From Travesty to Reality: A History of Platform Sneakers

I think shoes are to the 21st century what hats were to the 20th – a free zone of unapologetic self-expression. I get especially intrigued when a pair of shoes makes non-fashion journalists clutch their pearls in horror. Just recently, platform sneakers have had a good run at being the shoes that inspire sweeping statements on the decline of civilization – or at least youth fashion, from Mr. Porter to Hot Topic. At the end of the choking rush of all the fashion weeks, I think there was still one burning question. Have we achieved peak streetwear? Will fashion assimilate the onslaught of irony heavy brands like Supreme? And did it already happen when Balenciaga made $850 dollar platform sneakers? All I can say for sure is that variations on those unapologetic slabs of high-tech, high-density foam were still burning down my Instagram through early October, and mostly in a good way. And it made me curious about why this particular trend is suddenly showing up again, and why it still has the power to inspire controversy.

What do platform sneakers mean? Is fashion just counter-trolling streetwear? And just where the hell did they come from? Ask the internet and you’ll find that fashionable platform shoes date to the 1930s. Salvatore Ferragamo is generally credited with the most charming versions, and a nod goes out to the industry limitations of the 1940s, when key shoe materials were drafted into the war effort and then, boom: cork wedges. And then there’s the 1970s. Oh my word, there were some crazy, wonderful platform shoes in the 1970s.

But that history is all pretty accessible. What is harder to find is the history of platform sneakers. So that’s what I’ll offer to you now.

The first pair of platform sneakers was just an idea: a silly little comic note in a play staged by Charles Ludlam in 1976. Ludlam, founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967 and a prolific producer and director, specialized in travesty, absurdity and satire. In his 1976 play Caprice, he targeted fashion, playing a mad dress designer whose comical innovations included a “gownless evening strap” and the wearing of platform sneakers. Platform boots and evening shoes had already run their crazy course by 1976 (Women’s Wear Daily declared them officially out on October 3, 1975), so Ludlam’s platform sneakers were supposed to be one step too far, something from the realm of the fantastical. As one reviewer put it, they were an invention meant to set up fashion as “a determined subversion of its clientele. The uglification of American womanhood.” They were quite literally a joke. They were never really meant to be.

But just because something appears as satire doesn’t mean it can’t form the foundation of material culture. Platform sneakers appeared again in 1984 on the feet of Norma Kamali, ’80s fashion goddess and designer-who-has-already-forgotten-more-than-you-will-ever-know-about-shoulder-pads. She reportedly wore platform sneakers and a white snood to the premiere of her music video for “Shoulder Pads (for my man to cry on).” Kamali’s take on the platform sneaker set the tone that would dominate in the 1990s: the rise in the sneaker height is meant to reflect the level of fashionable expression. Platform sneakers are for people who expect more from their shoes and from fashion in general, while still embracing athletic wear. They were not for the faint of heart.

In 1992, Michael Musto writing for the New York Times identified the platform sneaker as a bizarre confection based primarily in clubland, “by definition a place where anything goes sartorially.”  Musto sums up the moment, noting that “[h]omeboy style – a street look that consists of jerseys, baseball hats, low belted jeans and sneakers – has been co-opted by all varieties of clubbies. Techno-rave types combine that look with fantasy elements like brightly colored overalls, Hang Ten shirts, jive pants, sock caps and platform sneakers.” Essentially, platform sneakers were located at the nexus where streetwear meets queer culture. By a happy coincidence, this was almost the exact moment that an army of coolhunters was forming on behalf of the fashion industry, which was being locked out of the moment’s youthquake by their own disconnection. And they spent a lot of time chatting up clubkids, some of whom had day jobs as stylists at ultra cool magazines like The Face and Paper.  

Converse was on board and doing a striped platform Chuck Taylor by 1993, though not at an extreme height. Vogue didn’t come around right away. They covered the shoe only obliquely and with side of shade in 1994, opining “[a] schoolgirl getup doesn’t add youth any more than platform sneakers add height.” In 1995, the writers at fashion’s bible quoted Kate Moss saying both platform sneakers and high-heeled jellies were too scary to wear. This may have been a matter of genuine concern for Kate, because Karl Lagerfeld had come around and put platform sneakers on the runway for Chanel’s spring 1994 show (you can see them in the background here and you can see a pair here, though they are cut off at the bottom).

The 1990s revival of all things 1970s fed the trend as well, especially in light of the popular rediscovery of funk music and its all-bets-are-off Pop psychedelic futurist aesthetic. Funk icon George Clinton and everything from his “five-inch-high platform sneakers to [his] feathered, mid-calf-length, hand-stitched trapper boots” got written up in Styles section of the Times. But for the most part, the sneaker version of the platform remained a form of exoticism, worn by the subjects of “after-hours ethnographers” while the academics regarded their documentation with dry remoteness. In an analysis of the club kid coverage of photography duo Skid, Robert Blake of International Center of Photography said, “it’s interesting for unknown, basically derelict kids, to be able to establish a public identity.” Indeed.

That public identity was becoming codified in the mass media’s coverage of ravers: “[w]ith their custom-made high-heel sneakers, stuffed animals, jester’s hats and pacifiers, the ravers are the most childlike of costumed clubgoers. They’re also the youngest; many are teen-agers.”  Photography team Harvey Ferdschneider and William Carney (the members of Skid) credited the night crawlers “with helping to revive New York’s flagging club life as well as with inspiring some mainstream fashion trends, like platform sneakers.”

The trend metastasized in the hands of the Spice Girls, with whom the outsized soles of Buffalo shoes became synonymous. What club kids had customized, the market could now provide.  Buffalo was early on the market as was No Name. Steve Madden, Superga, and Guess Footwear were all in by 1998. The platform sneakers became shorthand for the Spice Girls’ whole style ethos, which initially appalled fashion and music writers looking a shorthand way to dismiss both. But that was a fool’s errand. Platform sneakers peaked in 1999, finally fulfilling the role Charles Ludlam had envisioned for them back in 1976 as the absurd apex of fashion. But rather than a subversion of clientele by a dictatorial designer, the shoe represented the triumph of a youth culture anti-fashion. They seemingly vanished after the year 2000 and have only recently been revived, but the reversal of fortune in fashion they represented is ongoing.

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