Why Sneakers are the New Stilettos

This story appears in the Pre-Fall 2014 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below. 

Story by: Jaime Lin Weinstein | Photography courtesy of: Chanel

“A woman with good shoes is never ugly,” Coco Chanel once claimed. “They are the last touch of elegance.” But I wonder if the sneakers Karl Lagerfeld featured on the Chanel Fall 2014 Ready-To-Wear runway were within the realm of elegance to which she referred. Granted, these were not your average athletic shoes. Complete with Chanel’s iconic tweed, and at times extended with gaiters to become boots, they appear to be made for one’s daily to-dos, rather than the treadmill. Still, so-called “elegant” footwear of the original No. 5 generation were more likely to be pumps with a curved vamp and kitten heel.

Lagerfeld wasn’t the only one. Raf Simons debuted slip-on sneakers for Dior alongside Chanel during the couture shows this year. Rick Owen’s version of the modern trainer was leather and knee high. DKNY’s got a platform lift. Some may say that it merely reflects a trend (like butterfly prints or Birkenstocks). But it’s more than a passing phase when a style of clothing once reserved for working out becomes acceptable in our everyday wardrobe. It’s a change in fashion taste. It reflects the latest movement in a society with a penchant for comfort. And it’s been not-so-secretly developing over the past few years.

As the digital age kicked our modern existence into high-speed, a casual approach to everything from communication (why call when you can text the same sentiment in 100 characters?) to entertainment (why go to the movies when you can download films on the Internet?) took hold. And the rules governing fashion decorum followed suit. Wearing what’s fast and easy started to matter more than maintaining a formal appearance. Casual Fridays turned into casual every-days. Jeans were deemed acceptable for almost any occasion. And velour tracksuits from Juicy Couture became commonplace.

Street-style culture was already embracing casual attire thanks to the growing influence of hip-hop and movements that coincided with it, specifically, breaking — an acrobatic dance style with an aesthetic that evolved out of functionality: oversized clothing like cargo pants and hoodies to conceal padding and for ease of movement, beanies to aid head spinning.

Then a time-pressed, gym-obsessed generation welcomed luxury fitness apparel designed to go from work to spinning to the supermarket. (Overall apparel sales rose 2 percent last year in the United States, while active- wear sales climbed 9 percent — to $33 billion — according to market research company NPD Group.) So it appears Chanel’s footwear is simply representative of luxury consumerism in this casual age. The runway show it- self was staged at the Grand Palais-turned-Chanel Supermarché, where models walked down aisles of Chanel-branded products (hello Coco Flakes!).

Dr. Stanley Lieberson, Abbott Lawrence Lowell Research Professor of Sociology at Harvard College and author of “A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions and Culture Change,” calls it the “Ratchet Effect.” Basically, new tastes evolve from existing tastes, and the change is based on long-term movements in one direction (like the acceptable length of a skirt getting shorter and shorter over a certain period of time). A year-to- year shift may appear modest, but when examined from a prolonged perspective these changes become visible, revealing a new level of taste, and a new view on what can be considered “tasteful.”

Of course, there are external forces present that contribute to the acceleration of a changing taste (mass media, television, celebrities), but the shift toward a more casual style of dress has been progressing for centuries.

Think of pants, for a pre-television, pre-digital age example. Pants were once limited to the male members of society. The cycling craze in the late 1800s first brought the need for clothing with a greater freedom of movement than the long, heavy, multi-layered skirts of the Victorian era allowed, ushering in the acceptance of “bloomers” as standard bicycle wear. With the arrival of World War I, many women took the place of men in the workforce where they were allowed to wear trousers and overalls while working in factories. Females then increasingly started wearing pants for sports and other leisure activities (horseback riding, tennis). And the Second World War gave a boost in pant popularity as even more women were placed in wartime jobs and often wore their husbands’ as a result of clothing rationings. By the ’60s, pants on women were widely accepted across the globe.

The change in our fashion tastes extends beyond the realm of clothing, too. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West notoriously landed the cover of this year’s April Vogue, but the outrage over the country’s “fashion bible” allowing a reality-television star and her rapper fiancé to grace the cover was almost usurped by another questionable character of taste: the hashtag.

#WORLDSMOSTTALKEDABOUTCOUPLE it read under the “Kim & Kanye” headline. And despite the onslaught of criticism and disapproving messages directed toward Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, the issue flew off newsstands and the hashtag was quickly trending on Twitter worldwide. Let’s not forget that Vogue, under the direction of Wintour, has long been at the forefront of changing tastes. She first shocked the fashion world when she put a model wearing jeans on the cover of in 1988, an item of clothing that had never be- fore graced the front of a fashion magazine. Reflecting on the infamous denim cover, she said, “It looked easy, casual, a moment that had been snapped on the street, which it had been, and which was the whole point ... I had just looked at that picture and sensed the winds of change. And you can’t ask for more from a cover image than that.”

Maybe we’ll soon see Ms. Wintour wearing sneakers with her Chanel, too.