Leather jackets. Blue jeans. Cool, collected confidence.
In the realm of style, there are but few true icons.
As trend cycles twist and turn, even wardrobe staples as traditional as aviator sunglasses may find themselves suddenly out of favor. However, while fickle fashions ebb and flow, one single piece of footwear has outlasted all others: the white low-top tennis shoe.
For spring, summer, and fall, this single shoe represents a modern-day Triple Crown of footwear: it is lightweight, refined, and versatile to a tee. Yet, with a legacy spanning centuries, the first modern “sneaker” also represents both living history and ageless style.
One hundred years ago, Einstein had only published his first paper and the Ottoman Empire wasn’t just a clever name for a furniture store. With our world changing so dramatically in the century since its creation, how did the tennis low-top turn out so… right?
To truly understand what makes the low-top tennis shoe so iconic, we have to start at the beginning. In 1870’s England, a revolutionary canvas/rubber shoe that looked like a boat’s hull was starting to make waves. These “plimsolls” (a nickname gained from their rubber toecap’s resemblance to the “Plimsoll line” on a boat), as they were called, represented a crude solution to a pervasive problem: while traditional leather-soled sports derbies did fine in ideal conditions, the vulcanized rubber soles introduced by Charles Goodyear beginning in the 1830’s were both cheaper and more adaptable for nearly every manner of sports. Gluing a cheap canvas upper to a vulcanized rubber sole, then, represented a simple, cost-effective athletic shoe for all ages – what early plimsolls lacked in refinement, they redoubled in pure economic sense.
The first true improvements to the plimsoll came with the addition of cross-hatching to the shoes’ rubber sole, providing extra grip for no additional cost. As a result, these early canvas-and-carved-rubber plimsolls began to gain favor with sportsmen for their comfort and reliability during high-movement sports like tennis.
You can probably guess where this is going.
By the early 1890’s, examples of British sporting “sneakers” (so named because their rubber bottoms made them quieter than lugged boot outsoles) had gained enough popularity in the United States to encourage the very first American sneaker production. However, it wouldn’t be until 1917 – exactly one hundred years ago – that the first mass-market canvas sneaker would hit stores.
While the interwar years brought about few major advances in the shoes themselves, a newfound focus on international cooperation provided a wholly new arena for these early canvas sneakers to be seen: the Olympics.
Tennis players at the 1920 Antwerp Summer Olympics.
Even though Tennis disappeared from the Olympic program in 1924, enough sneakers were in circulation to make them the footwear of choice amongst the entire athletic field. This international notoriety (and omnipresent spotlight, from the playing field to the medal stand) made low-top white sneakers both cultural symbol and sportswear signal. As Jordans are to society today, early sneakers were to interwar America: then, wearing low-top white sneakers meant you were athletic – or, at least, dressed like it.
Before the end of the 1930’s, sneakers had transformed from curiosity to gold standard. The rising popularity of American basketball encouraged new technological developments, yet, it was the humble white low-top that remained the “sneaker,” distilled. In 1936, the now-defunct French brand Spring Court would introduce the first canvas tennis shoe with built-in “ventilation channels,” keeping the unadorned all-white silhouette that had by then become court dress code (see: Wimbledon) while innovating in the name of comfort and performance. The white low-top’s handsome exterior remained ageless, even as the gears of progress turned steadily under the hood.
For the next decade or so, sneaker development took a backseat to more pressing industrial needs. You can probably guess why. However, after World War II, the beginnings of an American economic boom afforded both young parents and Baby Boom children alike unprecedented opportunities for leisure, often in the form of sports and games. All across society, dress codes relaxed, and the beginnings of a style we now call “athleisure” – sneakers, t-shirts, and clothes made for comfort and movement – began to take form. Yet, throughout this period of great change, the white low-top tennis shoe remained relatively the same.
Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall compete at Wimbledon (c. 1950's)
At the same time, sneakers were more popular than ever, boosting the iconic, decades-old silhouette to never-before-seen heights. That is, until the Boom.
In the 1960’s, America’s first mass-market sporting fad took hold. The “Tennis Boom,” as it would later be known, was equal parts enthusiasm and hysteria: suddenly, millions nationwide wanted to hit the courts. But, before they did, every single one of them needed the proper attire. Ergo, sales of tennis shoes (especially the then-iconic “white low-top” variety) boomed in addition.
American tennis great Jack Kramer competing in 1947.
Canvas tennis shoes were the yoga pants of their day – standard-issue performance sporting turned into cultural membership. Then, the cows got involved.
With the Tennis Boom in full swing, athletic shoe makers finally had the public demand necessary to seek out innovation. In a highly-agile sport like tennis, canvas shoes provided little responsiveness to players cutting around the court: the cloth upper was just too flimsy for all that lateral force. The shoes were altogether light and flexible, but north of the outsole, your standard white low-top was, well, 70 years old. Queue the cows.
In the late 1960’s, the first-ever leather tennis shoe, the “Robert Halliet,” was introduced. Just like that, the sports world changed overnight. The Haillet kept all of the same aesthetics of the classic “plimsolls,” but rendered the white low-top design in supple-yet-durable leather, keeping the athlete’s foot locked in and providing a better backstop for any quick movements on court. It was a simple materials change that would prove a groundbreaking innovation.
Pete Sampras, one of the greatest to ever play, in leather tennis shoes (c. 1980's)
Another bonus of the new leather upper? It looked phenomenal.
By the late 1970’s, white leather low-tops were a cultural style staple, for both men and women alike. Later advances in materials technology may have benched the white leather low-top from its sporting duty, but the combination of a handsome, sturdy upper with a streamlined silhouette shaped by decades on the court remains the gold medal in style.
While nearly every major brand today adds their own take to the silhouette, no heel tab or logo could ever overshadow this iconic shoe’s championship DNA. Lightweight, refined, and versatile to a tee: even after a century’s worth of match play, the white low-top tennis shoe remains a Grand Slam.