From rubber tree latex to fashion catwalks

Traditionally, the birth of the sneaker is associated with the invention of rubber vulcanisation, patented by the American chemist and engineer Charles Goodyear in 1844. From there, in fact, a great exhibit was launched a few years ago at the Brooklyn Museum, entitled The Rise of Sneaker Culture.

Without vulcanised rubber, the rubber sole, and thus athletic shoes, would have never come to life. Even if, in reality, it was the central American Indians who first thought to protect the sole of the foot with a layer of natural rubber, adopting this technique for centuries.

The first shoes with rubber soles did not appear until 1870, when very plain and cheap shoes became popular in the UK. (A fun fact on soles: Charles Goodyear Jr., Charles Goodyear’s son, invented a special technique to sew the upper to the sole, called, naturally, the Goodyear technique.) These shoes were commonly called plimsolls, meaning float line, because there was a coloured strip between the sole and the fabric upper that looked like the line painted on ship hulls.

Mainly used to play croquet, tennis and for outings, plimsolls were also distributed to British army soldiers. Within a few years they also became popular in the US where they began to be produced by various competing companies. The name sneaker, it seems, was coined by a salesman to advertise his products; he believed the rubber sole would allow you to sneak up on someone.

The real boom came after the First World War, when physical activity became increasingly more important with populations throughout the world, but it was only during the years between the First and Second World Wars that different models designed for different activities became popular.
However, no one ever thought to wear sneakers off the fields and out of the gym until after the war. Only in the 50s did youths, due to comfort and less rigid social impositions and school rules, start to wear athletic shoes in their free time.

Traditional leather shoe sales started to drop while sneaker sales soared. The subculture that arose at that time adored them, and slowly gym shoes became one of the cornerstones of young fashion, later, beginning in the 80s, to also be introduced in adult fashion.

The sneaker culture also emerged in the 80s: especially due to hip-hop and street wear fashion, sneakers became a cult phenomenon and a coveted object, starring in songs and videos. Today – from those purely technical to those for street wear, up to the hybrids with traditional shoes – they are shoes that attract most technical innovations and experimentations.