A century in, Converse is still purveyor of the world's most functional shoe.
When it was introduced in 1917, the original Converse All-Star was the world's most functional shoe. Its rubber soles gripped hardwood floors better than its leather-soled predecessors. Its thick sidewalls provided additional traction and support. Even its major note of ornamentation — the circular ankle patch bearing its logo — served a practical purpose, offering an extra layer of material at a point of high wear.
In the decades that ensued, Converse continuously tweaked the All-Star's design in subtle ways — but to the casual observer, it appeared as fixed in time as the faces on Mt. Rushmore. If you were feeling traditional, you got the black canvas version. If you were feeling daring, you got the white canvas version.
In the mid-1960s, perhaps sensing that even the Amish were growing bored with so limited a spectrum, Converse started making All-Stars in red, blue, and a handful of other colors. And that was pretty much the extent of the All-Star's evolution. In the 1970s and 1980s, when the sneaker wizards at Nike, Reebok, and other trailblazers started shifting footwear paradigms at a rate surpassed only by the PC industry, Converse remained steadfastly committed to the meager attributes of 1920s arch support engineering. As a result, the All-Star first lost favor as a performance-oriented basketball shoe. Then, it lost favor as a general-purpose recreational shoe.
At the same time, however, it began to acquire a paradoxical cachet. With every new air-cushioning technology the All-Star failed to incorporate, its status as the footwear choice of cultural rebels solidified. Leave innovation, progress, and daring design to joggers and aerobics instructors, the rebels essentially proclaimed. The only shoe fit for their radical philanges was the world's most conservative sneaker!
For the Ramones in particular, All-Stars offered the perfect fit. In the same way that the band built an instantly proprietary aural identity out of three common chords, it fashioned an instantly proprietary visual identity out of jeans, black leather jackets, and those familiar canvas sneakers. At a time when most lead guitarists dressed like 19th-century Parisian hookers, the Ramones immediately established themselves as an antidote to all that, blue-collar rockstars. True style, they implicitly argued, wasn't about exotic velvet Druid capes and rococo guitar solos — it was about making the plain and easily accessible spectacular through the force of one's innate charisma.
Joey and Johnny were up to that challenge, and so was Kurt Cobain. But how many true rockstars are there in the world? The All-Star's exceptional stagnancy made it hip, but it also put Converse in the tricky position of selling anti-style. Most people, after all, aren't looking for shoes they can transform with their cool. They're looking for shoes that can transform them. To address this dilemma, Converse chose a daring strategy: It would turn the All-Star into the most mutable and absurdly fashionable totem of bedrock authenticity imaginable.
And thus the shoe celebrated for its simple utilitarian style is now simultaneously the sideshow carnival freak of the footwear world. For nearly half a century, it came in only two colors. Today, there are possibly two colors it doesn't come in. You can get versions with double tongues and double uppers that serve the exact same purpose as faux window shutters. You can get them in denim, vinyl, gold lame, and pretty much every other material save the braided hair of dead iconoclasts.
Would Sid Vicious wear calf-high hi-tops fashioned from pleated silk in a shade that Converse dubs "milk champagne"? Probably not. Would Ronald McDonald? Again, no. But in an age where everyone aspires to attract a Ramones-sized cult following regardless of their talent level, the appeal of such aggressively ridiculous clownwear is obvious. Once again, the Converse All-Star is the world's most functional shoe. • 11 April 2008
Greg Beato writes regularly about pop culture for Las Vegas Weekly and Reason magazine, where he is a contributing editor.
Photo by pigdump via Flickr (Creative Commons).