Regardless of how you grew up, practically everyone you know wears sneakers. From its humble beginnings on England’s tennis courts, the sneaker has transcended its athletic roots to become a staple of the modern aesthetic.
Yet, despite our love for these casual footwear staples, few truly understand what makes some sneakers “just good,” but others true greats. For an article of clothing so essential to our wardrobes, why do so many of us know so little about it?
If this sounds like that start of a rabbit hole, you’re half-right. Building a better sneaker is an obsession that’s equal parts passion and understanding. Learning what parts make up that sneaker, then, is just like searching Zagat before date night: you do your research to find people who’ve done theirs, and oh, does the experience follow. So, grab your scalpel and follow along as we dive into the anatomy of a sneaker.
The part around your foot. The upper of a shoe is made from a singular piece (or multiple woven parts, depending on the style) made of the material that covers the toes, sides, top of the foot and back of the heel. It’s attached to the sole of a shoe. Depending on the style of a sneaker, the upper can be made of either a breathable polymer (for more sports-inspired shoes) or of organic materials like canvas or leather (for more casual, fashion-focused pairs). The main function of the upper is to secure one’s foot to the sole during movement. The secondary function? Look great doing it.
The Toe Box
This part of the sneaker is found up front. The toe box, despite its rectangular name, can be made into a variety of shapes — round, square, or pointed, among others — depending on the intended style of the sneaker.
This part of the sneaker is found in the back (surprising, I know). With sneakers, this is largely where shoemakers will house their famed cushioning technology — think Nike's iconic “Visible Air” system — oftentimes functioning as both technical necessity and marketing asset. The heel can make or break your sneaker wearing experience, and often defines a sneaker’s shelf life in your personal wardrobe.
The part that sits between the laces and your foot. In a typical lace-up sneaker, the tongue is usually found tucked under the laces, and is largely meant to guarantee a snug-yet-flexible fit for the wearer. The tongue should be the only moving part of the shoe – if your soles are flapping around, that’s a sneaker anatomy talk of a whole different kind.
Recently, the tongue has been a point of innovation for many sneaker manufacturers as of late, specifically with the trend towards woven “sneaker-sock” technology like the kind found on many soccer-inspired high tops. There, the tongue is attached to a larger ankle-hugging piece of fabric to ensure maximum comfort and snugness of fit, as compared to the standard designs of past.
The Inner Sole
The part of the shoe your foot actually touches. The general purpose of this part of the sneaker is to provide comfort, support and stability for the wearer. The “insole”, as it is sometimes known, is also one of the most modular parts of any sneaker – drop-in insoles that offer extra cushioning or arch support are available at any shoe store worth its salt. The main aspects of an innersole are the arch support it provides and the “heel cup,” the curved part at the back that hugs your foot to keep everything in place as you move.
The core of the sneaker. The sole is the reliable heart of the sneaker anatomy, the one part that joins all the other components together and maintains stability for the wearer of the sneaker. The upper is stitched to the sole; the innersole rests on the sole; and the outsole (that rubber surface on the bottom) covers the shoe itself. Just think of a sneaker like a car: the insole may be the seats, but the sole is both the tires and suspension.
Since the sole is the surface where your sneaker hits the ground, a good outsole will emphasize both versatility and strength. For trailblazing outsole maker Vibram, hard rubber is largely the material of choice. Without a sturdy yet adaptive outsole, a sneaker is essentially useless.
Truth be told, this is only a 100-level lesson in sneaker anatomy — if you ask the multi-generational Italian craftsmen who make our shoes, there are countless other details (the vamp, the puff, etc.) to know, each more arcane than the last yet all equally important. That being said, the parts covered here are the essentials: without them, a sneaker would just be a flip flop with a dream.
Once the basics are understood, however, the sky’s the limit. Armed with knowledge, you can now truly evaluate what you’re putting on your feet, making your next decision to upgrade just that much better. Make good use of this - an eye for quality and understanding of sneaker anatomy will guide you towards making more informed wardrobe choices, today and into the future.
Look at that - classroom learning you can actually use! Anatomy class, dismissed.