Converse History: The Story Behind the Iconic Chuck Taylors

Detail of black Converse All Stars
Gaten Matarazzo wears black Converse All Stars at the 70th Emmy Awards.

Converse All Stars, also known as Chuck Taylors, are casual shoes that have played a significant role in pop culture for decades. Initially designed as a basketball shoe in the early 1900s, the soft cotton and rubber-soled style has remained largely unchanged for the last century.

Did You Know?

Chuck Taylors were the official shoe of the Olympic Games from 1936 to 1968.

Meet Chuck Taylor

Converse All Star sneakers were first released in 1917, and basketball star Charles “Chuck" Taylor became a Converse shoe salesman in 1921. Within a year, he inspired a restyling of the brand's basketball shoe, which led to the nickname "Chuck Taylors." Converse also added Taylor's signature and the all-star patch to the side of the shoe as a reference to the athlete who inspired them.

During this period, the Converse All Star was primarily a basketball shoe, and Taylor advertised it as such. He traveled across the United States conducting basketball clinics in order to sell the athletic shoes. In fact, Converse All Stars were the official basketball shoe of the Olympic games for over 30 years. Later, during World War II, they were the official athletic shoe of the U.S. armed forces. Chuck Taylors became the choice shoe for general athletic events, from gym class to professional powerlifting.

Converse Goes Casual

By the end of the 1960s, Converse was responsible for 80% of the sneaker market as a whole. This shift to casual sneakers solidified Converse All Stars as a cultural icon of the people, not just the athletic elite. Though the initial Chucks were in the classic black and white, they became available in a litany of colors and designs as well as limited and special editions. The shoe also diversified its textures to be available in suede and leather along with the original cotton style.

Converse All Stars began to lose their dominance in the 1970s when other shoes, many with better arch support, created competition. Soon, elite athletes stopped sporting All Stars. However, Chuck Taylors were was quickly picked up by artists and musicians as a symbol of the underdog. The character Rocky Balboa wore Chucks in the movie Rocky, and the Ramones frequently sported Chucks because they were inexpensive. Elvis Presley, Michael Meyers, and Michael J. Fox all wore Chucks in their films, further marketing the sneaker as a shoe for young rebels. The cheap sneakers became a symbol of U.S. subcultures as the retro look fit the grungy style of the punk rock era.

Nike Buys Converse

Thought Chuck Taylors were incredibly popular, Converse’s business was failing, leading to multiple claims of bankruptcy. In 2003, Nike Incorporated bought Converse for $305 million and recharged the business. Nike brought Converse’s manufacturing overseas, where the majority of other Nike products are produced. This move decreased the production costs and drove up Converse’s profits.

Chuck Taylors Today

High-top and low-top Chuck Taylors remain popular. In 2015, Converse released a collection of Chuck Taylors inspired by Andy Warhol—a significant choice, as Warhol is famous for his pop art depictions of U.S. popular culture. In 2017, the Chuck Taylor Low Top shoes were the second best selling sneaker in the U.S. and have historically consistently been within the top ten best sellers. The affordability of the shoe is a large part of its popularity, but the marketing and history of the sneakers as a facet of pop culture give it staying power.