The History of Leather Part 13 – Athletic Shoes

Posted on 22/07/14

Rubber soul (1870s-1950s)

Wander into your favourite high street sports store and try and buy a pair of trainers. Don’t do any research beforehand, don’t have a particular sport, brand or style in mind – just go in and try and buy the most basic trainer you can find. You will probably struggle. Trainer shopping in the modern world is an overwhelming experience to say the least.

Trainers are aerodynamic and breathable, the results of years and months of development and multi-million pound budgets headed up by white coated boffins with clipboards, and that’s before the focus groups have had their say. There are trainers available for every conceivable sport, weather condition and playstyle, in every configuration of material and fit.

Things weren’t always that way, of course. Athletic shoes were originally crafted in leather, and equipped with metal cleats to provide increased friction, before the advent of breathable, absorbent foams, panels and coatings.

Just like athletic shoes today, and in fact, like casual shoes in general today, the soles were made of rubber. This innovation dates back to 1876, and the New Liverpool Rubber Company, a manufacturer of plimsolls designed specifically for the sport of croquet. Boy did they end up backing the wrong horse in terms of sports that ended up making it big, huh?

Funnily enough, it’s thanks to rubber soles that we have the term “sneaker”. As you’ve no doubt heard in your day-to-day amblings, non-rubber soles and heels aren’t going to be winning any prizes in the annual Discretion Olympics (tickets available now). Rubber soles, however, let the wearer sneak up on people. For whatever reason you might want to do that. Nice to have the option, though.

It wasn’t long before the expertise of podiatrists was factored into sports shoe designs, meaning that new features and flourishes were added, and mainstay materials like leather were soon eclipsed by breathable nylon and cushioning positioned to protect against high-impact activities like running or jumping.

That’s not to say that leather has been replaced entirely in the athletic shoe space, some casual designs still embrace leather to varying degrees, either as brand decoration, or as the full upper part of the shoe.

When you think of leather and footwear, you tend to think of heavy boots and elegant brogues and loafers. It’s easy to forget leather’s contribution, and continued contribution at that, to the dizzying world of athletic attire.

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