A short history of trainers in fashion, from Run-DMC’s Adidas to ‘ugly’ sneakers

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Like so many of our favourite fashion items, trainers began life as purely functional products.

Many of the major trainer brands we know today established themselves by making sporting sneakers. Take Converse. Set up more than a century ago, the company debuted its iconic Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars (with rubber soles and toes) in 1917, and the style was pretty much the same as you’d recognise today, but was named after pro basketball player Chuck Taylor. They were sold as basketball shoes; Converse are now largely synonymous with off-duty fashion.

It’s a similar story for the likes of Adidas and Puma. Starting out as sporting sneaker companies, the brands were set up in Germany in the 1940s by rival brothers who had famously fallen out.

As time went on, and dress codes gradually relaxed, trainers weren’t just worn by athletes.

Nowadays, sneakers are well and truly mainstream and donned by pretty much everyone, be it school kids or supermodels, but the shoe has a real history of bucking the status quo…1950s rebellion

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In the 1950s more people might’ve started wearing trainers for fashion instead of sport, but it wasn’t a conventional choice. Instead, it became the symbol of the ‘bad boy’ – just think of Danny Zuko’s T-Birds in Grease (filmed in the Seventies, but set in the 1950s), who wore black leather jackets, denim jeans and what looked to be beat-up Converse sneakers.

Jeans were also a relatively new phenomenon – notably popularised by actor James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) – and together they came to signify rebellious youth.

Over the next few decades women began to increasingly adopt jeans and trainers too, nudged along by brands like Nike, founded in 1964, and popular figures like actor and model Farrah Fawcett. The Charlie’s Angels star wore the classic Nike Cortez shoe in an iconic 1977 editorial shoot where she skateboards in jeans, wearing a red sweater and white sneakers. Nike recently breathed new life into the Cortez shoe, with model Bella Hadid recreating the skateboarding shot for a 2017 ad campaign.Hip hop culture

Like so many other aspects of fashion, black creatives and hip hop culture helped bring trainers into the mainstream.

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New York group Run-DMC had a huge part to play; white Adidas kicks with no shoelaces became their uniform in the 1980s. Their style was copied globally, and they even wrote a song called My Adidas, featuring the lyrics: “Funky fresh and yes cold on my feet/With no shoe string in em.” Their look led to the first collaboration between a hip hop group and a trainer brand, when Run-DMC brought out a pair of shoes with Adidas.

The 1980s in general saw a rise in sportier, more relaxed fashion. But don’t be fooled: these weren’t shoes for sport, as we doubt you could run far without laces.Celebrity collabs

Here we need to give a special shoutout to Nike, a behemoth of the sneaker world. In the 1980s if you weren’t copying Run-DMC, you’d have likely been wearing a fresh pair of white Nike Air Forces, and the brand’s dominance was confirmed in the 1990s thanks to their collaboration with the most famous man in sport: Michael Jordan. The first pair of Air Jordans was released in 1984, and they’re still going strong today – particularly after new Jordan Netflix documentary, The Last Dance.

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When it comes to music and sneaker collaborations, Run-DMC walked so others could run. Collabs between brands and the world of hip hop became much more prevalent in the Nineties, right up to today – like the Wu-Tang Clan and Fila, 50 Cent and Reebok, and Skepta and Nike.

The limited edition Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 trainers (Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA)

Arguably the biggest collab is Kanye West’s Yeezy line with Adidas, which elicits astronomical prices at resale and lines snaking around the block when new releases drop.‘Ugly’ sneakers

For years, wearing trainers as a fashion statement was seen as an act of sartorial rebellion. However, sneakers crept more into the mainstream, and by the 2010s were fully embraced by high fashion. Even though brands had been making sneakers for decades – like Gucci’s tennis shoes in the 1980s or Prada’s black trainers in the 1990s – it’s only in recent years they became a focal point on the runway.

Traditionally fashion shows and front rows would be full of heels and dress shoes, but all of a sudden this shifted in favour of sneakers. Fashion brands like Balenciaga and Balmain championed the trend for so-called ‘ugly’ trainers – chunky, big, almost orthopedic – and this aesthetic trickled down to the high street.The future of trainers

The Duchess of Sussex wearing Veja sneakers in Sydney in 2018 (Chris Jackson/PA)

So where do we go from here? Ugly trainers seem to be getting chunkier and more colourful, but fashion is already looking for the next big thing. What might be a longer-lasting trend is eco-friendly, vegan trainers.

Recently brands like Veja – worn by celebrities like the Duchess of Sussex, Emma Watson and Katie Holmes – have been taking off. Veja specialises in vegan shoes, and with the way the industry is going – with more and more big brands banning fur – trainers could be next to see a vegan revolution.

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