Chuck Taylor All-Stars, from Hoosier basketball sneakers to punk rock kicks
This feature was originally published by the Purdue Exponent on June 16, 2016.
Chuck Taylor All-Stars don’t age. Even when your pair starts to look a little worse for wear, it still manages to retain its edgy cool. Not bad for a product that is about to celebrate its 100th birthday.
In 1917, the Converse Rubber Shoe Company designed the “All-Stars” sneaker to tap into an emerging market—basketball. The sport was only in its second decade when the shoe was developed and it was far from the game we know it as today—basketball was usually played with a soccer ball, dribbling was a seldom used tactic and the innovation of the jump shot was years away.
When Brown County, Indiana native Chuck Taylor finished high school, he went to Converse’s offices in Chicago looking for a job. Taylor pitched a plan to improve the All-Stars design to better meet the needs of basketball players. Converse hired him on the spot and added his signature to the shoes when they implemented his recommendation of putting a circular patch on the side of the sneaker to improve ankle support for athletes. In 1936, the US Olympic team, wearing “Chuck Taylor” All-Stars, won the first Olympic gold awarded in basketball.
The All-Stars had a near-monopoly shoe for basketball sneakers and the growth of basketball as a major sport expanded the All-Stars reach into the casual sneaker market as well. In the 1950’s Converse added the classic monochrome black canvas with a white toe guard design to go along with its white canvas version.
In 1969 Taylor died and the future of his namesake shoes seemed doomed. Newfangled “athletic sneakers” from companies like Nike, complete with air-pumps, ergonomic moldings and colorful designs soon dominated the market, beginning in the 1970s. Tree Rollins was the last NBA player to lace up Chuck Taylors in 1979 and the casual market dried up.
Chuck Taylor All-Stars were obsolete. But as the shoes began to disappear from the basketball court of Madison Square Garden, they started popping up in CBGB’s instead.
The All-Stars’ fall from grace as a mainstream icon conversely gave the design a second life in the anti-fashion punk world. Chucks soon became the unofficial shoe of the punk subculture. Sid Vicious from The Sex Pistols wore them. The Ramones ditched their Pro Keds for them. Kurt Cobain wore Chuck Taylors in place of dress shoes to music award ceremonies. When punk was appropriated into mainstream culture with bands like Green Day and Blink-182, Chucks were reabsorbed as well.
After 100 years, the shoe remains one of those few unique brands that are accepted by those both inside and outside of popular culture. Available now in almost every color imaginable, Chuck Taylor All-Stars – the vision of a southern Indiana kid – still retain the title of the kick of choice for the cool.