The Legend Never Dies

Robert Plant wearing red chucks
Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin

Converse sneakers first became popular when basketball player Chuck Taylor started promoting them way back in 1923, hence Taylor’s signature on the shoes and their nickname “chucks.” In the beginning, Converse was hugely popular among basketball players and other athletes, as well as everyday active and energetic boys. They even found their way into the U.S. military in World War II when white high tops became the official exercise shoe worn by American GIs in basic training. The endorsement of a professional athlete and their use by the military eventually led up to possibly the most classic shoe in American history besides cowboy boots, The Converse All Star black high top sneaker. Released in 1949, the black high top found its way into the various subcultures of every generation since the end of the Second World War. While the legendary Chuck Taylor started this undying trend of shoes, there are others who’ve kept the style and spirit of Converse strong throughout the ages from athletes to actors to authors, musicians, cultural icons and regular people with sense of style. Indeed, wearing Converse means something abundantly different in each subculture then it did back in the 1920s.

The introduction of the classic black high top chucks became the first step the shoes would take on their journey to becoming a timeless classic. This isn’t to imply chucks had lost their popularity for basketball, quite the contrary. Nevertheless, the “Rebel without a Cause” aka James Dean was photographed wearing the Jack Purcell model of chucks. The Purcell models weren’t quite as iconic as the black high tops, but in wearing them James Dean laid the groundwork for their place in future styles. Elvis Presley was also know to wear chucks off-stage, as seen in a 1961 photo of him relaxing at home. In light of this, Converse still remained the go to shoe for athletics and boasted its status as a major shareholder in the sneaker industry, but unbeknownst to Converse their rule over the industry wasn’t going to last. The man and legend known as Chuck Taylor who preserved the athletic shoe’s popularity for roughly four decades died from a heart attack in 1969. After Taylor’s death the Converse company lost its title as the most popular basketball shoe. Not long after, contending companies began latching onto the sneaker industry. Converse still had a few loyal basketball players wearing their shoes but without Chuck Taylor, this was the beginning of the end for their role in mainstream athletics.

Continuing the trend started by James Dean and Elvis, chucks became part of a fashion statement for the newly emerging anti-establishment or “hippy” culture of the 1970s. Converse has a mix of qualities to them that gives them such an unmistakable look: brilliantly simple design that had a youthful yet retro appearance. This in conjunction with 70’s trends like tie-dye and bellbottoms defied the older generations main-stream outfits of pressed shirts, slacks and loafers. It wasn’t long before more influential figures began implementing Converse in their outfits. Hunter S. Thompson, one of the most prominent authors in the 70’s anti-establishment culture was known to wear white low top Converse. In fact, one of his more famous pictures features him wearing his white low tops while sitting on a parked motorcycle as he leisurely takes aim with a .44 revolver. The musicians of the 70s also found the qualities of Converse appealing. The Beatle’s John Lennon was photographed on multiple occasions wearing Converse. The same goes for Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, photographed in 1977 in red chucks while eating an ice-cream cone.

Hunter Thompson in white low cut chucks
Hunter S. Thompson takes aim in white low tops.

The hippie culture that defined the 1970s slowly faded away when punk rock became the dominate cultural theme of the 1980s. The Converse company itself was also experiencing changes in the form of poor business decisions and changing ownership, the problems made worse with the loss of their sneaker industry domination. To complicate matters even further, the predecessors to modern-day trainer shoes like Air Jordan’s had made the athletic value of chucks nearly absolute, and they had all but completely vanished from main stream basketball. But even in the face of these hardships, the stylish reputation of Converse sneakers began popping up in the era’s fashion trends. Punk rock’s adoption of chucks didn’t just happen by itself, the members of early punk rock bands like the Sex Pistols and The Ramones instituted chucks into the scene back in the late 70s when punk itself was just beginning. Another factor that ensured the future of chucks comes from the core or punk rock fashion. Punk fashion is inherently based on anti-fashion with its incorporation of customized, dirty, damaged or out-of-date clothes among other things. These qualities of punk fashion resulted in an overall appearance that’s distinctly youthful but at the same time a non-conformist, free willed look that instills a sense of shock to outsiders; the same general idea about the 70’s trends, but had more of an aggressive edge. A pair of Converse perfectly complements this look considering their past associations with youthful rebels like James Dean. Part of this appeal comes from the non-conformist mind set of punk culture; the constantly changing designs and styles of sneakers like 1985’s release of Air Jordan’s were seen as main stream, so the flashy and popular trainers had almost no appeal to the punk sense of style. The four decade old design of black high top Converse defied the modern and main stream style of sneakers and truly highlighted the spirit of punk rock’s non-conformity.

When the 80’s ended, Converse transitioned into the next decade seamlessly, the company itself might have still been in peril but the style remained strong. Just as the hippie culture passed the Converse tradition over to punk rock, punk rock passed the torch over to the grunge culture of the 1990’s. The grunge culture might have roots in the punk trends of style, but it did away with the “shock and awe” looks in favor of a much more laid back, less intimidation approach. Converse survived the transition largely from the cultural icons of the day. Most notably was the heartbreaking case of Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana. Chucks appear in almost every picture of where Cobain’s feet are visible, including the one taken of his body after committing suicide. In a morbid coincidence, they were the same Jack Purcell style of Converse that James Dean who also died tragically young.

Kurt Cobain wearing black chucks
Kurt Cobain wearing black high tops.

When the new millennium finally came around, Converse had built a massive following with entire networks of cultures and subcultures that wore chucks. In retrospect, there is no specific subculture, generation or individual that truly defined Converse All Stars, aside from the great Chuck Taylor of course. This diversity alone is what kept the spirit of chucks alive for so long, and that’s what makes these shoes truly special. There is no particular group or style that they exclusively belong to, sure there were and still are groups that wear them more than others. But overall chucks belong to the youth of every culture, from every generation and every walk of life. It doesn't matter if you’re male, female, black, white, a basketball enthusiast, celebrity, a hippie, a punk or a hipster. If you embrace the spirit of an authentic American shoe worn by past generations of youth, then consider yourself part of proud a cultural trend that will never die.

—Connor Shields

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