Pumps… plimsolls… tennis shoes… daps… sandshoes… takkies… twaddlers... whatever you choose to call them in the comfort of your own abode, humble rubber-soled canvas shoes are a firm footwear classic that demand respect and adoration.
But where did they come from? How did they transcend the sporting realm? And why should you care?
With some fancy new Superga pumps heading our way very soon, we thought it was time for a brief potted history...
From what we can deduce, back in the early 19th century, rubber was generally of the natural, unstable variety. This basically meant it was pretty useless, and would often melt or crumble away.
Obviously this wasn’t ideal, so a few scientists (including tyre-tycoons Charles Goodyear and John Boyd Dunlop, along with the right honourable Mack-daddy Charles Mackintosh ) set about trying to work out a way to stabilise the stuff.
Charles Goodyear mid-ponder
After a fair amount of mucking about, they worked out that the solution was to heat the rubber up to scorching temperatures with sulphur.
To paraphrase Alan Partridge, this process (known as vulcanisation after the Roman god of fire) meant that the rubber wouldn’t perish, so shoe soles could be more flexible, tyres could be bouncier and pressure resistant rubber seals could finally be made, resulting in huge, bounding leaps forward in the industrial realm. Exciting stuff this vulcanising lark.
This new development was used to make plimsolls, so-called due to the fact that the band that joined the rubber to the canvas looked a bit like the plimsoll line on a ship (that’s the line on the side of the ship that marks which bit should be underwater).
To a fair few people, the word plimsoll will no doubt bring up bad memories of freezing cold school sports halls and the dreaded bleep test, but back in the late 19th century, these simple shoes were only really the preserve of wedged Victorian types who liked strolling around on beaches, playing tennis and indulging in various other high-end, champagne-soaked activities.
Tennis players playing tennis
By the 1900s, the introduction of the Saturday half-day and the rise of sports clubs meant more and more people had access to sporting pursuits and, in turn, more people needed the shoes for the job. The footwear floodgates had been blasted right open and rubber barons around the globe set about making their own shoes.
Over the pond, companies like Keds, Converse, Spalding and B.F. Goodrich (who originally produced the Jack Purcell badminton shoe) developed the basic plimsoll into something a bit more substantial, with chunkier soles, thicker fabric and toe-caps for a bit of extra protection.
In Italy, a company known as Superga famous for rubber wellington boots made the bold and courageous leap out of the silage pit and on to the tennis court, and in 1925, they launched the 2750. A bit more subtle than their American counterparts, the Superga tennis shoe was a prime example of Italian style — super sleek, and very, very tasty.
A scan from an old Superga catalogue. That's the 2750 at the bottom-right.
Parallel to all this sporting lark, a mysterious and lesser-spoke-of canvas-shoe tangent emerged —yep, just like in all good films, the military waded in, guns a-blazin’ and tanks a-tankin’. Big stomping boots were all well and good for trudging across battlefields, but they were a bit excessive in the gym, so what were known as P.T. shoes (as in physical training shoes) were developed to be worn during arduous workout slogs.
Each country had their own versions, but they were usually unbranded, no-nonsense canvas shoes, in earthy, militant hues. During WW2 most footwear companies shifted to the military effort, and in Italy, it was Superga who were counted on to produce army-daps. One of their finest designs was called the 2390, and combined the smooth lines of their civilian offerings, along with a subtle slice of toe-cappery.
Archive Superga designs. Can anyone read Italian?
Many soldiers kept their P.T. shoes as souvenirs after demobilisation, and along with other radical, function-based garments like crew-neck t-shirts and blue jeans, long-held conventions started to crumble. It was still early days, but counter-culture was bubbling under the surface, and stiff suits and polished leather shoes suddenly looked a little outdated.
Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums features much talk of scrambling up Californian mountainsides in old tennis shoes, and in A Streetcar Named Desire, Marlon Brando sullenly strides about the streets of New Orleans in canvas pumps.
None of this sounds very wild today, but at the time this was the sort of behaviour that’d cause a man with a monocle to spit out his tea in sheer disgust.
Marlon Brando looking moody - note the footwear
By the 60s, this counter-culture had made its way into the mainstream thanks to the rise of television, and as morals loosened and dress codes relaxed, more and more people could enjoy cotton-based comfort without fear of scorn.
Meanwhile, over in Germany, footwear-heir Horst Dassler was working in cahoots with Gallic tennis supremo Robert Haillet on making the first leather tennis shoe. This majestic slab of leather (which would later be bestowed to mustachioed racket-wielder Stan Smith) marked a break away from the more basic canvas ‘n’ rubber combo, and over the decades, footwear tech forged forth into a Tomorrow’s World-esque future of air bubbles, built-in computers and NASA-grade gimmickry.
Sport had developed beyond the plimsoll, but the canvas pump was still there for those who wanted something a little more subtle, as Oi Polloi founder and fully-fledged footwear-fanatic Nigel explained…
“Everyone was wearing expensive tennis shoes. In the mid-80s, a pair of adidas Forest Hills would have been £40, but a pair of canvas pumps would have been about £6. It was a reaction, it was dressing down.”
This reactionary culture of one-upmanship led a few bold voyagers beyond the omnipresent Converse All Star and into more niche realms. Whilst some sought out rare Dunlop variations (such as the seldom-seen Gold Flash), trips to Europe brought word of other fruits ripe for re-appropriation.
“I first saw Superga in 1986 when I was inter-railing around Europe. When I got to Genoa in Italy, there were millions and millions of coloured shoes, and they were all Superga. The sole was super chunky at the sides, but the toe was so sleek. And you could get them in all these colours… stonewashed denim, yellow or pink.”
Assorted canvas action from an old issue of Paninaro magazine
“They were the Paninaro version of the Converse. The All Star was so American, but the Superga had that scooter flavour. In Italy I never actually saw anyone riding a scooter, wearing Superga pumps with Stone Island or Henri Lloyd jackets on, but in my head it all fit together to create this Italian Paninaro thing.” said Nigel.
Things may have changed a bit since the mid-80s, but as various baffling trainer designs come and go, the reliable canvas pump remains, a modest Braeburn apple in a garish world of Haribo sour sweets.
Or to put it more eloquently, here’s a nice quote from Nigel, “It’s that simple, quality version of something that’s actually quite basic. It’s perfect design.”
The long-lost Superga 2390 will be launching on Thursday the 15th of March, and they look very good. Keep your eyes peeled and your toes prepped.