Plimsolls for Prim Soles: A History of Canvas Shoes

White novesta star master shoes
Image credit: Mpumelelo Macu on Unsplash

Sneakers today are among the most colourful, elaborate, and extravagant things people put on their bodies. If contemporary fashion were fauna, trainers have evolved to be the eye-catching birds of paradise. This highly specialised evolution is all the more remarkable when you consider just how sedate their origins are. They all derive from the simple plimsoll.

Going on holiday first became a possibility for working people in Britain in the mid- to late nineteenth century. When they arrived at their coastal destinations, it was clear to all concerned that working boots were ill-suited to seaside life (Going barefoot was, it goes without saying, a no-go for any self-respecting Victorian). A solution came in the form of the plimsoll or ‘sand shoe’, as it was known. Sand shoes derived their other name from the Plimsoll line on a ship’s hull, a white marker introduced in 1876 to show the maximum depth to which a cargo ship could be loaded. The titular shoe got the name because of a lookalike strip of rubber used to affix the canvas upper to the rubber sole.

Women at the beach wearing plimsolls 1922
Women at a New York beach in plimsolls, 1922
Image credit: Library of Congress on Unsplash

These cheap, fast-drying, novel bits of footwear were first popularised by the Liverpool Rubber Company, which was established in 1861 and later acquired by Dunlop. When vulcanised rubber — that is, rubber hardened by the addition of sulphur at high temperatures — was developed across the pond by Charles Goodyear (Thomas Hancock did the same in the U.K.), a bunch of small rubber companies started making plimsolls in the late 1800s. By 1913 there were 30 different plimsoll brands stateside, all of which would be consolidated to form Keds in 1917, though it was originally named Peds after the Latin for foot.

Sailors wearing plimsoll shoes reading mail
Image credit: Australian National Maritime Museum / No known copyright restrictions

Plimsolls didn’t stick to beaches for very long. Originally built to walk on sand, they proved equally fit for a whole range of athletic activities, where their grip, comfort, and manoeuvrability proved a perfect fit. Plimsolls were quickly adopted in sports like boating, tennis, basketball, and others, with perhaps the most famous example of a sporting canvas shoe being the Converse All Star (which I’ve written about before in greater depth). The military was another early adopter, where plimsoles became part of standard-issue physical training kits in various armed forces and a popular choice of memento for soldiers leaving active service.

The cast of West Side Story wearing plimsoll shoes
The cast of West Side Story in plimsolls
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

But canvas shoes didn’t fully enter our everyday wardrobes until American teens got hold of them. Along with T-shirts and jeans, plimsoles were the de facto uniform of North American youth from the 1950s onward. Although, of course, they called them sneakers, a term that had caught on by the mid-’60s thanks to an advertising man named Henry McKinney. By the 1970s, specialised sneakers were being developed with specific sports in mind, and by the ’80s casual kicks had become ubiquitous and were no longer simply made of humble canvas in limited colours. The process of evolution had kicked into top gear. 

Regardless of this vibrant proliferation in sneaker culture, however, there are still brands known primarily for their canvas classics. Think of the enduring popularity of the aforementioned Keds and Converse, or of Vans, Superga, and PF Flyers. In menswear circles, lesser-known makers like Novesta, Doek, or PRAS are similarly prized. 

White PF Flyers plimsoll shoe
Image credit: Patrick Hodskins on Unsplash

For casual contexts, plimsolls are a timeless choice. They’re as classic and straightforward as a good pair of jeans and are as likely to improve with age and wear. It’s no surprise then that, despite advances in construction and comfort elsewhere in the world of sneakers, just about every kind of dresser will own a simple pair of canvas shoes. There is, you might say, a plimsoll for every soul.

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