Table of Contents
Every year, the sneaker industry makes about $34 billion. That’s an enormous industry, but what makes sneakers so special?
Classic sneakers can link us back to some amazing points in history in alternative music scenes, subcultures, athletics, and even social justice. To wear classic sneakers means so much more than wearing cool shoes. They’re a statement about American culture.
Let’s take a look at some of the most popular classic sneakers in the US and their origins so that you can better appreciate them the next time you buy sneakers.
1. Nike Air Force 1
Named for the president’s airplane, the Nike Air Force 1 has stayed a popular choice among athletes and fashionable college girls since its conception. Its simple, clean design makes it a versatile shoe for a lot of outfits, and Gen-Z in particular has taken a liking to it.
The classic choice is a Nike Air Force 1 in all white, but there are many color options to choose from. No matter what you choose, the crisp and minimalist design of this shoe is sure to make it one of your go-to options in your sneaker collection. It’s not a bad shoe to wear on the court either. Nike truly struck gold with this shoe.
2. Adidas Originals Stan Smith
Collaborations between sneaker companies and athletes are now commonplace, but it all had to start somewhere. In 1965, Adidas released the Originals Stan Smith shoe. Like the Air Force 1’s, this shoe’s minimalist design has kept it popular through the changing fashions of several decades.
Unlike most Adidas sneakers, they lack the iconic three stripes on the outside. Instead, this leather sneaker has three perforated lines running parallel on the upper sole.
What’s fascinating about this shoe is the lack of Adidas branding on it in general. It’s an understated, classy shoe.
The classic option for the Stan Smith is white and green, but several colorways have made an appearance since its first release. There’s nothing wrong with choosing one that fits your palette better.
3. Converse Chuck Taylor Allstar 70’s
Did you know that Chuck Taylor has been around since 1917? If you have a pair of Converse Allstars in your closet, you own an important piece of sneaker and fashion history. You can’t have a list of the best sneakers without mentioning this absolute classic.
These shoes originally hit the scene as high-top basketball shoes, but they soon made a splash in a different community. The Chuck Taylor Allstar is just as important to the world of skate and alternative music as it is to basketball. The flat bottom seen on all the best sneakers was important to the mechanics of skateboarding and the style can still be seen at about every alternative music venue you go to.
4. Reebok Club C 85
Like the Stan Smith sneaker, this classic sneaker has its origins in tennis culture. It makes a lot of sense that sneakers have such a rich history with tennis since another name for sneakers is “tennis shoe”. Although they’re used for many more purposes now, tennis is an important part of their history.
Functionality and minimalism play an important role in this Reebok design. It harkens back to an 80s preppy look, and they were originally made to be a very durable performance shoe. That’s good news for you because your Reebok Club Cs will last years and years in your closet. If you’re looking to buy sneakers, don’t overlook this classic that lasts in style and functionality.
5. Why is Vans Old Skool so popular?
We’ve already touched a little bit on skate culture’s impact on the sneaker world. When you picture a pair of Vans, the first image that comes to mind is probably the Vans Old Skool.
This classic pair of black sneakers feature a suede and textile upper with a rubber sole. It’s got the iconic Vans stripe in white leather and a perfectly flat bottom that makes it perfect for skateboarding.
Although it has its beginnings in the fashion world as a skate shoe, it hasn’t ended its impact there. Vans Old Skools can be seen in so many subcultures including hip hop and emo. You couldn’t attend Warped Tour without seeing copious amounts of Vans (and in fact, it was sponsored by them).
Today, the Vans Old Skool is still a favorite sneaker of many celebrities, musicians, and everyday people. We doubt that this shoe will ever fully go out of style.
6. Puma Suede Classic
Do you like a little social justice history with your shoes? Then the Puma Suede Classic is the shoe for you.
This sneaker was first introduced as a basketball sneaker (one of the few without a high-top), but it soon became a symbol of so much more. This shoe became a symbol of and popular choice among activists against racial injustice in the 60s and 70s.
How did that happen?
Sprinter, Tommie Smith took off his Puma Suede Classic while standing atop the medal podium giving the black power fist during the 1968 Olympics. No one before had given such a clear statement about racial injustice at a worldwide event. Soon, activists everywhere copied Tommie Smith’s style and started wearing the Puma Suede.
Today, they have an organic vintage look because of the worn nature of suede. They look a little preloved which is a nice callback to how loved by and important they were to activists.
7. Are Air Jordans 1 worth it?
If you break down the influences on the history of sneakers, the biggest contenders are tennis, skateboarding, alternative music, and basketball. What basketball player has had more of an impact than Michael Jordan?
His impact on the world doesn’t start and end on the basketball court. Michael Jordan’s collaboration with Nike in 1984 started a whole new wave of sneakerheads starting their iconic sneaker collections.
The Chicago color scheme is the most popular Nike Air Jordan 1 with its iconic blue and black color blocking. Even if you don’t know a thing about sneakers, you’ve definitely seen this pair before.
Nike Air Jordans are still used by both basketball players today and coveted by sneakerheads. If you can get your hands on one of the original pairs, you’ve got a special pair of sneakers on your hands. But the 1994 rerelease is also popular because it introduced the silhouetted figure of Michael Jordan jumping into the air.
8. Adidas Originals Superstar
We mentioned earlier a pair of iconic Adidas sneakers that don’t feature the three Adidas stripes, but what she did make that look popular?
Look no further than the Adidas Originals Superstar. These classic shoes have been nicknamed “shell shoes” because of their white rubber shell toe cap. In fact, everything about these sneakers’ design is iconic from the side stripes (available today in a myriad of colors) to the toe cap to the chunky yet clean silhouette.
Unlike the Stan Smiths, this Adidas shoe made its debut in 1969 as a basketball court shoe. The white bottoms didn’t scuff up the floor and ironically gave a better grip on the floor than Adidas’s first attempt to enter the basketball market, the Supergrip.
The thing that really set this shoe apart though was its all-leather upper. Up until then, most athletic shoes were canvas (to help with breathability), but the lack of support was causing injuries for sports stars. Adidas solved this problem with the introduction of the leather sneaker which held feet more firmly in place.
9. Are authentic vans comfortable?
We’ve already mentioned Vans’ popularity among the skateboarding community. But did you know that they chose the skate community before the skate community ever chose them?
Vans was the first sneaker company to take skateboarding seriously as a sport and athletic skill. They did this by introducing the very first sneaker for skateboarding in 1970 – the Vans Authentic.
Skaters loved the rugged look of the shoe and its flat, sticky sole which helped them stay on their boards. Some early skateboards lacked the sandpaper grip seen on skateboards today, so the stickiness of the shoe was imperative. It wasn’t long before the Vans Authentic was the number one sneaker seen in Southern California (the birthplace of the skateboarding hobby).
The Vans Old Skool may be the more recognizable style, but the Vans Authentic will get you some serious cred among serious skateboarders who know their origins. They’re also great for anyone who likes to incorporate the 70s and 80s style into their wardrobe as the Old Skool is more associated with the 90s.
10. Adidas Derrick Rose
One of the newest notable relationships between an athlete and a sneaker company is that between Derrick Rose and Adidas. That’s right, Adidas has yet another iconic classic shoe that you should be looking at if you’re interested in new sneakers with the Derrick Rose basketball shoes. He may be the new Michael Jordan as he’s one of the most recognizable talents in the NBA right now, so it makes sense that he’d have his own iconic sneaker collaboration
These shoes were designed to support and emulate Derrick Rose’s unique and explosive style of play. He requires a shoe with a lot of support around the ankle but a lightweight build for him to execute his famous jumps across the court. Adidas had to find a way to create the perfect combination of support, flexibility, and lightweight materials to make sure that they were the perfect shoe for Rose.
Not only are these sneakers super functional and innovative, but they’re also beautiful too! The visual design was an important component of the creation of these sneakers which are meant to emulate the unique architectural styles of Chicago.
The Structural Expressionist movement sought to expose the inner skeletons of buildings in a beautiful way, and the Derrick Rose sneakers do the same. They also feature a gorgeous impressionistic logo of a rose in honor of their namesake. The only other shoe with such an iconic logo is the Air Jordan.
11. Nike Air Max 1
How many revolutions do you know of in the technology of sneakers? There was the transition from canvas to leather to synthetic materials. Changes in ankle and arch support. But one of the most exciting innovations in sneakers in the past fifty years was the introduction of the Nike Air Max about forty years ago.
This new cushioning technology featured high-density gasses in an airbag on the sole of the shoe. This change in the way shoe soles are made was imperative in preventing impact injuries for basketball players and adding more bounce to their step while running and jumping.
Today, the visible air cushion is just as much a fashion statement as it is an asset to basketball players. When you see a Nike Air Max you’re seeing a piece of history that honors the spirit of innovation in the sneaker industry.
Keds may not be the popular or cool choice anymore, but credit must be given where it’s due. Keds were one of the first sneakers introduced in the U.S. The company launched in 1916! These canvas-topped, rubber-soled shoes were called sneakers because it was possible to sneak around in them.
By the 1920s, Olympic athletes were using these early sneakers to perform their events, but their fashion status wasn’t made official until the 1950s when a playful, sporty look was popular among adults and children alike. In the 1970s, they became a symbol of counterculture among punk bands like The Ramones and later hip hop artists! I bet you never pictured the early punks in perfectly white sneakers, but it was a popular punk choice!
Today, you probably won’t use Keds for any kind of athletic purpose. The world of athletic sneakers has come so far from their simple design. But by wearing them, you can harken back to rich sneaker history.
Classic Sneakers for Your Collection
Whether you’re interested in the history of sneakers, alternative music, social justice, basketball, or tennis, there are classic sneakers to add to your collection. Sneakers are fashionable and cool, but they also call back to some amazing points in sports and social history.
Interested in more fashion tips and history? Check out our Life section for more articles like this one.