How We Fell Back In Love With The Classic Canvas Shoe

Photographed by Georgia Murray
Lockdown may have brought new meaning to the concept of comfort dressing but we have 2017 to thank for putting functionality first. The year that killed the heel – not just in the office but for weddings and parties, too – made trainers in their many guises the acceptable footwear for any and all occasions, no matter how formal. Thanks to Balenciaga’s volcanic Triple S, chunky commuter trainers have reigned supreme ever since but there’s change in the air – or rather, on the ground. 2020 has made way for a more classic style of kicks, free of bells and whistles: the rubber-soled, lace-up canvas shoe.
Commonly referred to as the plimsoll, the canvas shoe has been around since self-taught chemist Charles Goodyear invented vulcanised rubber back in 1839. However, from the 1980s onwards the simple style fell by the wayside in favour of flashier, high-tech alternatives. As sportswear giants like adidas, Puma and Nike competed for fan loyalty via cult collectables and game-changing alliances – from Run-DMC and Michael Jordan to Kanye West, there’s no underestimating the power of an influential endorsement in solidifying a trainer’s status – the unassuming plimsoll was relegated to PE lessons and mums on the go. 
Photo Courtesy Of BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu
Now, though, born out of lockdown's less-is-more approach to dressing, the simplicity of a heritage canvas and rubber shoe is far more appealing than its ostentatious counterparts. Whether referencing Normal People’s Marianne in a black dress and white canvas pumps or every outing made by Emily Ratajkowski since lockdown began, our entire Instagram feed has been donning a more streamlined sneaker of late. 
Though hardly the kicks you’d reach for to head out for a run or hit the tennis courts, the plimsoll’s legacy can be traced back to the 1920s, when the relationship between sportswear and fashion was forged. In 1916 Keds launched its first pair of plimsolls: the Champion, a simple lace-up, low-rise canvas shoe, prompted the coining of the term 'sneakers' thanks to its quiet – thus sneaky – rubber sole. "As lifestyles began to change and women were encouraged to be more active and independent, the elaborate dressing of previous decades began to fade away in favour of comfortable cuts and fabrics that moved and breathed," explains Holly Curtis, vice president of product at Keds. "This is also when sneakers really entered the space and became everyday items in a woman’s wardrobe. This relationship continued to ebb and flow until the more recent rise of athleisure fully melded the two." 
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Photo by Simpson/Express/Getty Images
The all-American brand sent its female customers a clear message: shoes should be practical, provide run-around-friendly comfort and transcend the trappings of suffocating femininity represented by heels. Fast-forward to the ‘50s and ‘60s and Keds were endorsed by Hollywood stars looking to prove they were more than delicate dolls of the silver screen. From Katharine Hepburn to Marilyn Monroe, the Champion was worn with high-waisted denim (another sartorial symbol of rebellion at the time), blouses tied at the waist and ringer tees. In 1969 Yoko Ono married John Lennon in a white skirt and top, knee-high socks and a pair of Keds, confounding expectations of what a woman should wear on her wedding day. Meanwhile Jackie Onassis was often spotted cycling around New York City in her monochromatic preppy uniform of white jeans, black turtleneck and Keds. In the ‘80s and ‘90s the brand was embraced on TV and in film by influential girl-next-door characters from Saved by the Bell’s Kelly Kapowski and Dirty Dancing’s Frances "Baby" Houseman to Friends’ Rachel Green. All three favoured tank tops, dungarees and denim cut-offs with their plimsolls, a look that’s come full circle and can be seen on Instagram and Depop’s coolest today. 
Photo by Moviestore/Shutterstock
Photo by Fotos International/Getty Images
The world’s most-worn canvas shoe, the Converse All Star, also originated in sport. Founded in 1908, the brand initially made galoshes and other work-related rubber shoes but by 1917 the first iteration of the style had been created, in brown canvas with a black rubber trim. It was the first mass-produced basketball shoe in the United States but didn’t really take off until 1921, when Charles H. Taylor, a player for Ohio’s Akron Firestone Non-Skids, took a shine to the sneaker and travelled across the country with Converse, promoting the All Star as the only shoe worth playing in. His marketing campaign was such a success that in 1932 the brand added Chuck’s name to the ankle patch. In 1936 Converse issued a white pair with a patriotic red and blue trim especially for the Berlin Olympics and in 1949 the monochrome high top we know today was launched. 
While the mass popularity of Converse never really faltered, the launch of corporations like Nike, adidas and Puma – and high-tech innovations like air pockets, springs and pumps – diluted the brand’s influence in the athletic footwear market. Eventually, All Stars evolved from court-ready sports staple to become the footwear of choice for countercultural youths. As its appeal switched from functionality to fashion, Converse became a leisurewear brand and in the ‘80s and ‘90s it conquered the music industry, just as it had the sports arena decades earlier. Loved by everyone from The Clash to Kurt Cobain, no gig venue in the world has gone untouched by a pair of Chucks; there’s even an extensive database of musicians who have worn the classic kicks, spanning Green Day, Ariana Grande and George Harrison. 
Photo by Kevin Mazur Archive 1/WireImage
Converse may have dominated the music scene but it was Vans to which skaters pledged their allegiance. From the brand’s birth in 1966, California’s boarders made Vans’ #44 deck shoe – now known as the Authentic – their preferred kicks thanks to the style’s sticky gripped sole. The Era style was introduced in ‘76, with padded features for ankle support, and one year later the Old Skool debuted the "jazz stripe", the hallmark wave on the side of the shoe. Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli donned Vans’ checkerboard slip-ons in Cameron Crowe’s classic teen movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, solidifying the brand as the footwear of laid-back stoners and slackers the world over. In 2001, Vans helped director Stacy Peralta, former member of the pioneering ‘70s Zephyr skateboard team, to produce the definitive skate documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys. 
Photo by Universal/Kobal/Shutterstock
Now, of course, you don’t have to know your grind from your kickflip to sport a pair of Vans, nor are you expected to wear drainpipe jeans and a cropped leather jacket on stage before a beer-slinging crowd to qualify for a pair of All Stars. The canvas shoe has transcended its subcultural history thanks to smart marketing, contemporary celebrity endorsements and designer collaborations. Shoes that once dressed the outcasts of the underground have now been embraced by the masses for their comfort. For Mira Bourdon, senior global category manager of women’s classics footwear at Vans, the canvas shoe's ubiquitous appeal lies in its status as a "blank canvas for creative expression". This may not always be a good thing – we’ll leave the Harry Potter Golden Snitch Old Skools to the tweens – but it can work: just see Converse x Comme des Garçons, which has turned heart-emblazoned Chucks into the unofficial uniform of minimalist-leaning architects and artists alike.
Photo by Can Nguyen/Shutterstock
Superga, too, has nailed the art of collaboration in its hook-up with Alexa Chung. The brand’s 2490 COTU style – a low-cut, six-eye lace-up canvas shoe – has always been a bestseller but by aligning with the closest thing we have to Jane Birkin (who can be found on '60s and '70s Pinterest boards wearing her white plimsolls with flared jeans and cotton blouses, shift dresses and basket bags, and crochet crop tops and denim cut-offs) Superga infused its retro legacy with some contemporary cool. Understanding that, in contrast to the hyped-up, high-tech trainer, the appeal of the canvas shoe lies in its simplicity, the ongoing collaboration focuses on new colourways and fabrics rather than graphic prints and patterns or pumped-up soles.
The real contenders for our feet in 2020 are lesser known and eco-conscious. Stocked at independent boutiques like TOAST, Couverture & The Garbstore and Goodhood, Novesta has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. The Slovakian brand, founded in 1939, uses natural rubber and 100% cotton and linen to make its products, the jewel in the crown of which is the ultra-comfy Star Master with its unmistakable chunky sole (complete with vulcanisation marks) and deep toe. They look just as great with a wide-legged trouser and cropped tee as they do with a floral midi dress.
Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Elsewhere, British brand Good News, founded in 2016, has surely had a heavy hand in the return to the canvas shoe’s simple silhouette. "The breathable durability of a canvas sneaker provides an everyday staple that never goes out of fashion," cofounder Nia Jones tells me. "The new sustainable technologies being developed in this area means the canvas shoe will be forever relevant." Each season, Good News scrutinises its production and supply chain to improve its sustainability credentials: every pair of shoes has recycled rubber soles, organic cotton and weave uppers, and recycled eco-lite footbeds; its lace tips are biodegradable and the brand has offset its carbon footprint, making it a carbon-neutral company. 
Trainers have long since replaced heels as the favoured wear-anywhere footwear but the genderless, breathable, comfortable and streamlined canvas shoe feels more fitting for the quieter, more pared-back, practical life of lockdown. With no one around to admire our flashy kicks, a nondescript plimsoll feels all the more purposeful. Now more than ever we’re considering our wardrobes with a future-looking eye, asking what will age well, be worn until the seams are torn, and truly last. As fashion history has proved, the timeless rubber and canvas shoe endures, no matter how you style it.

More from Fashion

R29 Original Series