The enduring fanaticism that encompasses Converse All Stars — known as Chuck Taylors to us Gen Xers — is among the greatest enigmas of modern times. After all, you wouldn’t wear those plaid pants your dad grew up in, so why don the sneakers he wore to gym class?
Don’t feel alone. With some five million pairs of the classic basketball shoe sold in the United States last year, All Stars are hardly a fashion faux pas. Today they may be about attitude, but at one time the simple shoes were pure performance. For half a century Chuck Taylors were the standard on the court, eventually giving way to space-age polymers and such useful devices as the inflatable tongue.
So now that chucks, as devotees dub them, are the technological equivalent of the biplane, why are they still on the market — and selling quite well? Colwater Road Shoe Carnival manager Todd Rockwell says he’ll move anywhere from 15 to 30 pairs a month. Another half dozen or so disappear from The Foot Locker at Glenbrook Square, according to assistant manager Andre Yaruchyh.
If you say function, just tell us when to quit laughing. The flimsy canvas reinforced with only a rubbercapped toe offers about as much support as, well, think of your ankle as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Fashion? Put that Brylcreem away and say to yourself, “Wally Cleaver is not a cool guy” ten times.
Actually, today’s Chuck Taylor aficionados do wear the time-honored classics as a sartorial statement. It’s all about cool. But the Beaver’s bro is hardly the lead they’re following. If you had to characterize the modern chuckster, he or she probably knows (or knew) their way around a skateboard and is listening to the next Nirvana. Chucks are the primary association to all things alternative short of unnecessary holes in the nose or jeans with capacity for two. We’re talking about the late-teens, young-20s hipsters.
“They’re very popular with the kids who like the grunge kind of look,’’ Rockwell said. Yaruchyh added that a lot of kids see them in videos — especially skating videos — and draw a cue.
And admittedly that’s where you see a lot of All Stars today. But that doesn’t include those of us who refused to give them up in the decade since our Dead Kennedys days. Or the folks following Phish around the country. Or your dad, now a fifty-something professional who actually wore them as basketball shoes and still thinks they’re pretty damn comfortable. Or his dad, who probably wore them back in his glory days, considering All-Stars are the same now as they were in 1923. [The current black and white high top was introduced in the late 40s, Ed.]
Clearly, despite a complete lack of practicality, Chuck Taylors are firmly hunkered down in the American transgenerational zeitgeist. Cost is certainly a factor given that suggested retail is roughly $32. Try finding something consisting of more than a few straps across rubber at that price. But affordability doesn’t explain famous chucksters such as Calista Flockhart, Eddie Van Halen, Pearl Jam, Hunter S. Thompson and Dennis Rodman (does he match them to his hair?). The people at Converse, like marketing communications specialist Gina Martiniello, want us to believe that the shoes have appeal “because people have just been wearing them forever and they’re something they’re used to and comfortable in.”
Good points to be sure, but the real allure of Chuck Taylors lie in their unsophisticated nerdiness. There’s no pretension to All-Stars, no real function; they’re the shoes that never evolved. They exude cool because they’re so pathetic, so understated, so outside of cool. Let the masses spend $100 bucks on shoes with Emmitt Smith’s signature that resemble NASA boots — we don’t need supplemental lateral heel cup support to hang out at the coffee shop.
And if they were good enough for Larry Bird, the ultimate cool geek, who are we to ask questions?
His name was Charles Taylor and his basketball skills were as mundane as his name. But the man known as Chuck to his friends would remain a household name decades after his death.
Born in 1901 just outside of Columbus, Ind., Chuck spent his teen years playing organized, but not professional, basketball with teams in Fort Wayne and Detroit. By 1921, at the age of 20, the man described as a “journeyman jumpshooter” opted against college and instead walked into Converse’s Chicago office and asked for a job.
The Converse All-Star had been invented four years earlier, but it was Taylor who made a name for the shoes. He took the All-Stars on the road, holding clinics in small towns while hawking the goods. After returning to Chicago after one such trip, he offered input on improving traction, support and sturdiness. Converse implemented the suggestions and in 1923 [actually 1932] added his name to the signature ankle patch on either side of the famous five-pointed star — a sort of thank you for his devotion.
As the first official endorser of athletic shoes, Taylor earned the title of Ambassador to Basketball. He wasn’t the best player of his time, but no one promoted the sport more aggressively.
By the mid-’60s All-Stars’ sales peaked, cornering about 75 percent of the basketball shoe market. Because of his efforts in promoting the sport, as well as the recognition gained from the All-Stars, Taylor was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1968.
Chuck Taylor died one year later, never knowing that though his shoes would disappear from the court, his name would one day symbolize the epitome of casual fashion.
550 million pairs of Converse All-Stars have been produced since their genesis in 1917. The last significant change in All-Stars (save for some ill-advised marketing gimmicks, see below) was the 1923 addition of Chuck Taylor’s name to the ankle patch. 10 million pairs of Chuck Taylors are produced every year, half of them going to overseas markets.
There are eight core colors available at all times: black, white, bleached white, navy, pine, red, black monotone and maroon. Converse also makes seasonal colors and styles that have included auburn, khaki, gold, pastel green and pale blue among a myriad of others. There have been several patterns introduced to All-Stars such as zebra stripes, stars and stripes and camouflage, with varying degrees of success.
Not all styles have gone over well. Among the failures (from the ’80s, of course): Knee-highs that could be rolled down to reveal complementary colors, platforms to raise the shoe another inch or so and (gasp!) high heels.
By Jeff Slagter
The Journal Gazette
Fort Wayne, Indiana
Thursday, September 3, 1998