An Exclusive Interview with Author and Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack of the BATA Shoe Museum

If you’re reading this, you probably know that on the Couponbox blog we provide  savings tips and other helpful information every week, and occasionally discuss other interesting topics like we did recently with the Pokémon Go craze.

In celebration of the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Converse All Star, we decided to find out how the All Star transformed from a men’s basketball shoe into a women’s fashion staple. As a part of our investigation, we conducted an interview with Elizabeth Semmelhack of the BATA Shoe Museum in Toronto.

The interview and our independent research culminated with insights into the fashion gender divide as well as the world’s first infographic that chronicles the visual history of the Converse All Star in women’s fashion.

You can view the entire interview and the infographic below:

Couponbox: To your knowledge, who is the first female celebrity to wear the Converse All Star?

Elizabeth Semmelhack: That’s a difficult question to answer. I believe that women in general have been wearing All Stars for a long time, though it’s only been until relatively recently that celebrities have been adopting them as a personal statement of self.

CB: The All Star was not originally a unisex sneaker. What key aspect of the shoe helped it to cross the gender barrier?

ES: Essentially, the All Star was of interest specifically because it was a men’s shoe. For centuries, women have borrowed from their boyfriend’s closet, so to speak. Today, the All Star is connected to ideas about authenticity, and historically, men’s fashion in general has been connected to this as well. Women adopt menswear to access it.

Because of the traditional structuring of gender, we have these ideas that men are more serious and have more authenticity. Women’s fashion is seen as frivolous. Therefore, for women who want to express a kind of authenticity in their dress, menswear is often the best place to go.

A lot of men’s clothing is more associated with strength, and that can be attractive to some women. As a result, borrowing from the vocabulary of style to which men have access also translates as being daring and transgressive enough to be willing to step into a pair of men’s shoes.

CB: In your opinion, what year or decade did the All Star become a women’s fashion staple?

ES: A lot of women were wearing All Stars in the 1980s as a part of punk and new wave. But in terms of it becoming something that the paparazzi is focused on, I believe that it’s more of a late 1990s, early 2000s shift. This is in relation to hipster fashion, which both men and women embrace, and for which the authenticity of the Converse All Star was a central accessory.

As a part of the punk uniform the Converse All Star does not bring with it the baggage of the Doc Marten. It has a similar form, a kind of boot structure, but does not bring with it any challenging political meanings. So, in a lot of ways, it gets associated with a more artsy crowd.

CB: So basically, it’s politically and racially neutral?

ES: It’s the intellectual’s Doc Marten, but don’t quote me on that. [Laughs] Actually, today there are a lot of intelligentsia that would turn to the Doc Marten. But especially in the 1980s, the All Star was associated with a kind of literati. You could argue that it was a second-wave beatnik style.

CB: Which female celebrity best wore or wears the All Star?

ES: That’s a question of whether they are being worn in an ironic way, an authentic way, a way that suggests nostalgia or if it’s just a gimmick. I don’t know who would be the best.

If I had to choose someone it would probably be Jane Goodall, [Laughs] though I’m not sure she wore All Stars.

CB: Which female celebrity embodies the essence of the All Star?

ES: I don’t know how to answer that question, but if the question is what is the essence of the All Star…

CB: What is the essence of the All Star?

ES: I think that the cultural value of the All Star is that it is perceived as not changing.

Fashion is defined by constant change, and many sneakers are at the forefront of that change because of technological innovation or evolving styles. However, the All Star stands as a kind of beacon of tradition and is therefore linked to ideas of nostalgia and authenticity.

It’s almost like an “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mentality. It’s a very steady and in many ways, a very American icon.

CB: Is affordability a driving factor of the All Star’s popularity?

ES: No. I don’t think that it’s popular because it’s affordable. I think that it is popular because it can be seen as anti-consumerist. It’s not as though they’re in fashion because everyone can afford them.

Instead, I think that they are embraced by celebrities who can buy any form of footwear at any price because they are seen as anti-consumerist, anti-fashion.

CB: Are sneakers important for women’s fashion? Why or why not?

ES: Absolutely. If we think of fashion as a language by which we communicate with each other, men and women both benefit from the vocabulary word that is the Converse All Star. Every day, we put together our clothing, and the majority of us, including Couponbox users, have access to a number of different outfits.

We have the luxury of choosing component pieces of those outfits and putting them together to create a statement of self. Because the All Star is so clearly linked to ideas of authenticity, it is fits extremely well with ideas of alternative culture and anti-fashion fashion, making it a powerful part of our fashion vocabulary.

CB: Is Nike’s partnership with the WNBA significant for women’s fashion?

ES: I hope so. I think that we’ve seen some very important changes recently where men are being influenced by women’s fashion, which is historically almost without precedent. As I mentioned, women have long borrowed from the male wardrobe. However, what benefits have men had by borrowing from the female wardrobe in terms of power dynamics?

It’s very interesting to me that when the Rihanna-designed Puma Creepers came out only in women’s sizes, men wanted them so much that they were eventually released in men’s sizes. Interestingly, the Puma Creeper references the Brothel Creeper, which was originally a man’s shoe, thus bringing us full circle.

Additionally, I’ve seen men in New York carrying women’s handbags in non-ironic ways. I think these are really interesting shifts. However, historically sneakers and sneaker culture have been impacted by male superstar athletes, not female superstar athletes.

Men are not wearing Serena Williams sneakers.

So in 1996, when the Nike Air Swoopes, the first sneaker collaboration with a female athlete, came out, men actually did want them, but Nike didn’t come out with a men’s version.

Who knows what will happen with the WNBA partnership. I would love for everyone to be as excited by female athletes and their achievements as they are about men’s. After all, women have been playing basketball since 1891, when the sport was invented.

CB: Next year is the 100th anniversary of the All Star. In some ways, it has changed very little over the years. In other ways, it has changed a lot. What’s next for this icon of women’s fashion?

ES: Again, the power of the All Star is that it appears to not change. If it starts to change too much, then it will lose its edge.

So I think that it will continue more or less unchanged, and we’ll perhaps end up with more luxury versions of it, maybe some very limited releases or collaborations. But in general, the value of the All Star in fashion is that it seems anti-fashion.

CB: Do you own a pair of All Stars?

ES: I don’t have a pair in rotation at the moment, but I do own one. It’s a limited release made of Hudson’s Bay Cloth. It’s very Canadian.

Elizabeth Semmelhack’s book, Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture, is available here.

A history of the iconic sneaker in women's fashion

To embed the infographic above on your website simply copy and paste the code below:

<p><img src="" title="How Did the Converse All Star Basketball Shoe Become a Women’s Fashion Staple?" /></p><p><a href="">How Did the Converse All Star Basketball Shoe Become a Women’s Fashion Staple?</a></p>