The Sneaker: Athletic Footwear, High-Fashion, or Both?

Sneakers were the footwear of choice when we were kids. We didn’t leave the house without them on our feet. Heck, some of us did not even own dress shoes until age 9 or 10. Sneakers worked in every situation. As adults though, things are different. Now we have multiple pairs of shoes ready for any occasion.

The realities of adult shoe collections suggest a question: are sneakers athletic footwear, high-fashion, or both? There is no right or wrong answer here. It is a matter of personal preference. If you need proof, look no further than a Salt Lake City boutique known as The Stockist. They by no means specialize in athletic wear. It is high-fashion for them. Yet The Stockist includes sneakers in their footwear collection.

An Abbreviated History of Sneakers

This post will not look at the history of sneakers in detail, partly because that would take up too much space and partly because history is a little fuzzy on where the shoes came from. However, an abbreviated history is in order.

It is believed that the earliest sneakers emerged in the late 19th century under the name plimsolls. The name came from the natural water line that develops on a boat hull over time. The way the rubber sole of the sneaker joins the leather upper reminded somebody of the plimsoll line.

Apparently, these early sneakers were popular among vacationers who didn’t want to wear their formal shoes or boots while trying to relax. That gave way to specialty shoes designed for the emerging sport of tennis. From there, sneakers became associated with sporting activities. It is believed they were first called sneakers in the late 1890s or early 1900s due to the fact that rubber soles were a lot quieter than hard leather and wood.

Sneakers As Athletic Footwear

Few would deny that sneakers are ideal as athletic footwear. It is a lot easier to run, jump, and pivot in a good pair of sneakers compared to dress shoes or boots. Sneakers also have built-in cushioning to ease the shock of impact. Best of all, it is not a big deal if they get beat up during competition. You wouldn’t want your dress shoes to have to endure that kind of punishment.

Sneakers As High-Fashion

Wearing sneakers as a fashion statement doesn’t seem so far-fetched anymore. In fact, just spend a half-hour or so browsing style and fashion blogs and you will find plenty of advice on how to wear your sneakers with other pieces and remain trendy at the same time. How things have changed in a few decades.

From the postwar era through the 1970s, sneakers were considered primarily athletic shoes and, in some cases, all-purpose daily footwear. Fashion magazine editors were not publishing articles explaining how to pair a sundress and sweater with low-cut oxford sneakers.

Enter Sports Marketing

So, what changed? Sports marketing. As major sports leagues began signing deals with apparel makers, a marketing partnership was born. Marketers targeted average consumers in hopes of getting them to wear sneakers everywhere. It worked.

Today, people who barely break a sweat walking from the car into the coffee shop wear sneakers as a fashion statement. Their high tops are part of their look and nothing more. That’s okay, by the way.

On the other hand, there are other people who wear sneakers both as athletic footwear and high-fashion. They tend to have more than one pair in order to accommodate both needs. At any rate, they see sneakers is even more versatile than those parents who put sneakers on their kids in the 70s and 80s.

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