If there was ever an item of clothing which epitomized the style and fashion of an era, then it would have to be shoes (or their absence). Visit any cd and vinyl store and you can pick up a dozen covers of compilation hits and three quarters of them will depict the age with fashionable shoes of the time. What's more these are instantly recognisable.
The most famous shoes of the rock and roll era were Carl Perkin's Blue Suede shoes.
Although Elvis Presley had the big hit the credit was always given to Perkins. The idea for the song came from his early days when he and Johnny Cash were queuing for some tucker. Someone in front cried a warning to another in the queue not to tread on his foot. 'Hey don't step on my blue suede shoes". Cash was moved to say to his companion that would be a good title for a song. Later, when Perkins was playing in a dance hall he noticed one of the dancers gesticulating to his partner not to stand on his feet. The following morning, or so the story goes, he woke up with the song lyrics in his head. Unfortunately a road accident prevented him from performing the hit and Elvis, in need of a follow-up to Heartbreak Hotel took 'Shoes' to the top of the charts and the rest, as they say is history.
Buddy Holly, by contrast wore brown suede shoes.
Carl Perkins was singing about up market Penny Loafers much favoured by the Ivy League in the US. Loafers were essentially a two-piece moccasin with a hard sole and a strap or saddle, made of leather, over the instep. The name 'loafer' comes from the German 'landlaufer' meaning a wanderer, or vagabond. The Penny Loafer was also known as Kerrybrooke Teenright Smoothies and had a good luck penny stuck in the leather saddle. Worn by "Preppies", the style was popular with both sexes. Suede was a shoe cover preferred by effeminate men so the kids took to them, to flaunt convention.
Meantime the rebellious Teddy boys in the UK; Halbstarke in Germany; and Blousans noirs in France were wearing Brothel Creepers.
This was a much cheaper suede shoe with two inch thick crepe soles. Brothel creepers, appeal lay in their deliberate crudeness and the name, demonstratively spelt out the sexuality of the shoe. The shoe was a hybrid of the desert shoe which were made for officers during the desert campaign in North Africa. The suede bootees were made by native craftsmen with lightweight and hardwearing crepe soles. The fashion was developed by Clarke's of England and when treated suede became available (i.e. Hush Puppies) then desert boots became popular with middle class smoothies. Many were single men who frequented nite spots of Soho and Kings Cross. Hence the name brothel creeper. Baby boomers had money to burn but clothing manufacturers were slow to waken up to the potential of kids clothing In the UK styles filtered down from Belgravia and young people were expected to become young ladies and gentlemen with any reference to sex in dress completely played down.
Similarly the North American youth followed conservative fashion but rock’n’roll changed all that. European Teddy boys wore drapes and drainpipe trousers with brothel creepers. As a token of respect to rock-a-billy a bootlace tie was part of the uniform of the street wise ned. The style was reminiscent of Melbourne Larrikins of the 19th century.
In Australia Bodgies combined US & UK fashion, adding a hint of Italian, so adolescents appeared in Spiv suits worn with pointy, white shoes. Later with crossover rockabilly, crocodile skin shoes became the business, especially worn with black satin shirts. The sartorial style was the right image for angry young men and women and made for the post war generation. Little Richard combined the flash with the brash and spearheaded the glamorous sartorial style we now associate with early Rock 'n Roll.
During the fifties Chicago jug band music made a comeback with the skiffle craze. In keeping with their off the wall music, skiffle bands wore non conventional clothing including thongs. The fashion was made popular at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics when the Japanese swimming team, wore getas as sports sandals. The new hip generation or Bohemian Beatniks were cool daddio in their open toed sandals or bare feet. By 1957, Sydney's bogies & wedgies (Teddyboys and Teddygirls) abandoned their restrictive "St Louis Blues" (rhyming slang for shoes), and came to rumble bare footed.
Chuck Berry’s famous 'duckwalk ' was a rouse to distract the audiences' attention from his poor quality, wrinkled suits. However it did not stop other artists from incorporating similar silly walks into their stage presentations.
By the time Jailhouse Rock was shown, adoring fans caught 'The Pelvis' sporting sneakers and saddle shoes (a close relative to the penny loafer). The fashion was officially sanctioned when James Dean was photographed wearing Levi jeans and white Converse Jack Purcell's.
Later when West Side Story came to a cinema near you, the Jets and Sharks rumbled, choreographed in sneakers. Overnight sneakers became cool and were perfect for energetic dancing.
As fast as you could sing "High Heeled Sneakers" canvas topped shoes replaced "Blue Suede Shoes" as the symbol of youthful rebellion. Originally sneakers in the US were called Peds, but because of copyright the name was changed to Keds. Young men wore chucks.
Chuck Taylor was a baseball player (Buffalo Germans and Akron Firestones) and sold "Converse All Stars" (1921). Whilst parents and authorities condemned every new fad vehemently, this only endorsed, in the minds of the youth, the way to go.
Bikies or 'Ton-Up Boys' were considered outlaws and tougher than the Bogies (or Teds). Their main obsession was their motor bikes and they wore leather jackets (with or without gang colours), white Ts, blue jeans, studded belts, and engineer's boots. The significance of the above the ankle boot was very sensible as it protected the lower leg from the damaging heat of the bike's exhaust. The heavy boots also, by coincidence provided a useful offensive weapon to use in the ubiquitous rumble with sworn enemies.
The image was immortalized in 'The Wild One" starring Marlon Brando. So powerful was censorship at the time, this film was not screened in some counties until the 1970s. Later cowboy boots replaced the dull engineer's boots as the fad for Rodeo swept US & Australia. Based on the design of Mexican riding boots (or vaquero) these sat well on the bike but the shoe portion was made tight making walking very difficult and often painful.
Two distinctive physical characteristics of the new breed of juvenile delinquent became apparent. Their walking style and their language. Every country had their own "Wild man of Rock", the original was Jerry Lee Lewis, and all others paled into insignificance. No self-respecting rocker went without their distinctive pompadour quaff and Duck's Arse (DA). This required the ubiquitous hair comb as an accessory and emphasis on the macho meant, 'Flickcombs' were essential. This was eminently better than the flick knives favoured by the bad boys or juvenile delinquents.
By the late fifties the anger was taken out of the first wave of the rock generation and conservative Tin Pan Alley again prevailed with novelty records. "Tan shoes with pink shoe laces" was one such effort and many early rockers became enveloped into the silly season of pop. Suede shoes (i.e. Hush Puppies) become the preferred fashion of the university students with their duffle coats, commitment to the Campaign of Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and love for Trad Jazz. This thinking generation was the new moderns and forerunners of the Mods.
In the States the emergence of the "Preppy Cool Set", (over 25s) and their continental influenced Peppermint Lounge meant the venue for listening and dancing to music changed. Smaller venues with movement restriction necessitated popular dance took place standing in one spot. The deeply sexual coupling of rock'n roll changed to one where there was now no body contact whatsoever. The Twist required shoes to be twisted, circular fashion, against the floor in a left and right manner, as if flattening a cigarette butt. This was combined with swinging the arms and hips as if an imaginary towel was drying the back. These gyrations were best viewed when the dancers wore tighter clothing showing off their long legs.
Winkle pickers or needlepoint shoes replaced the cumbersome crepe soled shoes for men. The pointed toes were a reworking of the scandalous poulaines of the Middle Ages. These were outrageously phallic and distinctly male only to be worn during permissive times.
The stiletto heel, which had been around since the early fifties, was given a new lease of life with the introduction of pantyhose and miniskirts. Courtship took place on the dance floor and ability 'swing right' was caught in many of the contemporary lyrics e.g. "Let's dance" by Chris Montez and "Twisting the Night Away" by Sam Cooke. By the time "Lets Twist Again" was released, Chubby Checker shot to popularity. Chubby wore two tone basket weave styled boots on stage and this became his show business trademark. The significance of the basket weave design was to keep the singer's feet cool, whilst demonstration the new dance.
Worth a listen:
Blue Suede Shoes Carl Perkins (1956)
Ready Teddy Little Richard (1956)
Saturday Nights all right for fighting Elton John (1973)
Whole lotta shakin going on Jerry Lee Lewis (1957)
Roll Over Beethoven Chuck Berry (1956)
High heeled sneakers Tommy Tucker (1964)
Born to be wild Steppinwolf (1968)
Pink Shoe Laces Dodie Stevens (1959)
Let's dance Chris Montez (1962)
Twisting the Night Away Sam Cooke (1962)
Lets Twist Again Chubby Checker (1961)