The ubiquitous trainer….

I enjoy putting my feet through torture. Callouses, blisters, rubbed heels and broken toe nails flourish as ruthlessly I subject them to stilettos, sandals, boots, flip-flops, courts and of course the ubiquitous trainer.

Today the foot world seems dominated by sneakers. Any parent of a sport obsessed teenager will understand the exasperation over the quantity of the rubber soled type a child seems to require. Perhaps I need to moderate my comments as cost centre 2 is just as confounded over my need for heels and handbags. Deluded child.

The history of the trainer, the sneaker, kicks is fascinating. Today it is an inescapable multi billion dollar industry spanning comfort, fashion and cool to requisite wear for serious sporting prowess. This footwear has graced a multitude of social occasions, been a starring feature of numerous hit movies and has ascended to acceptable smart casual wear according to Debretts the British experts on etiquette.

So what is the origin of the trainer? We think that as far back as the Tudors, Henry 8th had special shoes made for playing real tennis. In that time such encasements were seen as the preserve of the sporty wealthy. But these shoes would have been unrecognisable from the sleek footwear of today whose advancements we now take for granted.

The sole initially saw the most evolution. Natural rubber from Brazilian trees is soft in heat, brittle in cold. In 1839, Charles Goodyear enabled natural rubber to become pliable and waterproof through a process of heating and adding sulphur — inventing vulcanised rubber. Many years later, John Dunlop discovered how to bond canvas to vulcanised rubber soles, fabricating ‘Plimsols’ that could be worn by the Victorians on the beach. In 1895, a British company produced by hand the first running shoes, selling around the world. During the 1900’s, Trainers now mostly used for sports spawned a more casual sub set named sneakers because of their noiseless tread which made such footwear ideal for opportunistic muggers and burglars, although it seems the term trainer wasn’t coined until 1968. By 1917, trainers were in mass production as sporting pursuits became more main stream but alongside, the demand for higher performance fleet of foot coverings challenged material frontiers and construction. Marquis Converse produced the first shoes specifically for Basketball players with better bounce and durability and In 1936, elite Olympics stars from track and basketball wore products from Converse and Dassler (later to be Adidas) cementing the importance of this apparel to the creme de la creme of the sporting world. Post the second world war as leisure activities became more prominent, these shoes snaked into fashion statements. The invention of plastic foam in the 1940’s permitted rubber and leather to be replaced in the trainer with a greater flexibility to mould fostering fresh creativity and propelling dynamism in the shoe shape. As an aside In 1947 the brothers of Adidas fame separated acrimoniously with one continuing to build Adidas and the other forming the powerhouse that is Puma.

According to the sociologist Yuniya Kawamura as the trainer became universal, it was associated with several cultural waves. In the 1970’s, the link with underground culture and hip hop was established. The second wave from 1984 gave rise to the influence of celebrity and began with Nike (which was founded in the 1970’s) launching Air Jordans and ingeniously utilising personality endorsements to create status symbol footwear. Air Jordan was the link to Michael Jordan of US Basketball fame. Nike, Adidas, Reebok established themselves as household names as they churned out eye catching designs coupled with technological advances and clever advertising. The third stage which we are in, is around the culture of exclusivity and experience by way of re-selling kickers which is now in itself a multi billion dollar market. Today more than 5000 types of trainers are sold in the UK from a range of c5 in the 1970’s. Although it could be suggested the trainer market promotes egalitarianism, in plain sight are exclusive enclaves within the reach of only the determined or the well connected. The re-seller marketplace is fuelled by Sneakerheads who trade and work hard to maintain the kudos and perceived value of particular trainers supported by manufacturers through the release of limited edition versions. In recent years, a pair of solid gold Air Jordan’s sold for $2m and many other brands have sold for well over $1m….

Today a running shoe may have as many as 20 parts to it necessitating c160 processes from cutting, sewing to injection moulding. It is a highly technical product demanding an understanding of materials science, engineering and human anatomy. Despite the ubiquity, trainer production still seems to be labour intensive. Vans state that every pair is worked on or inspected by up to c450 people.

What does the future hold for the sneaker? Modern day innovation in the material uppers includes the use of re-cycled plastic and material that promotes support and breathability. Cushioning systems have evolved; an inclusion of a carbon fibre plate allows ‘energy to return to a runner each time their foot strikes the ground’ (TheConversation.com). The waffle iron inspired a waffle tread pattern on the Nike trainer sole to augment athlete performance. Nike track spikes have enhanced athlete speed by reducing the energy required to run at a particular pace. In the future we could see the use of materials containing bacteria to eat other bacteria that grow in shoe soles. (A quarter of a million sweat glands — most in the bottom of our feet produce half a pint of sweat a day…ugghhhh). Other progression will include more light weight materials, improved gel and air systems in the base, increased usage of electronic components to provide personal user information or lighting for the night runner and plant based or ocean waste made trainers.

Trainers have been a marvellous invention, enabling humans to enhance what nature has endowed us with to simultaneously promoting leisure time and with it freedom for the mind to wander. I will observe with interest to as to how their further evolution impacts society. In the meantime however I will continue to torture my feet with competitor footwear and huff as my children mis-understand my footwear needs….

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Curious Rascal

I want to learn and understand more of the the world, people, history, science, making sense of the random. Join me if you feel the same!