In my grade school, it was all about the Air Jordans—that was, until the first Reebok Pump hit. Suddenly, all of my suburban Chicago peers were torn between wearing the shoes of the hometown hero and greatest basketball player of all time, or having a satisfying, pressable button on their person at all moments of the day.
It’s a memory I’d long forgotten, before being reminded of that fateful year of 1989, so well documented on PopChartLab’s latest mega illustration, A Visual Compendium of Sneakers. It walks you through 134 sneaker designs over almost 100 years of shoe history—it has everything from the original mass-produced sneaker, the Converse All Star (1917), to the controversial Jeremy Scott x Adidas Wing (2013). And as your eyes scroll down the page into an increasingly satisfying manifestation of absurdity, you can see the evolution of technology into fashion accessory.
“Early shoe designs were rooted in their utility, especially in terms of their application to a given sport,” explains William Prince, managing editor at PopChartLab. “But, over time (especially in the 1950s, when James Dean wore stylish kicks in Rebel Without a Cause), sneaker design became more concerned with fashion—how a shoe looked, how it complemented your outfit, what it said about your own personal brand of self-expression.”
What I find most amazing, looking through almost a century of shoes, is how well these designs (and styles) have aged. Chuck Taylors aren’t the only sneakers on this print that we still see on the street today. The Adidas line from the '60s and '70s is alive and well. Heck, even New Balances from the 1980s remain domestically iconic. Sneakers have run on a sort of quarantined evolutionary track seemingly independent of the whims of popular fashion. Zoot suits may have given way to casual Fridays, but nothing on this page would look anachronistic on your feet at this very moment.
However, with the rise of new fabric technologies like Flyknit and a recent push for zero-drop heels, don’t be surprised if the sneakers of the next 10 years begin to look significantly different than the previous century.
A Visual Compendium of Sneakers is available as a print for $32.