Rubber slip-on to style icon: Trace the sneaker's evolution
Let's go back in time to learn how trainers evolved into the wardrobe essential we know and love today.
Text by Craig Sauers
Illustrations by Nathalie Lees
September 8, 2022


Few fashion items have had such a profound impact on society as the sneaker. From high fashion to high-tops, the red carpet to the basketball court, sneakers are among the most versatile fashion staples.

You can wear them to coffee, dinner, work, play, weddings, sports, hiking, and galas – and, for many, sneakers are a reflection of their personal style. While they may be ubiquitous today, sneakers actually emerged two centuries ago.

In fact, the history of the sneaker dates back to the 1820s when Western empires came to realize the potential of rubber. By the late 1800s, up-and-coming sports like lawn tennis drove demand for new forms of footwear and another burst of momentum followed when basketball, boxing and running took off in the 20th century.

Today, the US$79 billion sneaker industry has grown to become one of the world’s most influential. Let’s take a walk down memory lane to see how this wardrobe essential went from rudimentary slip-on to style icon.

Enter the rubber overshoe

The first sneakers can be traced as far back as the 1820s, although they looked nothing like the shoes we know and love today. According to Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum who was the driving force behind the 2015 traveling exhibition, “The Rise of Sneaker Culture”, the first sneakers emerged after the Western world stumbled upon rubber-making in Brazil.

When Westerners got to know the material’s special properties – especially its flexibility, strength and durability – they realized that rubber could have myriad applications. Among other things, early manufacturers used the material to make rubber overshoes. These simple shoes – picture all-rubber slip-ons with low tops – took the upper class by storm. “When the first sneakers debuted [in the 1800s], they were themselves luxury items,” Semmelhack told CNN.

Unfortunately, they weren’t very practical, let alone weatherproof. But the technology soon improved. For example, manufacturers added leather uppers and laces to the rubber soles as sports like lawn tennis, competitive walking and running took off in Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States.

“Legend has it that, in the late 1800s, students eluded their headmasters in stealthy rubber-soled shoes, earning the kicks the name ‘sneakers.’ That vulcanized rubber was the first in a string of foot-friendly features that shaved minutes off marathon times,” journalist Marissa Shieh wrote for Popular Science.

By the end of the 19th century, Robert Goodyear, the rubber magnate who became synonymous with tires, enhanced the shoes further by melding canvas fabric to the rubber soles. In an era when only the upper class had free time for recreational activities, being an athlete was a status symbol – as was owning a pair of sneakers.

Fullup. sneakers have a minimalist silhouette that can seamlessly transition from work to play.

Fashion trends like athleisure and shifts in work culture have further fueled sneaker dominance

Sneakers step onto the court

In the early 20th century, sports like boxing and basketball boomed in popularity. To cater to the growing demand for athletic sneakers, the Converse Rubber Shoe Company introduced a new, white canvas indoor gym shoe marketed as “Non-Skids”, in 1917.

According to the “Rise of Sneaker Culture” exhibition, semi-professional basketball player and coach Charles H. “Chuck” Taylor joined the company in the early 1920s to promote the shoe and consult on its design and development. He was a player and team manager of the Chicago All-Stars, which wore Converse All Star basketball shoes sponsored by the company – an early example of the sort of sponsorship deals that dominate the sneaker industry to this day.

Since Taylor was so influential in the design of the shoe, especially when it comes to improving flexibility and support, Taylor signed the shoe’s iconic ankle patch and the style became known as “Chuck Taylor All Stars”.

Converse wasn’t the only company researching and developing sneaker design. In the 1930s, the Posture Foundation introduced a major scientific upgrade to sneakers. The foundation added an orthopedist-approved “magic wedge” to its patented PF Flyers, offering a form of arch support to help reduce physical strain and injuries for the first time.

The PF Flyers would help usher in a new era of sneaker culture centered around comfort and athleticism rather than status. In fact, by the middle of the 20th century, sneakers had lost their luxury status and became practical items for workers, school kids and athletes alike.

Science meets style

Springy plastic soles, silicone gel, carbon-fiber plates, recycled fabrics: from the mid-20th century to today, sneaker technology has taken huge leaps forward. According to Shieh, the first shoe designed expressly for running, the New Balance Trackster, hit the market in 1960 with road-gripping, shock-absorbing ridges on its soles.

About a decade later, Nike, then an upstart shoe company, introduced its patented waffle technology with its Cortez shoe. This sneaker did more than just advance track and field: made with cheap, lightweight, synthetic nylon punctuated by the soon-inimitable swoosh, the Cortez helped turn functional sneakers into style symbols once again.

The sneaker saw another status jolt in 1984, when luxury brand Gucci entered the game with a green, red and white-striped tennis shoe. The same year, Nike’s Air Jordan shoe arrived, planting the seeds for sneakerhead culture. Today, the resale market fueled by collectors could be worth as much as US$1 billionaccording to Bloomberg.

More recently, fashion trends like athleisure and shifts in work culture have further fueled sneaker dominance. Many professionals have even ditched heels and loafers for minimalist sneakers amid the rise in remote work and increasingly casual offices.

The evolution of the sole

Soles are the most important part of the shoe. They are designed to protect your feet from the elements and provide comfort. In other words, they can make or break the shoe.

Fortunately, the industry has come a long way from the days of leather soles. Rubber was an early game-changer, of course. Tire-makers from Goodyear to Continental have played a huge role in developing outsoles, even in modern times.

In 2007, Continental partnered with Adidas to produce rubber outsoles using similar technology the company applies to car and motorcycle tires. That helped the outsoles yield better grip.

Over time, outsoles evolved as shoemakers turned to new synthetic materials. Polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC, is a plastic polymer preferred by many for its flexibility. The problem with PVC is that it’s a known human carcinogen – many countries have even banned its use. Today, many shoemakers use ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), which is a healthier alternative to PVC with a similar rubber-like softness and flex. However, EVA contains some carcinogenic chemicals and isn’t recyclable.

In search of healthier and more sustainable alternatives, scientists have developed new technologies that can make a difference. For example, our patented FullupLite 360 outsoles comprise an innovative material called thermoplastic urethane (TPU) that’s fully recyclable.

TPU doesn’t lose its quality, elasticity or durability when recycled, either. In a study examining functionality, TPU soles were recycled into pellets and turned into new soles with a 3D printer. These recycled soles were compared to soles made from virgin materials and found to have the same functionality as the original sole – with no decrease in performance. While Fullup. does not currently recycle its outsoles, we hope to do so in the future in our own way.

Better shoes for a better world

From street fashion to haute couture, sneakers have become a beloved wardrobe staple. But until recently, few brands considered the impact of shoe materials, manufacturing and shipping on our planet.

Brands like Fullup. have set out to do things differently. We embrace a “less is more” ethos. When it comes to our design, we have stripped back our sneakers to only the necessary elements to create an effortless, minimalist silhouette that can seamlessly transition from the office to cocktails, meetings to tennis courts, film screenings to coffee.

What’s more, by simplifying our design and materials, we have also simplified our production processes. This enables us to reduce waste and emissions every step of the way, develop close relationships with our suppliers, and maintain traceability.

The Infinity, Fullup.’s flagship sneaker, features a range of forward-looking production methods and materials: yarn and laces made from recycled plastic bottles, recyclable FullupLite 360 soles, and chemical-free, ethical work environments assured by our partners.

Although we still have a lot of work to do, we believe our efforts are a step in the right direction. We can only hope that, when future generations look back at the history of the sneaker, they will see an emergence of new brands that are taking the industry in a healthier, safer and more sustainable direction.

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