The Converse “All Star” sneaker was first created in 1917, marketed as an athletic basketball shoe, named after the basketball icon and converse collaborator and designer, Chuck Taylor. The history of Converse is a long and continuous one, as the shoe played and still plays a social and cultural role in mass media for nearly a century. The Chuck Taylor has been a shoe, appropriated into an array of subcultures and facets of society, cheap and affordable therefore equalizing, used as a sign of rebellion from the mainstream, and a shoe for any age group, gender or race.
The term appropriation can essentially be understood as the taking of an object and giving it new meaning or use, sometimes appropriation may be the repurposing or re-use in a transgressive way or alternatively, its commodification into mass culture. The canvas shoe, available in a “high-top” or “low-top” is a fashion object that has seen a great deal of cultural appropriation throughout its existence, literally being made of canvas, has figuratively taken on this “blank canvas” mentality, being the subject of a myriad of cultural connotations.
To understand the cultural impact of the sneaker, it is important to begin to understand its wearer. In the case of the Chuck Taylor All Star, the wearer and consumer is nearly impossible to define as one single type of individual. In the “Jeaning of America,” Fiske states, “the functionality of jeans is the precondition of their popularity, but does not explain it. In particular, it does not explain the unique ability of jeans to transect almost every social category we can think of…gender, class race, age, nation, religion, education” (1). Although, speaking about blue jeans, Fiske’s argument is a perfect summation of the converse wearer, as the popularity of the shoe follows a historical trajectory that incorporates athletes, war veterans, punks, celebrities, and children. As seen in this image of two Kentucky basketball players, the Chuck Taylor “All Stars,” in an article by Spin Magazine, recounting the history of the shoe, create a perfect narrative of cultural appropriation.
Seeing an image of the first “use” of these sneakers allows for one to think more critically about Fiske’s point about functionality. If practicality and functionality were the fundamental reasons for the popularity of jeans, a similar argument can be made for Chuck Taylors. Easy to wear and match, durable, and reasonably priced, there is no question why these canvas shoes can be found in the closet of millions of individuals around the world, yet on second glance, the story behind this shoe exposes far more about society and the unique role All Stars played in a democratizing sense.
Jeans as a sign of rebellion became an aspect of culture rooted in the western world, but appropriated into various cultures around the world, as Fiske recounts, “So in Moscow, for example, they [jeans] can be made sense of by the authorities as bearers of Western decadence, and they can be worn by the young as an act of defiance, as a sign of their opposition to social conformity…” (Fiske,4). Thus, in the same way jeans constituted teenage and youth rebellion to authority, The Ramones may be held responsible for the incorporation of Chuck Taylors into punk subculture. Tommy Ramone in an interview with Spin magazine stated, “it was punky and snotty to wear sneakers instead of shoes. Punky and snotty was very important for the Ramones.”
This idea of placing importance upon one’s image and the creation of identity, is in a sense yet another form of appropriation, as converse went from athletic sneakers, to a way to construct an identity as an alternative, anti-authoritarian individual. Lundoff’s article “Tattoo Me,” brings forth a similar conversation surrounding body modification, as the young woman quoted about her personal experiences says, “…I figured a tattoo would remind me that I wasn’t always ‘establishment’” (126). Therefore, sporting Converse All Stars was a way to show the world, not only your own personal style and musical preferences, but presented a political and social stance as well. Chuck Taylors became a mechanism to help construct social identity.
Dick Hebdige discusses subcultural forms and how they are “symbolic challenges to a symbolic order” (92), meaning that deviations indicative of subcultures are a means by which society identifies and creates norms and expected behavior. By challenging social order, moral panic is induced, however is generally controlled by the eventual re-appropriation or commodification of the object. Thus, in the case of Chuck Taylors, as they became introduced into mainstream culture, no longer seen as a threat, the sneakers were being worn by the general public for reasons unrelated to their previous rebellious connotation. The commodification as well as the appropriation of Converse sneakers into humanitarian causes, such as the Ramones (RED) campaign All Star sneaker is not only a way to re-define past deviant behavior or make a political statement, but as Stuart Hall has suggested create “connotative codes…” that “cover the face of social life and render it classifiable, intelligible, meaningful” (Hall, 1977).
Thus, once an object attains these connotative codes, “like all commodities, they are given brand names that compete among each other for specific segments of the market. Manufacturers try to identify social differences and then to construct equivalent differences in the product so that social differentiation and product differentiation become mapped into each other” (Fiske, 6). Although, one specific shoe, Chuck Taylor’s allow within range, a means to customize, personalize, and express social and cultural difference through their low-top or high-top sneaker. Offered in a range of colors, fabrics, designs, and the inclusion of a significant amount of special edition Chuck Taylors, the Converse All Star has traversed all cultural niches.
Literally composed of canvas, the sneaker has became an outlet for artists, whether it is drawing with a Sharpie or embroidering with needle-point, the physical space and material of the shoe has been appropriated into a creative outlet.
Furthermore, the trend behind Chuck Taylors endorsed and made more popular by celebrity culture, is also a means of commodifying the shoes. Beginning with the Ramones, one can see Chuck Taylor’s become a signature look for other artists, such as Wiz Khalifa, yet another form of appropriation of the sneaker to another arguably rebellious youth culture of rap/hip-hop.
Sweetman discusses the rise in popularity of body modification and tattooing and how “the last ten years have also seen the partial incorporation of both forms of body modification into consumer culture. Numerous celebrities now sport tattoos and piercings, and related imagery is frequently featured in advertising copy…” (292) essentially insinuating the appropriation of body modification into popular culture, thus making it more socially acceptable. Additionally, the shoe is also prevalent in many female fashions, often incorporated with high-end or haute couture, creating juxtaposition between sophisticated high-class and casual everyday sneakers.
To consider Chuck Taylor’s as an equalizing commodity is important as well, as it brings forth questions of power relations within society. Hebdige says, “…we must first consider how power is distributed in our society. That is, we must ask which groups and classes have how much say in defining, ordering and classifying out the social world” (14). Thus, it can be understood that appropriation of a fashion or trend is not left up to the general public, but those individuals who influence and control mass media outlets.
Similarly, the 2006 film Marie Antoinette, directed by Sofia Coppola, includes a shot of the young Queen removing her shoes with a pair of dirty, beat up Chuck Taylors next to her chair.
The inclusion of the shoes, at first conjectured to be a mistake, was indeed intentional, as Coppola, an influencer in mass media, wished to emphasize the fact that Marie was merely a teenager when she became Queen of France. Furthermore, the use of Converse to convey youth identity is an aspect of its appropriation throughout the shoe’s history. Indeed, it is clear that the history of Chuck Taylor All Stars is rich and diverse, appropriated into numerous subcultures and niches, used for athletics, style, convenience, and political or social statements. However, Sweetman’s article cites Baudrillard’s view on postmodern fashion as “a carnival of signs with no meanings attached, an eclectic mish-mash of once potent styles and devices, desperately appropriated from a variety of sources in vain attempt to lend authenticity to that which is no longer imbued with meaning” (294). This, statement, when applied to the Converse sneaker, begs the question of whether or not this shoe and symbol in fashion history, still maintains its cultural and social impact, or whether it is forever lost in a constant loop of appropriation.
Fiske, John. Understanding Popular Culture. Boston: Unwin-Hymon, 1989.
Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning Of Style. London: Methuen Publishing Ltd., 1979. 102. Print.
Lundoff, Catherine. “Tattoo Me.” Looking Queer: Body Image and Identity in Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender Communities. Ed. Dawn Atkins. New York: The Haworth Press, 1998. 125-28. Print.
Sweetman, Paul. “Anchoring the (Postmodern) Self?” Fashion Theory: A Reader. New York: Routledge, 2007. 292-310. Print.