rise of the sneaker can certainly be used to exemplify the Cold War, but it also maintains itâ€™s Cold War values for each successive generation. Humanity will never truly grapple with itâ€™s capacity to destroy itself, or create progress without creating problems, but the sneaker will always be around to remind us how to break down barriers, reinvent our future and tap into the potential of even the darkest moments of humanity.