What is wrong with me? I like to think I’ve grown up a lot in the last decade. I’ve got a divorce, had a lot of good sex, married a brilliant woman, seen my kids become young adults, improved my writing and income, seen my hair turn silvery (ie, grey), read more good books, learnt the value of things. And yet there’s one thing that hasn’t changed, and may continue to betray me. It’s on my feet: Converse All Stars.
The ones I’m wearing now are ankle-cut, have a leather upper, charcoal, slightly battered but not yet disgraceful, not too stinky at all, and yet… I still feel slightly embarrassed that I’m wearing the same shoes I see four-year-olds wearing. And it feels slightly perverse to be sporting essentially the same pair of shoes for almost 40 years.
I first knew something was wrong during my divorce. My soon-to-be-ex scored big points during a marriage-guidance session by suggesting that my shoes – at that stage probably some grey and purple high-tops with a double tongue – were a sign of immaturity, an inability to accept the realities of life. I had no counter to that, and for the next session I probably wore something else. But years later, and years older, I’m back in the old groove.
Actually, I probably did have an answer at the time: “They’re just a pair of shoes…” Who was I kidding? “Just a pair of shoes” does not survive a century of fierce competition to remain the irrepressible slackerwear of choice for generations of youth. And while I am neither a slacker nor young, I still wear them. They do not go into the cupboard with the rest at the end of the day, but sleep out, waiting for action.
I should perhaps explain that I do wear shoes that are not Converse. I do wear heavy boots when walking the dog on the muddy heath. I wear a sort of desert boot when it’s wet. And I have open-toe sandals when it’s scorchio. But the rest of the time, I’m reliant on something that established its reputation on a basketball court. (I’m tall, 6ft 2in, but was never much good at basketball. But then again I don’t think the shoe was much good for basketball, either. There’s no air in it, or no Air. There’s not much padding to soften a leap to the hoop – a fact that does not appear to trouble the majority of wearers.)
The first pair I bought were industry standard: black. I was 14, and matched them effortlessly with, cough, loon pants and a purple velvet jacket I wore on Saturday outings with my unkissable Catholic girlfriend – an outfit best described as “snazzy”. I thought I was It. I was 18 and on my first trip to New York when I saw a customised pair: a black-and-white check, swiftly followed by bright colours. The Converse variations seemed to mirror the Swatch ones, but there’s only one brand I can still wear.
A couple of decades later, I was back in NYC when I saw kids wearing Converse without laces, a trend I’ve proudly resisted (it just looks stupid). And I’ve never gone for anything blingy-sparkly or Simpsons. I do not wear them with suits.
It is not easy to trace the fashion arc that has taken this shoe from the locker room to the catwalk, but it is safe to say it was the first piece of footwear to make the transition with such sneaky ease (and well before those hip-hop boys did the same with Puma and Adidas). The thin black line along the side of the sole, the star, an occasional chevron – all these came later.
The shoe company began in 1908, with the Converse All Star appearing nine years later. But hipness was only bestowed in 1921, when basketball star Charlie “Chuck” Taylor bought a pair. And for about 30 years after that, hardly anyone but hoop players were seen in them. The move towards streetwear began on the American campuses in the late Fifties, from where the shoe slowly joined Levi’s 501s as indestructible and affordable items of mild rebellion: you put them on, you like yourself a little bit more. And the scuzzier the better.
The Converse has been much copied, of course, to the point where anything with a hemisphere of thin white rubber at the toe reminds us of the original. Converse says anti-establishment in the gentlest of ways: a mild bohemian image that even survived the corporate takeover by Nike a decade ago (the company may have sold out; its customers believe they never will). And when Converse brought out a new, tougher pair of basketball shoes for the modern game and called them The Weapon, I don’t think anyone ducked for cover. There was still a way to go before they were Dr Marten’s or motorcycle boots.
I don’t usually wear things that grown men shouldn’t, like leather trousers or baseball caps. My wardrobe has definitely smartened itself up in the last 20 years. Occasionally, I even indulge in what may be the ultimate sign of maturity: the ruthless clear-out.
Recently, I got rid of half of my clothes – those shirts that were too baggy or too Boden, several pairs of cords, loads of shapeless T-shirts. I ditched five pairs of shoes, too, including a couple of pairs of Converse; merely an excuse to get a new pair.
But why do I like them, really? Nothing feels as comfortable (or comforting). Nothing is as easy to put on; the tightness of the lacing reflecting one’s approach to the day. No one really looks twice, even at a 53-year-old in them, apart from my ex-wife and perhaps friends of my parents (and I should add that my ex-wife, with whom I now have a very good relationship, has probably long since stopped caring).
So I may wear them until I’m 80, and think of myself as an ever-vital Henry Miller / Jackson Pollock type, and kids down my street will either regard me as super-hip or someone to cross the street to avoid.
I’ll console myself with a simple fact: at least they’re not Kickers.
Simon Garfield is an award-winning non-fiction author and journalist.
Originally published in Esquire's Spring / Summer 2014 Big Black Book: The Style Manual For Successful Men.