If Plato inside his cave had a Rolodex of his eponymous forms, the entry for ‘shoe’ might well show the Converse All Star.
It’s hard to think of a more iconic and enduring piece of footwear from the last century. Certainly, there are few as widely worn and imitated. Famous and assorted fans include the likes of Hunter S. Thompson, Snoop Dogg, Kurt Cobain, Rihanna, Kristen Stewart, Johnny Knoxville, Michelle Obama and, recently, Kamala Harris.
Nor has any shoe proven more culturally flexible. In the early decades of the 20th century Converse plimsolls were part of standard-issue PT kits for the armed forces in the US and Britain. Chuck Taylors were synonymous with basketball courts and other sports fields as late as the 1980s. They were the de facto shoe for teens of the ‘50s (and beyond), and have crossed campuses on the soles of generations of university students. They’ve been central to countless music subcultures (including rockabilly, punk, hip hop, metal, rap, grunge, hardcore, emo, and indie rock), and graced the screens of some of the biggest movies of the last 50 years (cf. Rocky, Grease, Back to the Future, Stand By Me, Wayne’s World, Sin City, Marie Antoinette, and the Harry Potter series).
If an alien were to come to earth and ask what shoes looked like, by rights these are the ones you would hand them (a theory borne out by the fact that one such alien in the form of David Tennant’s Doctor wore Chucks during his 2005-10 tenure in Doctor Who).
The man who lent his name to the shoe, one Charles Hollis Taylor, was a basketball player turned Converse salesman. In a post-Michael Jordan era it seems natural for a famed sportsman to market a shoe design under his moniker, but while ‘Chuck’ was added to the Converse payroll in 1921 as product peddler and coach (for Converse’s basketball team, also called the All Stars), it wasn’t until a decade or so later that the now famed design would bear his name.
The original All Star was launched in 1917, complete with signature toe cap intended to safeguard the wearers’ digits on the court or track, signature diamond tread for multidirectional grip, and ‘hi-top’ with a patch to protect the ankle (the patch would bear Taylor’s name from the early ‘30s onward). For decades — like the apocryphal tale of Ford’s Model T — pairs were only available in monochrome until seven coloured options were added in 1966 based on a demand for shoes that would match specific sports uniforms (perhaps the first step toward the Technicolor world of modern sneaker design). Taylor died just three years later, having lived to see the shoe he dedicated his professional life to become an American icon.
The All Star’s conquest of the athletic footwear market was in part thanks to Taylor — a man of legendary affability — establishing the first Converse Basketball Clinics to train college players from across the US, which led to many coaches and sporting goods retailers being convinced to switch over to Chuck’s signature shoe. A further bit of canny marketing and mythologising came in the form of the Converse Yearbook, which annually celebrated notable events in the world of basketball, complete with Norman Rockwell-esque illustrations.
To date, Converse All Stars are the best-selling sports shoes of all time. And since Nike’s acquisition of the company in 2003, their sales have increased 10x — truly remarkable for a product that has been on the shelves for more than a hundred years.
Commercial savvy clearly has much to do with success here, though it isn’t the full story. The shoe’s enduring appeal seems rooted in its ability to contain multitudes. Its simple design manages seamlessly to represent countless in-groups and still have outsider appeal; worn equally by the jeunesse dorée and the anti-fashion rebel. It’s in no way gendered or age-restrictive, it goes with just about everything, looks good when pristine or tattered, and has an apparently endless capacity for reinvention.
It seems that All Star can communicate almost anything while simultaneously signifying to someone else the exact opposite (‘Converse’ — the surname of the company’s founder — having proven an apt and prescient descriptor). They’re all things to all people; a canvas shoe that’s also a blank canvas.
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