A Brief History of America’s Obsession With Sneakers (2023)

A Brief History of America’s Obsession With Sneakers (1)

The way Bill Bowerman told the story, one of Nike’s greatest innovations came to him at breakfast. The University of Oregon track coach, who meticulously crafted custom shoes for each of his athletes, had been struggling to develop a shoe that the team could wear to train on surfaces other than the track. His “eureka” moment came while eating waffles with his wife on a summer Sunday in 1971, when it occurred to him that the grooves of the waffle iron were a perfect mold for the multi-terrain soles he envisioned. He poured molten rubber into iron after iron until he perfected the waffle sole pattern that Nike, which he cofounded in 1964, continues to use on some running and training shoes today.

According to Nicholas Smith, author of the new book Kicks: The Great American Story of Sneakers, the whimsy of the waffle-iron shoes became the “big Nike legend.” One of Bowerman’s original waffle irons can even be found at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon today. But to Smith, the waffle iron experiment may say even more about Bowerman himself than his brand.

“[Bowerman had] this kind of obsessiveness about what to many people probably is sort of an insignificant object,” says Smith. “He would meticulously test on his athletes what was working in his shoe, and what wasn’t working…. When he saw that waffle pattern, that shape, he said, ‘Aha, these little square cube things that go on the shoe will provide the most grip.’”

A Brief History of America’s Obsession With Sneakers (2)

But it’s this kind of dedicated tinkering and entrepreneurship that pervades the history of sneakers altogether. According to Smith’s research, sneakers as we know them may never have existed without Charles Goodyear’s serendipitous invention of vulcanized rubber in 1839. Despite his poor business sense that landed him repeatedly in debtor’s prison, the inventor saw an opportunity for technological advancement when he purchased hundreds of rubber life preservers in 1834 that had melted in the New York City summer heat. After years of fruitless experimentation, Goodyear finally happened upon the combination of lead, sulfur and heat that would allow the rubber to keep its shape.

“Charles Goodyear and Bill Bowerman were cut from the same mold. They were both obsessive basement inventors that would tinker with something until it worked,” says Smith. “[Goodyear] had more error than trial trying to find the right concoction that would make vulcanized rubber, but once he had it, it was a complete game-changing material for the Industrial Revolution.”

(Video) A Brief History of America’s Obsession With Sneakers

Goodyear’s invention of heat-withstanding rubber soon found an application: functional shoes for organized sports. Smith writes that the first rubber-soled sneaker was made in the 1860s for croquet, where the potential for grass stains and damage to the lawn necessitated a shoe with a durable, yet flexible sole. The croquet trend turned into a tennis craze among elite men and women, who created a market for fashionable and functional sports shoes. As more people took to spending their leisure time playing sports, it became clear that their usual leather dress shoes simply would not hold up.

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In the decades that followed, the leisurely privilege of the upper class saw a gradual democratization. The advent of basketball in 1891, for example, had students and YMCA members quickly hooked. Chuck Taylor, a semi-professional basketball player himself, cornered early court shoe demand for decades with his canvas and rubber All Stars, which he personally hawked at high schools around the country. Basketball eventually took hold both with professional athletes in world-class arenas and with adolescents on inner-city blacktops. The allure of athletics reached even farther as running began to trend in the 1970s and Farrah Fawcett-inspired aerobics took off, solidifying the idea that anyone could be an athlete.

Smith emphasizes the especially inclusive effect that the jogging and aerobics boom had on the sneaker market. “This is when people started to discover that exercise and fitness could also be a form of leisure and fun,” he says. “You saw magazines like People with provocative titles like, ‘Everyone’s Doing It.’ Time magazine and Newsweek featured people jogging and doing aerobics, holding up pictures of their old, less fit selves…. It was the first time in history when ordinary people were doing these things.”

As sports fanaticism permeated American culture, it behooved shoe companies to appeal to diverse, newfound pockets of the market, which often meant letting go of antiquated biases. In the late ‘70s, as members of the NBA’s inner circle voiced narrow-minded concerns about the difficulty of “[selling] a black sport to a white public” (as one told Sports Illustrated in 1979), Nike took a big financial gamble in signing the ascendant Michael Jordan, working with him to create the enduring sensation of Air Jordan sneakers. Reebok, for their part, made a killing with their Blacktops after they discovered the market for sturdier street basketball shoes in the inner cities of the 1990s. Reebok uncovered niches off the basketball court as well—astutely marketing their slim, pliable Freestyle shoes to the female-dominated workout market in the 1980s at a time when Nike execs declined to serve that clientele. Though Nike eventually recognized the opportunity to cater to aerobics fans, their bias let them get beaten to the market; they had fallen behind Reebok in overall sales by 1987.

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Through the expanding sports scene, sneakers had assumed their position on the vanguard of popular culture. As such, those who were critical of the changes they saw in their society often blamed sneakers for the “problems” of modernity. Early hip-hop icons frequently rapped about their shoes – Run DMC’s song “My Adidas” even won them a sponsorship by the brand – but their style often stirred up controversy. Run DMC was especially denounced for wearing their shoes without laces, a street style trend of the era that some believed was reminiscent of prison culture, since inmates were not allowed to own shoelaces lest they turn them into weapons.

(Video) A Brief History of America’s Obsession With Sneakers

“Some people saw this trend and said, ‘Look, this is a sign of the culture going down, that people are mimicking styles of people in prison,’” says Smith. “But Run DMC was famous for wearing their white and black Adidas Superstar shell-toe shoes, without their laces of course. They came along and said ‘Wait a minute, these aren’t felons’ shoes, these are a symbol of empowerment. We’re proud of the way we look, and we’re reflecting how we see everyone else around us dressed.’”

Unfortunately, some concerns about sneakers were warranted. As the rates of homicides and other violent crimes rose in the United States throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s, it appeared to many that sneakers were a status symbol that often set off hostile encounters. In a particularly appalling case, prosecutors believed that the 1989 murder of 15-year-old Michael Eugene Thomas Where? was a grisly attempt to steal his Air Jordans. A 1990 Sports Illustrated cover read “Your Sneakers or your Life,” and the story detailed a rash of purportedly sneaker-related crimes.

“Did sneakers cause all this violence? Of course not,” Smith says. “It was something that people picked up on that was new and wanted to assign a little bit more reason as to why these things were happening.”

Even amidst controversy, the cultural presence of sneakers flourished. As MJ’s electric performance on the Chicago Bulls made the first Air Jordans practically sell themselves, Nike tried to transition the shoe from the basketball court to the world of high fashion and popular culture. The Air Jordan II, which featured a tag that said “Made in Italy” and an unprecedented $100 price tag when it was released in 1986, ushered in a new era for sneakers—they became embedded in the “streetwear” trend that merged hip-hop, athletic gear and designer clothes. Collaborations between sneaker brands and artists produced limited edition lines clamored over by new “sneakerheads.” Customers famously camped outside a Manhattan shoe boutique in 2005 for days during a snowstorm to get their hands on the “Pigeon Dunk,” a limited edition produced by Nike and designer Jeff Staple that featured a pigeon on the heel in homage to New York City. Only 150 Pigeon Dunks were made—the kicks are listed online today for as much as $10,000.

In the digital age, sneakerheads have used sites like eBay to create a secondary market for limited-edition designer sneakers that some estimate to be worth $6 billion globally. Even those who don’t spend thousands on these coveted pairs have had the chance to add to sneakers’ hype through social media, as viral videos like the 2014 “Damn, Daniel” series lightheartedly call attention to the slickest fashion statements.


Though 19th-century creators of croquet shoes would never have predicted today’s sneaker-style fanaticism, Smith believes that sneakers have carried a certain mystique beyond their utilitarian purpose since their invention. He highlights the 1989 Air Jordan ad campaign in which Nike explains the source of Michael Jordan’s talent—“it’s gotta be the shoes,” as a pivotal moment in modern sneaker history with deep historical roots.

“What these commercials tapped into is a much, much older idea. What makes Cinderella a princess? The magic glass slipper. What makes Dorothy come back from the land of Oz? The ruby slippers,” says Smith. “I was a kid when these commercials came out. Of course, I wanted these shoes. I was convinced they would make me jump higher. I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know why, but there was something there that spoke to that old feeling of the magical shoe.”

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What did Bowerman do to influence the shoe market? ›

Bowerman's most memorable technical breakthrough was the optimal traction of the waffle soles that he invented by shaping rubber in the waffle iron in his kitchen in 1972. Other essential innovations were the wedged heel, the cushioned mid-sole, and nylon uppers.

Why people are obsessed with sneakers? ›

People who can choose what kind of shoes they wear often choose sneakers because they are lighter and more comfortable than dress shoes, clogs, etc.

When did sneakers become so popular? ›

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.

What does cop mean in shoes? ›

"Cop" (used as a verb) – To purchase or acquire. "Deadstock" – A pair of sneakers that has never been worn, tried on or re-laced.

What was Bowerman's core motivation for creating a better shoe? ›

While jogging is pretty easy to understand, the waffle tread isn't (at least not until you understand why Bowerman made it in the first place). His goal was to make the world's most light–weight running shoe. He believed that this factor alone could dramatically improve the speed of a distance runner.

How did sneaker culture start? ›

As Ben Affleck's star-studded film Air depicts, the emergence of sneaker culture can be traced to Nike's 1984 collaboration with basketball superstar Michael Jordan on their iconic Air Jordans.

What is someone obsessed with shoes called? ›

Hypebeast generally refers to a person who is devoted to acquiring fashionable items, especially clothing and shoes.

What do you call people who like sneakers? ›

noun Slang. a person who collects and trades sneakers as a hobby, and who typically is knowledgeable about the history of sneakers: The sneakerheads are doing a booming business on eBay. CAN YOU ANSWER THESE COMMON GRAMMAR DEBATES?

What is the obsession with shoes? ›

The route between death and shoes lies through fetishism, a subject much loved by psychoanalysts and artists. Shoes are one of the commonest objects of fetishism. “The fetishist,” writes Becker, needs some object like a shoe or a corset before he can begin to make love to a woman.”

What is the most worn sneaker in the world? ›

The Nike Air Force 1 — the iconic sneaker that debuted nearly 40 years ago and has been seen on the likes of everyone from Victoria Beckham to Justin Timberlake — tops the list of the most searched for sneakers in 2021, according to an analysis from ebay of 32 brands of sneakers over the past four years.

Is sneaker culture black culture? ›

If you look back at when sneakers became very popular from a style perspective. It wholeheartedly includes Black culture. And I think that is because when you look at the roots of the sneaker culture, it definitely came from hip hop culture.

What is the biggest selling sneakers in history? ›

Top Selling Shoes of All Time
  • Nike Air Jordan 1 16. Reebok Pumps Original.
  • Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars 17. Air Jordan VI.
  • Nike Air Force 1 18. Air Jordan XIV.
  • Air Jordan XI 19. The Kobe adidas.
  • Air Penny 2 20. Nike Air Flight 1989.
  • Air Jordan XII 21. Air Jordan VII.
  • Nike Zoom Kobe IV 22. ...
  • Reebok the Question 23.

What does R mean in shoes? ›

N (narrow), M (medium) or R (regular), W (wide).

What does K and C mean in shoes? ›

Brands use different letters to make it easier to tell which shoes are for which ages. Nike use the letter “C” to define their Toddler Child sizing and Adidas use the Letter “K” for their Kids Shoes.

What does C mean in US shoes? ›

C= narrow fitting. D= standard fitting. E= wide fitting. EE= extra wide fitting. EEE= ultra-wide fitting.

What does Nike stand for? ›

: the Greek goddess of victory.

Why is Nike called Nike? ›

The company takes its name from Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. Nike markets its products under its own brand, as well as Nike Golf, Nike Pro, Nike+, Air Jordan, Nike Blazers, Air Force 1, Nike Dunk, Air Max, Foamposite, Nike Skateboarding, Nike CR7, and subsidiaries including Air Jordan and Converse.

What was Nike originally created for? ›

' Nike emanated from two sources: Bill Bowerman's quest for lighter, more durable racing shoes for his Oregon runners, and Knight's search for a way to make a living without having to give up his love of athletics. Bowerman coached track at the University of Oregon where Phil Knight ran in 1959.

What did people wear before sneakers? ›

Sneakers go back a long way. In the late 18th century, people wore rubber soled shoes called plimsolls, but they were pretty crude—for one thing, there was no right foot or left foot. Around 1892, the U.S. Rubber Company came up with more comfortable rubber sneakers with canvas tops, called Keds.

Why is a sneaker called a sneaker? ›

Sneaker originates from the word sneak, which translates as to walk stealthily about, also related to stealing, in fact, thieves were known as sneaks. The only inconsistency was that back then, shoes were mostly made of leather, so that walking in them was noisy, thus passing unnoticed was out of the question.

What were the first ever pair of sneakers called? ›

Origins and etymology

They were often called "beach shoes" (referencing a place you would likely see them worn) or "plimsolls" (in connection to the Plimsoll line where a fully-laden ship's hull meets the water's surface). Elsewhere, these early sneakers and their like were called tennis shoes.

What are everyday shoes called? ›

Athletic or casual rubber-soled shoes are called sneakers.

What is the fear of wearing shoes called? ›

“Podos” is the ancient Greek word for feet. Someone with podophobia may experience severe anxiety when they see or think about their own feet or other people's feet. Their fear might focus on bare feet, but it can also apply to feet covered in shoes and socks.

What is a shoe guy called? ›

A cobbler, also known as a shoemaker or cordwainer, repairs and restores footwear.

What is a sneaker slang? ›

A sneaker was a small drinking-glass, used by moderate drinkers—sneak-cups they were called.

What do British people call sneakers? ›

italki - Americans say sneakers, the British say trainers. What other British and American English differences do you know?

What does fufu mean in sneakers? ›

Fufu: something you most certainly don't want to get – fake sneakers. Fugazi: fake or damaged beyond repair.

Who made sneakers popular? ›

Sneakers' popularity to the public mainly kicked off through their introduction into the sports field. Basketball player Chuck Taylor endorsed the Chuck Taylor All-Star in 1921 and it became the most popular and sold basketball shoes of all time and even it was the official sneakers of the NBA.

Why have on shoes become so popular? ›

They're On's Most popular running shoes for good reason; they're versatile, comfortable, stylish, and slip right on with On's smart speed lacing system. Read on to learn why they're still my favorite everyday lifestyle shoes.

What is a psychological fact about shoes? ›

According to Suzanne Ferriss, PhD, editor of the book Footnotes: On Shoes, buying shoes triggers the “collecting spot,” an area of the brain's prefrontal cortex. She explained that “shoes are a collector's item, whether women realize they perceive them that way or not.”

What is the number 1 most sold shoe? ›

First up is the Air Jordan 1 Retro High OG Patent Bred, followed by Nike's Dunk Low Jackie Robinson, the New Balance 550 White Grey, Nike Dunk Low Racer Blue and the A Ma Maniére x Air Jordan 4.

What is the number one selling shoe in the US? ›

The largest shoe brand in the US is Nike, with a revenue of $46.7 billion and over 79,000 employees. As of 2022, the US shoe industry has a market size of $85.84 billion.

Which country has the most sneakers? ›

China was the world's leading consumer of footwear, with around 4.32 billion pairs of shoes bought in 2021. It is of little surprise that China tops the list of footwear consumers as it had the highest number of inhabitants on the planet as of 2021.

What is the impact of sneaker culture? ›

Sneaker culture continued to grow in the late 1970s, thanks to the burgeoning hip-hop movement. As a result, sneaker culture grew to be significant in African American fashion. It created a community of creativity, expression, and individuality during times of hate and fear.

How did sneakers change the world? ›

Pushing Gender Boundaries. Made for both men and women, sneakers have helped to blend the lines between what was considered fashion for men only. Women's fashion started to change during the early 1900s. Women were starting to go to work and become active in sports and exercise.

What is the oldest shoe company in the United States? ›

The Frye Company is an American manufacturer of shoes, boots and leather accessories. Founded in 1863, it claims to be the oldest continuously operated American shoe company.

Who wore the most expensive sneakers? ›

Michael Jordan's 'Last Dance' shoes just became the most expensive sneakers ever sold. Sotheby's got a record $2.2 million for Michael Jordan's 1998 NBA Finals Air Jordan 13 sneakers.

Who is the king of sneakers in the world? ›

Nike is the world's No. 1 Footwear and Sportswear brand to date.

Why is Bill Bowerman important? ›

Bowerman is perhaps best remembered by people who aren't track and field fans for his contributions as a founder of Nike. A mastermind of running shoes, Bowerman devised his most notable creation, the waffle shoe, by pouring rubber into his wife's waffle iron.

Who dominates the shoe market? ›

Market leaders

In 2021, Nike led its main direct competitors of Adidas and Puma with footwear segment revenues of approximately 28 billion U.S. dollars worldwide. In 2021/22, TJX Cos was the leading apparel and footwear retailing company in the world with revenues of 48.6 billion U.S. dollars.

What inspired Nike's first shoe? ›

The first pair of shoes

On a Sunday in 1971, Bowerman was watching his wife, Barbara, make breakfast on a waffle iron when an idea struck. He noted the iron's grid-like pattern and he thought if the same pattern could be replicated on the sole of the shoe to make it sturdier.

How did Nike revolutionize the shoe making business in the 1960s? ›

The company's founder, Phil Knight, came up with the idea of outsourcing manufacturing jobs to cut costs while attending Stanford Business School in the early 1960s, according to the Wall Street Journal. The company now has 68 factories in the U.S., representing just 9% of its manufacturing facilities.

Does Bill Bowerman still own Nike? ›

Nike is owned by a combination of Phil and Travis Knight and public shareholders. The company was founded in 1964 by Knight and Bill Bowerman and officially became Nike in 1971.

How did Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman start Nike? ›

In 1964, Bowerman entered into a handshake agreement with Phil Knight, who had been a miler under him in the 1950s, to start an athletic footwear distribution company called Blue Ribbon Sports, later known as Nike, Inc.

How is the Bowerman decided? ›


The male Finalist with the highest point total after the tabulation of ballots, fan voting, and USTFCCCA member voting shall be declared the men's winner of The Bowerman.

What is the most worn shoe in the world? ›

Over 2,000 versions of the Nike Air Force 1 have been released since the sneaker, arguably the world's most popular, came out in 1982.

What is the history of sneakers? ›

In the late 18th century, people wore rubber soled shoes called plimsolls, but they were pretty crude—for one thing, there was no right foot or left foot. Around 1892, the U.S. Rubber Company came up with more comfortable rubber sneakers with canvas tops, called Keds. By 1917, these sneakers began to be mass produced.

What was Nike original name? ›

It was founded in 1964 as Blue Ribbon Sports by Bill Bowerman, a track-and-field coach at the University of Oregon, and his former student Phil Knight. They opened their first retail outlet in 1966 and launched the Nike brand shoe in 1972. The company was renamed Nike, Inc., in 1978 and went public two years later.

Who made Nike popular? ›

Michael Jordan, considered by many to be the Greatest Of All Time in the history of the NBA made $1.3 billion from his thirty-six-year partnership with Nike. His long-time collaboration with Nike helped the brand become the leading athletic shoe manufacturer in the world.

Why is Nike so popular? ›

Nike's business strategy is straightforward: engage in brand creation through emotional marketing and sports star endorsements, manufacture products with high-quality, market-leading technology, and acquire competitive sports brands. Nike's swoosh dominates the footwear industry.

Which shoes are the most expensive? ›

Most expensive shoes in the world
  1. Moon Star shoes. Price: $19.9 million. ...
  2. Passion Diamond stilettos. Price: $17 million. ...
  3. Debbie Wingham high heels. Price: $15.1 million. ...
  4. Harry Winston Ruby slippers. ...
  5. Stuart Weitzman Rita Hayworth heels. ...
  6. Solid Gold OVO x Air Jordans. ...
  7. Tom Ford Custom loafers. ...
  8. Stuart Weitzman Tanzanite heels.
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