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Chucks: The Converse All Star

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A pair of Converse All Stars.

Perhaps no other shoe in history has inspired the following and fandom of the Chuck Taylor Converse All Star. For more than 90 years, the Converse All Star has survived with only minor technical and stylistic adjustments. No longer the professional athletes’ trainers they once were, All Stars are more popular today than ever.

The Converse Rubber Shoe Company

Marquis M Converse started his company in 1908, manufacturing rubber boots and work shoes. The company revealed its first athletes’ shoe, a canvas and rubber construction very similar to today's All Stars, in 1917. It was designed specifically for basketball, a sport that was quickly gaining popularity in the US.

So, Who Was Chuck?

Charles H 'Chuck' Taylor was born in Indiana in 1901. As a high school basketball star, he put on his first pair of All Stars in 1918. Taylor continued to play basketball after high school, and may have played professionally with a few different teams. But there was no professional organisation at that time, so no records exist.

In 1921, Taylor went to Converse looking for a job. At that time, the firm was hoping to find a basketball player who could suggest improvements to its premier product. It was the beginning of a life-long partnership.

All Stars became a truly superior product thanks to Taylor's suggestions. Converse rewarded him by adding his signature to the shoe's logo in 1923.

The rest of Taylor's career would be spent travelling the country conducting basketball seminars at high schools and YMCAs, and selling All Stars out of the boot of his car. He never received any commission or royalties for having his name on the trainers, above his salary and benefits as a salesman and pitchman for Converse.

Anatomy of an All Star

'Chucks', as they’re commonly known in the US, are by today's standards a remarkably simple, non-complex trainer. While they’ve undergone many minor changes over the years, for the bulk of the past century their basic appearance hasn't changed. The upper is all canvas and the sole all rubber with a rubber toecap. The original All Stars were a monochrome black: the canvas, rubber and all the stitching. Before long the rubber parts were made white, along with the stitching, creating the distinctive look the trainers still have today.

From the ground up, All Stars start with a brown rubber tread that features a unique square-diamond pattern. The side wall of the sole is white rubber, with a white rubber toe-guard and a heel patch, the colour and design of which have changed over the years. Between the heel patch and toe-guard is a strip of black piping. And there’s another strip of black piping completely around the top of the sidewall. A white rubber toecap covers from the top of the toe-guard to the bottom of the tongue, where the laces start.

The canvas part of the original high-top variety covers up to just above the ankle bone; the inside of the ankle bone is where the legendary round ankle patch logo is found. The topside has eight pairs of lacing eyelets, white laces, and double-stitching in white thread along the eyelets, around the top and on the back strip. There are also two eyelets near the arch for ventilation.

A low-cut 'Oxford' style was developed in the 1930s. The Oxford is stylistically the same except that there are only seven pairs of lacing eyelets, and the ankle patch logo is missing because there's nowhere for it to go.

Evolution of the Logo

Early versions of the ankle patch logo were black and white: a white circle with all-black print. 'Converse' was printed along the upper arc of the circle, 'All Star' along the lower arc, and a black star in the centre with Taylor's signature in white across it. The modern logo is tri-colour. The circle is still white, there’s a printed row of blue double-stitching around the inside of the circle, and 'Converse' and 'All Star' are in their respective places in red. There’s a blue star in the centre, with the signature 'Chuck' and 'Taylor' on either side of the star, also in blue.

Becoming the Most Successful Basketball Shoe in History

Basketball made its first Olympic appearance in 1936. The entire US team wore All Stars, and went on to take the gold medal. In fact, the US won gold for basketball in every Olympics up to 1968, never losing a single game1. Throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, virtually every basketball player wore All Stars, including high school, collegiate and professional players.

The peak of All Stars’ popularity perhaps came in 1962 when Wilt Chamberlain set a record score of 100 points by a single player in a single game whilst wearing them.

Jumping From Court Gear to Fashion Necessity

When basketball became an Olympic sport in 1936, Converse designed a white All Star for the US team. From then until the mid-1960s, they were only available in black or white. In the mid-1960s, team colours were added to coordinate with professional sides’ kit. The public was slow to warm to the new colours, but eventually the bright hues were gracing the feet of baby boomers across the US.

Converse continued to enjoy moderate success through the 1960s and 1970s, but technology and the competitive market were catching up fast. The company suffered through the early 1980s, before focusing its marketing away from players and more towards everyday consumers.

The first 'fashion' style appeared in 1986 with ultra-high top All-Stars that laced halfway up the calf. Alternatively, they could be laced part way, and the tops folded down and snapped, leaving a visible cuff. This style was rather short-lived, however. It disappeared in 1987 and is now a hot item among collectors.

The 1990s and Beyond

Since the 1990s, All Stars have been available in more than 100 colours which change annually or seasonally. There are a few standard colours that are always available, including black, monochrome black, optical white, unbleached white, red, dark blue, and a pattern called 'Stars and bars' that features red-and-white stripes on the sides and white stars on a blue tongue, reminiscent of the US flag. Additional colours that have been available include: pink, purple, lemon, hibiscus, salmon, iguana and chocolate, among others. 'Goth' styles are available in a selection of colours with black rubber instead of white.

All Stars now also come in a variety of patterns. Colour blocks feature two or three different colours where each panel of canvas is a contrasting hue. Animal prints have also been featured, including snakeskin and leopard. And a number of plaids have been seen over the years, as well as tie-dyes, paisley, camouflage and Hawaiian prints. There have also been several styles of Christmas print, some of which have included ribbon laces.

Some limited-issue All Stars have featured different fabrics as well, such as leather, corduroy, flannel, fleece, velour, and even Orient-inspired embroidered silk.

In addition to the high top and Oxford styles, All Stars come in both a mule and a cuffed high-top style. The cuffed high-tops have a contrasting colour lining that’s visible when the tops are turned down.

Given the versatility of All Stars, they’ve transcended the 'athletic shoe' label and become more of an all occasion accessory. They’re more comfortable (and cheaper!) than most dressy shoes and have been spied at weddings and formal dances. A pair in its midlife complements any casual attire, with or without socks. More elderly All Stars are perfect for gardening. And they’re ideally suited to boating and watersports: the rubber soles provide excellent traction on wet surfaces, and the canvas uppers are quick to dry.

Looking for Chuck

Since All Stars’ debut in 1917, nearly 800 million pairs have sold worldwide, so you shouldn't have to look far to spot them. Since the evolution of the basketball shoe passed them by, they’ve found a niche in extreme sports; All Stars are popular with skateboarders, among others.

They’re also the shoe of choice for rockers and other musicians, and have been seen on the feet of Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, the Ramones, Eddie Van Halen, and hundreds of others. Among musicians, the black high-top appears to be a favourite.

The big and small screen are also well-trodden ground for All Stars. Their screen credits include Marty McFly in Back to the Future and Bill and Ted in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. In I, Robot, Del Spooner unveils a 'vintage' 2004 pair of black-leather All Stars. Opie on The Andy Griffith Show was commonly seen wearing them, as were Murdock and Mr T in The A-Team.

Spotting your own isn't that difficult, either. All Stars are sold in a variety of styles at many sports shoe retailers. There are several online retailers as well. For the avid collector, or anyone looking for something just a little left of mainstream, the Converse website allows you to custom-design your own pair. It also offers an exclusive line of (Product)Red designs.

Don't Be Fooled

As with nearly any successful product, there are a fair number of knock-offs around. To get the best value for your money, make sure you’re getting an authentic pair. The shoebox is the easiest way to tell, but there are other subtle differences as well, mostly noticeably the quality of the materials used. Cheap imitation All Stars retail for $5 - 20 in the US. The real thing will run you somewhere in the range of $25 (for a basic style, on special delivery) to $60 or more (for a custom order online).

Whatever Happened to Taylor?

Taylor went on to enjoy a career with Converse into the 1960s. He retired in 1968 and later that year was inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame for devotion to and promotion of the sport of basketball. A year later, he died of a heart attack. His shoes live on.

1Could it be a coincidence that the team's record has been blemished only since the emergence of new shoe technology?

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