Is It The Shoes? Taking you back to school…

The ‘We Are Parable’ guest bloggers  just keep coming and coming!

Yep, your favourite experiential events company is having such a great response from our blog takeovers, we thought that we would do another one, again from one of our collaborators and “Is It The Shoes?”

This week, we’re taking you back to school with a few questions from “Is It The Shoes?” collaborator  Dr Thomas Turner, Historian and owner of a PhD in sports shoe history. Let’s hear what he has to say…


Tell us a little about your history with trainers.

I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, so experienced first-hand much of that era’s trainer madness. I remember being incredibly pleased when I got my first pair of Nikes in the mid 1980s. Through secondary school, trainers were always hugely important. Like most boys, I couldn’t have exactly what I wanted because they were so expensive, but during the ’90s I did go through various pairs of Reebok, adidas, Puma, Nike, Troop, Fila, and Converse (though I’d rather have had Nike Air Max, Air Jordans, or Reebok Pumps). I watched developments through the 2000s with interest – most especially the rise of the retro market (which enabled me to get many of the models I’d wanted as a teenager) and more recently the way Nike’s core running models have crossed into the fashion mainstream. Since the mid 2000s I’ve done a lot of academic research on the history of sports footwear, and earlier this year I completed my PhD on the social and cultural history of sports shoes.

My work traces the sports shoe from the late nineteenth century through to the 1990s, looking at the relationship between sports and youth style. It considers how sports shoes came to be as they are, and places them into the context of wider historical developments, including the growth of the rubber and chemical industries, the rise of state sponsored sport, trends within youth culture, and the development of a consumer society. I’m currently working on turning my PhD thesis into a book.

What do you think the biggest advancement in trainers has been over the last 30 years?

In the last thirty years, the shift toward ‘designed’ trainers has probably been the most significant change. I’d suggest that Tinker

Hatfield’s 1987 Air Max, Air Jordan, and Air Safari were the point at which trainers ceased to be thought of primarily in terms of how they functioned, but also of how they could become – as Hatfield has acknowledged – objects of desire. Before this shoemakers did think in terms of aesthetics, for sure, but I think sports shoes were designed primarily from a functional perspective. Hatfield’s shoes added an extra dimension. The Air window, for instance, had no practical purpose; it simply appealed to consumers’ imaginations. The Jordan was designed to be a sophisticated shoe, symbolic of Jordan’s growing maturity, while the Safari was intended as a luxury item. The “Revolution” television ad that accompanied the release of the ’87 Air Pack similarly moved the focus away from pure function and onto aspiration. That Nike were able to introduce these designs, though, was testament to the increasing sophistication of sports shoe production in Asia and the ongoing development of synthetic materials. Without that, many of the shoes we have today simply wouldn’t exist.

In terms of the way trainers are bought and sold, and the way they become popular, though, I’d say the most important development has been the internet. It’s changed everything.


Do you think the term ‘sneaker head’ is a term of endearment or is just something that is used way too often?

I’m English, so prefer the term ‘trainers’ anyway, but I guess it’s a useful way to describe someone who’s interested in trainers (or sneakers). Having said that, I like trainers to such an extent that I’ve written a PhD about them, but I still wouldn’t class myself as a sneakerhead. To me, I think of it as a term to describe people who have many, many pairs and who are prepared to queue overnight for the latest hyped release.

What, in your mind, is the biggest influence trainers have had over the last 3 decades?

Trainers are inanimate objects, so I don’t think they have much of an influence in and of themselves. However, I think that the young people who bought and wore trainers in the 70s, 80s, and 90s because they thought they were stylish or fashionable have had a huge impact on popular fashion and on the companies who sell sports footwear. For a long time these companies thought of themselves as primarily serving consumers who bought trainers for sports. Of course it’s unrealistic to think they didn’t welcome the extra sales youth style generated — they were established to make money, after all — but it took them a long time to properly embrace fashion. It was only in the 1990s and 2000s that they appeared to become more at ease with the idea that they could sell shoes that were designed and marketed to a casual consumer as well shoes that were designed and marketed to a sports consumer.

A key moment was probably the birth of the retro market in the early 1990s, which came as a response to young people who’d been buying early 1980s deadstock models because they liked the way they looked. Up until this point, the sports shoe companies had tried to create an image of themselves as constantly developing, always introducing new, improved products (a bit like car manufacturers). Old shoes dropped out of the catalogues and were replaced by newer, updated models. The retro market turned this on its head.

By (re)releasing outdated models from the 70s and 80s, the sports shoe companies tacitly admitted that they were serving a consumer more interested in style or fashion than in performance. They were moved to do this by the actions of a handful of individuals around the world. It could be argued, I think, that this paved the way for the kind of dual approach that you see deployed by most of the big companies (especially adidas and Nike) today.

It’s also worth mentioning the influence trainers and other types of sportswear have had on fashion and ordinary clothing. The sportswear industry has always pioneered the use of new materials and ergonomic design.

Whether it’s rubber soles, synthetic fabrics, or cushioning systems, many of the technological innovations first introduced on trainers or sportswear have eventually crossed over into everyday clothing, and have shaped the way we all dress. This is actually a trend that dates back to the nineteenth century, though, when shoemakers started using tennis shoes’ rubber soles on everyday boots and sports-inspired clothing became fashionable among the young. People like to think that trainers only really crossed into the fashion mainstream in the late twentieth century. My work suggests they have a much longer, more interesting history than most people realise.

Many Thanks to Dr Turner for his insightful blog, and look out for him next week (NEXT WEEK!) at We Are Parable’s “Is It The Shoes?”, the four day sneaker festival.

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Til the next time, later!

Anthony and Teanne

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