Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Canvas shoes - the not-so-new frontier of hipsterism

It's extremely annoying that my day job has taken up so much of my time that I rarely get to blog about things when I first notice them. I've been meaning to write about the hipster plimsoll since at least August, and it's been on my radar for far longer. You know the look I'm talking about - skinny jeans on both men and women, with these dainty little canvas sneakers - usually in snowy white (or, more commonly, in scungy white).

The term plimsoll is British - I first remember encountering it in a picture story book about a street football match between neighbourhood children, where one character laments that he could have performed better if he hadn't forgotten his plimsolls. (If anyone can tell me the name of this book, I'd be very pleased.) The shoe was invented as beachwear, and is better known in Australia as a 'sandshoe'. Hilariously, I've discovered a British dotcom called White Plimsolls: "Purveyors of the finest white canvas plimsolls delivered directly to your door. An essential fashion items (sic), worn by style warriors, indie kids, emo-s (sic) and haircuts." Haircuts! ha! ha! ha! I love how they nail their target market.

The trend has been to wear them with short skinny jeans and no socks, so you'll see these hipsters' bony little ankles. Even through bitterest winter. Chicks can also wear them with tights or with bare legs and a skirt, in the manner of Mischa Barton, who popularised this look in 2005 when she became spokesmodel for Keds, a formerly old and daggy shoe company established in 1916. I always associated Keds with old-school hip-hop, but they're better known for these preppy shoes - they do a range of ballet flats as well. Another variation on the trend is to wear the sneakers without laces - as Mischa obligingly demonstrates:

Price-wise, these shoes are at the absolute bottom end of the market - at $60, Keds are massively marked up for what they are. I'm well aware of the unethical reasons why such shoes are so cheap; I'm picturing teenagers in Chinese factories sewing and gluing them together. Still, I don't want to get into an ethical debate specific to these sneakers, because with rare exceptions, hipsters don't care about ethics.

So what do they care about? In early September, I discussed hipster plimsolls with Tait (above). (Customary apologies for the shaky hands.) Tait bought these ones from an Asian import store on Smith Street, Fitzroy. I forget how much they cost, but it's significantly less than the plimsolls at Welcome To Alphaville; Tait alleged that Alex from Alpha60 buys the shoes from the same import store he did, and marks them up for sale at Alphaville.

"No, I didn't buy them from Big W like everyone else," said Tait, "but these are better quality."

Here are the ones at Big W. They're $9.82, and I thought that represented fairly good value. They're the sort with decorative threaded eyelets along the sides. But they're not, in fact, the cheapest plimsolls around. That honour goes to Kmart.

Eight bucks! And check out their range... All this plus white! (The white ones had nearly sold out; only two pairs remaining.)

The extreme cheapness and ubiquity of these shoes seem to speak to the mainstreaming of hipsterism I've written about before (and that a commenter on my previous post also mentioned in reference to Australian Idol's Matt Corby). Although last night I learned about an alleged evolution in hipsterism - "new authenticism" - that I found absolutely fascinating and would like to write about at length.

The other interesting thing is that this is quite a genteel preppie look that isn't immediately homologous with the tough-edged '50s-via-'80s pastiche hipsters tend to favour (the high waists; the rolled T-shirt sleeves, the Wayfarer sunglasses). Still, another trend I've observed lately is an old-fashioned casual style - white lace trim on black garments, the return of the tucked-in top - and there is a definite semiotic slippage between toughness and primness - Fred Perry, for example, shifts uncomfortably between being the preppie brand and the bovver-boy brand.


riche said...

A small correction: Keds have never been owned by Converse. In fact Converse is now owned by Nike. Keds have been owned by Stride Rite for the past 20 or so years, and with Stride Rite were recently purchased by a holding company called Collective Brands.

richard said...


i like these shoes but you cant get them in my size at kmart. dang.

since i got these other ones for $20 at sydney's RABEN FOOTWEAR last year buying shoes for more than that seems so ridulous

funny to think of so many hipsters with their no-socks sandshoes getting smelly feets all over the place

PopGoesCanberra said...

How does one keep them clean, whether one may be in the grotty city or the muddy country?

Mel said...

Thanks for the correction, Riche. What a dedicated sneaker freaker you are! Perhaps I was thinking about the fact that I've always bought my Keds shoes from Converse outlets.

And popgoescanberra: The dirtiness of sneakers is an interesting idea. When I was a kid it was desperately uncool to have pristine white sneakers - we'd get our friends to stamp on our feet to dirty 'em up. However, later on I remember being so obsessive about my white canvas tennis shoes that I used some kind of roll-on white paint to keep them clean-looking.

As far as I've noticed, the people wearing these shoes don't seem to put much of a premium on keeping them pristine - at Meredith a couple of weekends ago I saw quite of few of them in sad muddy states. But then on Saturday night I was at a filthy hipster party at a venue aptly named Shit Town, and was astounded to see some sparkling white plimsolls shining like beacons amid the grime. Maybe they just happened to be new?

Polka Dot Rabbit said...

My keds are sadly accompanied by fluro orange bandaids if worn without socks...

Pople said...

Ok people these types of canvas shoes are getting a little old...If you people want to stand out i know some great trendy designer canvas shoes, slip on or with laces, (but beware they only come in small sizes). Its a french brand called bensimon. They look hectic with skinny jeans!

Anonymous said...

they are $25 from smith street. They actually went up from $10 - $25 overnight in mid 2007 due to the hipterism resurgence.

My take on them, being a blogger of shoes, is that they are just an easy way out. And I dislike easy way outs!!

ellor said...

I guess they're that much more ironic than "known" brand like converse. That allusion to twee/kids clothes that gets subverted. Prior to the plimsol avalanche was perhaps the karate shoe? super cheap, but sadly lacking any form of support. or perhaps the dunlop for hipsters avoiding the dreaded chuck taylor?

Lucy said...

Pretty shoes

Anonymous said...

How do you keep them clean? Is this a serious question?

I guess that I'm going to age myself here, but I'm old enough to remember when everyone had a pair of white, canvas shoes that were regularly thrown in with their laundry. This not only got them clean, but would also make them softer.

The reason why everyone owned a pair was because there were no other choices for rubber-soled, casual shoes. When you wanted a unique color, you dyed them in the washer, and if they didn't turn out well, they were inexpensive enough for you to buy 5 more pairs for experimentation purposes.

Research papers said...

Amazing! Look at it! This is a fantastic collection. I love all these shoes which are looking fabulous with the studs.