Sneakers are shoes primarily designed for sports or other forms of physical exercise but that are now also widely used for everyday casual wear.
The British English equivalent of sneaker in its modern form is divided into two separate types – predominantly outdoor and fashionable trainers, training shoes.
However, in Australian, Canadian, and Scottish English, running shoes and runners are synonymous terms used to refer to sneakers – with the latter term also used in Hiberno-English.
Tennis shoes is another term used in Australian, and North American English.
Several terms for sneakers exist in South Africa, including gym shoes, tennies, sports shoes, sneaks, and takkies.
The history of sneakers is long and fast-paced, with various hurdles along the way.
It begins in 1839, when an American scientist named Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber: a process of adding sulphur to heated rubber to make a pliable substance, both waterproof and mouldable.
Several decades later this groundbreaking process would be applied to shoes, allowing for more durable soles. Used primarily for plimsolls, variations of which have been around since the early 19th century, the
ancestor to the modern-day sneaker was born.
Sneakers shoes acquired the nickname ‘plimsoll’ in the 1870s, derived according to Nicholette Jones’ book The Plimsoll Sensation, from the coloured horizontal band joining the upper to the sole, which resembled the Plimsoll line on a ship’s hull. Alternatively, just like the Plimsoll line on a ship, if water got above the line of the rubber sole, the wearer would get wet.
In the early 20th century, two companies were working out how to capitalise on the vast potential of rubber-soled shoes – bringing them to the masses, rather than a privileged few.
The US Rubber Company developed Keds, putting them on sale in 1916.
In 1917, Converse released its All Star shoe. By the early 1920s, with the endorsement of prominent basketball player and coach Chuck Taylor (whose name can still be found on All Stars today), the brand was booming.
Adolf “Adi” Dassler began producing his own sports shoes in his mother’s wash kitchen in Herzogenaurach, Bavaria, after his return from World War I, and went on to establish one of the leading athletic shoe manufacturers, Adidas. He also successfully marketed his shoes to athletes at the 1936 Summer Olympics, which helped cement his good reputation. Business boomed and the Dasslers were selling 200,000 pairs of shoes each year before World War II.
During the 1950s, leisure opportunities greatly expanded, and children and adolescents began to wear sneakers as school dress codes relaxed. Sneaker sales rose so high, they began to adversely affect the sales of conventional leather shoes, leading to a fierce advertising war for market share in the late ’50s.
In the 1970s, jogging for exercise became increasingly popular, and trainers designed specifically for comfort while jogging sold well. Companies also started to target some of their products at the casual fashion market. Soon, shoes were available for football, jogging, basketball, running, etc. Many sports had their relevant shoe, made possible by podiatrist development of athletic shoe technology.
During the 1990s, shoe companies perfected their fashion and marketing skills. Sports endorsements with famous athletes grew larger, and marketing budgets went through the roof. Sneakers became a fashion statement and were marketed as a definition of identity and personality rather than simply athletic aids.
Sneakers are now both ubiquitous and plural in their meanings. They speak to and participate in everything from class, to sports interests, to culture, to music taste, to a desire to bound around without feeling encumbered by uncomfortable footwear.
The largest collection of sneakers / trainers consists of 2,388 pairs and is owned by Jordy Geller (USA) based in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, as of 17 May 2012.
The largest sports shoe/sneaker measures 4 m (13 ft 1 in) long, 1.6 m (5 ft 2 in) wide and 1.7 m ( 5 ft 6 in) high and was created by Launch Group (UK) in Cardiff, UK, in March 2009. It was made on behalf of Tesco’s support for Cancer research UK’s Race for Life.
Oslo in Norway is the most expensive place in the world to buy a pair of big brand sneakers, according to the 2018 “Mapping the world’s prices” report by Deutsche Bank, listing the cost of goods and services in 50 major cities across the globe. Here, trainers by the likes of Nike, Adidas and Vans will cost you an average of $141.30 (£105.24).
The most expensive trainers (sneakers) sold at auction are a pair of Nike Air Jordan 1s, game-worn by Michael Jordan in 1985, which were sold for $560,000 (£462,351; €517,335) by Sotheby’s, on 17 May 2020.
The most expensive trainers (sneakers) sold in a private sale are a pair of Nike Air Yeezy Sample shoes worn by Kanye West (USA) at the 2008 Grammy Awards, which sold for $1,800,000 (£1,296,590 / €1,487,770), on 26 April 2021.
A pair of 1972 Nike Waffle Racing Flat “Moon Shoe” sneakers sold for $437,500 (£351,426; €391,554), including premium, at Sotheby’s in New York, USA, on 23 July 2019. The unworn shoes were hand-made by Nike co-founder and Oregon University track coach Bill Bowerman, and only a handful of the original batch of 12 pairs are left in existence.