I remember my first ever pair of Chuck Taylor All-Stars. They were a questionable shade of lime green, heaven bless my taste but, at eleven, they symbolized something I can’t quite grasp right now. They were the first piece of clothing or accessories that I really, truly asked for. I didn’t simply happen to be in a shop with my mom where she asked for my opinion. I actually felt the need in the first, prepubescent bouts of peer pressure and social acceptance, to ask for something – blurry.
To conform, to feel included, to be like other kids, to simply own a pair of shoes that felt more attractive to me than the chunky sneakers (which I grew to love in adult life, by the way) and odd – and painful – girly flats I owned, I have no idea. The thing is that they did set a turning point: I started picking my own clothes – fought battles for them, actually – and clumsily stumbled my way into defining my own style and identity.
Chuck Taylor or Converse All Stars were introduced by Converse Rubber Shoe Company in 1917. The shoe, composed of a rubber sole and toe cap, and a canvas upper part and designed for professional basketball league, has remained almost unchanged ever since, even though today there are many variations in designs and materials used, such as leather or other types of canvas. In 1921, American basketball player Charles “Chuck” Taylor joined a team that was being sponsored by Converse, and it was called The Converse All Stars.
He became a salesman for the company and worked on practical improvements on the shoes, in order to render them more flexible, supportive and protective for the ankle. All Stars were soon worn by Olympics athletes and by American soldiers during the WWII for their training.
In the 1950s All Stars became an iconic shoe, shifting from the sports field to the fashion and pop culture scene, with the example of James Dean as a youth icon being the most prominent. By the 1960s, the All Stars were being worn by most professional and college basketball players, gradually making their way into popular culture and casual fashion, instead of being solely directed to athletes. In 2003 the Converse brand name was bought by Nike since it had been threatened by bankruptcy several times during the previous years. Chuck Taylors have become, ever since their incorporation into popular culture, a symbol in art, film and TV (Doctor Who, Back to the Future, Rocky, Jurassic World and others), music (especially in rock and roll and punk rock communities) and weightlifting.
But how came All Stars became so intensely successful?
One of its key success points, according to an approach, must have been its gender neutrality. Among the brogues and the kitten heels, Converse All Stars were one the designs that made it clearer that men and women don’t need different shoes. Sported by female celebrities since the 1950s with the example of Shirley MacLaine, the 60s with Twiggy and the 70s with Joan Jett, up to the 2000s with Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and even Michelle Obama, All Stars normalized even to a primary degree, women and men facing absolutely no differences when it came to at least one piece of clothing, accessories or footwear.
When everything in fashion and generally in the physical appearance field is gendered, from razors and underwear to t-shirts, suits and even jeans (when you wear baggy jeans it’s automatically been coded as “boyfriend jeans”, as if you’re appropriating something that belongs to men only in the same way a girlfriend steals her boyfriend’s jeans or shirt), the concept of Converse may not seem so radical today, but it did pass a significant symbol. Being a versatile piece, Converse have historically be worn with absolutely everything, no matter the person’s gender, expression and style, and have also experienced great variety and few changes in the main style throughout the decades.
According to Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator at the BATA Shoe Museum in Toronto, in her interview with Couponbox, the All Stars seemed to gain their today established status with the emergence of “Hipster Fashion”, with all its unisex elements and inspiration from Twiggy, Kurt Cobain, Tommy Ramone, Demi Moore and others. Hipster Fashion somehow validated the gender neutral character of the shoes, which are still worn quite enthusiastically by celebrities such as Emma Watson and Miley Cyrus.
In celebration of All Stars’ 100 years of life, Couponbox created the world’s first infographic of the Converse All Star shoes, with the most famous women of popular culture that wore them.