The white sneaker — a deep dive

Words by: Tony Bercow

In the fashion world, the interchanging of trends is constant — a great example of this is the Hush Puppies fad in New York City in the mid-90’s, which eventually spread country-wide. Hush Puppies were $30 brushed suede shoes with a lightweight crepe sole, not particularly remarkable in any way. In the early 90’s, the brand sold only 30,000 pairs per year. Then, in 1995, the shoe took off nationally after a small group of trendsetters in downtown Soho began wearing the shoe. This massive fad led to over 430,000 pairs being sold in 1995.

While consumers’ tastes change over time, the fashion industry must adapt to those preferences to maintain profits and revenue. However, there are some garments and styles in the world of fashion that have withstood the test of time, proving to be favorable with consumers no matter the predominant trend of the moment. One such garment is the white sneaker — in this article we’ll explore the history, science and development behind the white sneaker in order to answer the simple question: why do we love white sneakers so much?

The history of the color white in fashion is checkered (no pun intended) — from a historical perspective, white garments have traditionally been associated with purity – specifically religious purity – for centuries. Priests and holy men would wear white to signify their spirituality, virtue, and proximity to their god(s). Over time, the association between the color white and religious purity evolved into an association with bodily purity, or cleanliness. White garments were no longer reserved for holy men, as white undergarments became exceptionally popular. These white garments, which were barely noticeable except for their collars or cuffs, became closely associated with cleanliness, as the dirt they collected was naturally more visible than on a dark-colored garment. As a result, people felt as if the white garment was drawing dirt from their body, thus making them feel cleaner.

Via Getty Images

By the turn of the eighteenth century, white garments became an indicator of wealth. White garments are the hardest to keep spotless, so naturally, those that could afford to keep them flawless would wear them the most often. The upper class wore white because they had the money to pay someone to wash their clothing or shine their shoes, or they didn’t work in a job that threatened the tidiness of their clothing (hence the term white collar), or they didn’t work at all. Remember, this was during a time where dry-cleaning, or washing machines didn’t exist, and people took baths weekly instead of daily — cleaning clothes and shoes was a major chore that most common people simply did not have the time do or money to pay for. Because wealthy people didn’t work as much or physically as hard as the middle and lower classes, white clothing and footwear became synonymous not only with wealth, but leisure too.

This change from religious and bodily purity to wealth and leisure set the table for white garments’ introduction to the mainstream. White garments were introduced into popular culture via tennis, a leisure activity. The roots of tennis can be traced all the way back to the 12th century, where a group of French monks hit a ball to one another with their hands. Emily Chertoff of the Atlantic notes that, “by the 16th century, the French and English aristocracy played a version of this jeu de paume with a rudimentary racket. The cousin of modern tennis sealed its place in the hearts of the gentry when Henry VIII built a court for the game at one of his palaces.” Eventually, tennis as we know it spread to the United States in the 18th century, and was taken up by the wealthy, who had the time and energy to play the sport. These rich Americans played the game in their traditional clothes and footwear (performance clothing and footwear was not invented yet), which were white.

Associated Press Via New York Times

In 1839, the first major breakthrough in performance footwear was invented. In 1834, Charles Goodyear, an American inventor, bought hundreds of rubber life preservers that had melted in the New York City summer heat. After 5 years of experimentation, he realized that when adding just the right amount of sulfur to a melted rubber solution, the cooled-down rubber was able to hold its shape in practically any condition, while also demonstrating increased elasticity and resistance. This invention, dubbed vulcanized rubber, was initially used for a variety of products, but ultimately found its greatest utility in footwear.

The first rubber-soled sneaker was made for croquet in the mid 1870’s, another sport for the wealthy, in order to protected the lawn from stains and damage from traditional leather and wood-soled dress shoes. Eventually rubber-soled shoes became popular in tennis and basketball as the sports gained popularity towards the end of century. By 1917, the United States began mass-manufacturing its own rubber soled shoes when U.S. Rubber announced the production of Keds.

The increased financial prosperity of the 1920’s gave many Americans more time and disposable income to spend on entertaining themselves. At the same time, Elizabeth Semmelheck notes that, “the fragile peace of World War I increased interest in physical culture, which became linked to rising nationalism and eugenics. Countries encouraged their citizens to exercise not just for physical perfection but to prepare for the next war.”

The confluence of these factors led to the emergence of sport in popular culture, as the masses were urged to maintain physical fitness and actually had time to play. As is often the case, the middle classes imitated the upper-class’ choice of fashion and wore white to play tennis, too. By the 1930’s, sneakers became more important to popular culture than anyone could have envisioned:

“When the U.S. government rationed rubber during World War II, sneakers were exempted following widespread protests. The practical, inexpensive, and casual shoe had become central to American identity, on and off the playing field.”

Fast-forward 30 years, and white canvas sneakers were still commonplace on and off the tennis court. Tennis’s popularity began to increase dramatically in the 1970’s:

“The direct causes of the tennis boom include the rapid assimilation of the game into the new television culture, the release of a number of hugely popular tennis books, the increased availability of both public outdoor and private indoor facilities, and the corporate marketing of tennis as an element of "the good life" associated with 1970s consumer culture lifestyle.”

Along with the increased national attention to the sport came technological advancements in performance footwear. Traditional sneakers with canvas uppers didn’t have the necessary support and responsiveness for quick lateral movements, so white leather tennis shoes were created, beginning with the Adidas Robert Haillet, later renamed to the now-famous Stan Smith.

Via JJJJound

The creation of the all-white leather sneaker with a rubber sole opened up a rabbit hole of possibilities: every major footwear producer created their take on the all-white shoe, with each silhouette designed with a different sport or purpose in mind. Iconic silhouettes like the adidas Superstar, Reebok Freestyle, Nike Air Force One, and Converse Chuck Taylor became common links between sport and fashion, while high fashion houses have re-interpreted the all-white sneaker in various manners as well.  

Recently, the white sneaker has regained prominence in the fashion industry. As Claudia Miller discusses, the reason for this is fairly simple: traditionally, colorful shoes are paired with monochromatic ready-to-wear collections, while monochromatic shoes are often paired with print-heavy and boldly-colored garments. As fashion houses continue to produce collections with eccentric patterns and colors, with references to the 80’s and 90’s like neon and tie-dye, it is reasonable to expect that white sneakers will continue to play a front and center role in the fashion landscape. From a scientific standpoint, this makes sense because white light contains roughly equal amounts of every color in the visual spectrum and activates all three types of cone cells in our eyes related to color. So, while black is the absence of color, white is the combination of every color – which explains why it matches with every color.

Via JJJJound

As white sneakers continue to enjoy their time in the limelight, consumers begin to shift their footwear focus and tastes based on the silhouette, rather than the color of the shoe. Without colors, footwear producers are able to showcase the silhouette and shape of the shoe in order to distinguish their product from competitors — this precipitates experimentation with shapes and materials, which led us to the great diversity in the footwear market we see today. We’ve seen the “ugly” sneaker come into play over the last couple of years, from Louis Vuitton’s Archlight model, which features an exaggerated arch, to Balenciaga’s Triple S which plays with an exaggerated sole, to our Avalanche model, which features five different materials and a chunky sole.

In sum, the rise of the white sneaker can be boiled down to three core factors. First, our inherent historical and evolutionary biases have conditioned us to associate the color white with desirable attributes like cleanliness, wealth, leisure, and athleticism. In addition to the deep-seeded and long-lasting historical bias, recent history also influences the way we look at white sneakers. Many of the most culturally prominent and important sneakers have been white (at least in their first or most popular iteration), thus creating a public partiality of white sneakers based at-least partly on nostalgia and familiarity. Second, we see that the rise of the white sneaker trend has much to do with its context: as audacious colors, patterns, and prints gain favor with the many high-fashion houses that act as trend-setters for the industry, white sneakers act as a natural pairing to the garments — providing a hint of subtlety and elegance while allowing the eyes to focus on the clothing itself. Lastly, the white sneaker trend has allowed for footwear designers to push the limits of what is considered fashionable. A sneaker without color forces the consumer to pay more attention to the shape, materials and details of the shoe. As new silhouettes with original designs debut, they often are available in a white color way to showcase the various elements that make that shoe stand out. All in all, because of the confluence of these three factors, it’s safe to say that the all-white sneaker won’t be going anywhere any time soon.


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