Wednesday, June 06, 2018

From Spectators to Sneakers

In the 1920's jazz moved across the social barriers that had divided black and white communities. It suddenly became chic to dance to the music and the effects on fashion were considerable. Two tone shoes were introduced at this time and reached its fashion zenith in the thirties.

The spectator (name given the two tone in the US) was considered elegant for both sexes and both races. It also attracted the sporting types and was made acceptable when the Prince of Wales was seen wearing spectators on the golf links.

Post war youth wanted to celebrate living and throw off the old image of dancing locked together in the embrace of the waltz and tango. Instead they jitterbugged to the sounds of the big band sounds. By the fifties jive was established and the frankest public portrayal of sex yet performed. Kids no longer needed the dress as their forebears did but instead needed to be free to Rock’ Roll. No surprise then when athletic shoes were adopted for the purpose. The humble sneaker, or canvas topped, rubber soled shoe was escalated to the fashion icon of rebellious youth and remarkably has remained there, to this very day.

In the early fifties skiffle became fashionable for a short time. The term was originally used to describe Chicago jug bands of the 20's whose original sound came from replacing traditional instruments with kazoos, washboards, broom handle basses and liquor jugs. Lonnie Donnegan was the champion, yet despite initial success in the states, the fad died as quickly as it started. Skiffle bands were often seen on stage wearing thongs. The fashion was made popular at the Melbourne Olympics by the Japanese swimming team who wore them as sports sandals.

In the fifties war babies had money to spend on themselves. Clothes records and cosmetics were now available for teenagers who suited their style and not their parents. At first nothing changed. The young had money but manufacturers had not woken up to the potential sales. In the UK styles filtered down from Belgravia and young people were expected to become young ladies and gentlemen with any reference to sex in dress completely played down. Similarly, the North American youth followed conservative fashion but the world was in for a rude awakening.

Emerging youth culture appeared across the world Teddy boys in England; were known as Bodgies or widgies in Australia; Blousons noirs in France; Halbstarke in Germany; and street gangs in the US. The appeal of brothel creepers lay in their deliberate crudeness. Leather or suede were sown into crepe sole, sometimes two inches thick. The name spells out the sexuality of the shoe.

They were a celebration of unsubtle masculinity and were the working class equivalent of the desert boot. Originally worn by officers during the desert campaign in North Africa, the originals were suede bootees with crepe soles. The origins are blurred but it is thought Egyptian cobblers made the shoes for the soldiers. After the war the fashion was developed by Clarke's of England and became popular with the middle class smoothies.

Teddy boys wore a modified dessert boot with a particularly thick crepe sole. Brothel creepers were as aggressive as desert boots were urbane. Worn originally with drapes and drainpipe trousers they were a variation of the sartorial style of Prince Edward, hence Teddyboys.

An interesting innovation was the unconventional use of a boot lace, worn as a tie i.e. Slim Jims, this symbolically acknowledged the importance of 'Hillbilly Music' in the emerging music scene as well as flying in the convention of shirt and tie brigade. Dress codes became very important in public places like dance halls and pubs. All in all, the style was the right image for angry young men and made up the post war generation which burst into life with the onset of Rock’ Roll.

(Video Courtesy: Jaray Chatree Youtube Channel)

Sneakers are perhaps the most lasting design of all sport shoes. Not only did they spurn sports shoes they also form the basis of all leisure shoes. The word sneaker was first used in 1875 and it referred to an early croquet shoe which was developed in the US. By the 1950's sneakers had become the preferred footwear of teenagers and the symbol of rebellion. Because they were cheap, the shoes were worn by students around the world.

In North America, cheerleaders wore sweaters, short skirts, ankle socks with canvas topped shoes (or keds). The sole pattern of Keds was circles and squares (cool, or what). Dancing was very much part of the emerging youth culture and the spasmodic body contact interspersed with vigorous gyrations more reminiscent of the Kama Sutra than the Ballroom Gazette necessitated freedom of movement. Sneakers were the footwear of choice (keds for girls and chucks for boys).

Kids flocked to the new 'Teen movies" including Elvis Presley in Jailhouse wearing sneakers and saddle shoes (a close relative). The fashion was officially sanctioned when James Dean was photographed wearing his Levis jeans and white sneakers. Twenty years on Lennon wore white sandshoes with his tailored white suits.

Forty years later, contemporary Rappers continue to extol the virtues of youths' favourite shoes, sneakers.

"How about a pair of pink sidewinders
And a bright orange pair of pants?
"You could really be a Beau Brummel baby
If you just give it half a chance.
Don't waste your money on a new set of speakers,
You get more mileage from a cheap pair of sneakers."
Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways
It's still rock and roll to me.

It's still rock and roll to me
Billy Joel

(Video Courtesy: Billy Joel Youtube Channel)

Reviewed 06/06/2018

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