Light Up Shoes: Remember Wearing Them as a Kid? Here Is the History of LED Shoes Throughout Time.
If you were a kid during the 1990s, you probably have fond memories of your LED sneakers—running shoes that lit up every time you took a step. You’d put them on and lace them up, and then every time your heel hit the ground an LED (Light-Emitting Diode) in the heel would light up to announce to the world (or at least to anyone watching you run) that you were running at the edge of the fashion curve.
But how did sneakers evolve into such a futuristic form? This is the story of how ordinary shoes evolved into sneakers, and how sneakers evolved into LED-adorned fashion statements.
1917—the Birth of Sneakers
Up until the mid nineteenth century, most shoes were plain, uninteresting, and simply boring. They were made in such a uniform way that most people didn’t even have a “left” and “right” shoe—one shoe was pretty much the same as any other.
That all changed in 1917, with the introduction of the first rubber-soled shoes. People began to call them “sneakers” on account of how much quieter they were than traditional shoes, enabling the wearer to easily “sneak up” on someone. Get it? Sneakers?
Although sneakers were designed for athletic activity, their flexible rubber soles made them so comfortable that they soon became popular for everyday wear. At the time of their debut, the first sneakers were considered high end, luxury items due to the working class having much less leisure time than now. Not to mention the cost of rubber was extremely expensive. These conditions changed during the first half of the twentieth century, however, as the American working class became more prosperous, and sneakers quickly overtook traditional shoes in popularity—today the athletic shoe industry makes hundreds of millions of pairs on sneakers each year, raking in billions of dollars annually!
The 1970s and 80s—Sneakers Go High-Tech and High Fashion
By the end of World War II, most people wore sneakers for most everyday activities where they had long since ceased to be status symbols. But by the 1970s most Americans had a fair amount of disposable income, and shoe companies began marketing more expensive product lines meant to be worn not on the ball field or to the grocery store, but to the nightclub. These colorful shoes were emblazoned with carefully designed company logos. Sneakers were well on their way to becoming status symbols again.
Another change that came about in the 70s was that podiatrists began to work with shoe manufacturers to design better shoes for athletes in order to reduce injuries and enhance performance. These innovations quickly caught the attention of the general public, and soon everyone wanted more comfortable, ergonomic shoes that were also catchy and had personality.
As the 70s faded into the 80s, this trend became noticeable in pop culture, which accelerated its growth. Famous professional athletes—especially NBA basketball players—began to appear more frequently in sneaker advertisements, and actor Sean Penn appeared in the 1982 movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High wearing a sneaker brand that was well known and well loved by Southern California’s ubiquitous skateboarding culture. The rap group Run DMC made their sneakers an important part of their image, and even went so far as to write songs about their chosen brand.
The 1990s—Sneakers Get Even More High-Tech
The 1990s saw sneakers’ status rise even higher, as basketball began to eclipse baseball as America’s favorite sport, and NBA superstars like Michael Jordan became highly visible in ad campaigns. Gimmicks began to appear, such as inflatable shoes, which featured a button on the tongue that pumped air into the shoe. The ostensible purpose of this pumping mechanism was to customize the fit of the shoe to the shape of the wearer’s foot, and some of the ads for these inflatable shoes implied that the air cushion enhanced performance on the basketball court, enabling the wearer to jump higher.
In 1992, however, the most fabulous innovation finally hit store shelves—Light Up Shoes (or LED Shoes). As soon as LED sneakers became available, every kid in America had to have a pair, and the company that made them sold 5 million pairs within a year!
1992—the LED Sneaker Craze
At first the mania for LED sneakers was confined mainly to kids. The light-up shoes made their first retail appearance at Kids’ Foot Locker, where they sold for $50 a pair. Brands soon proliferated, and high schools and junior highs all across America were soon lit up by kids’ flashing footsteps. The kids who were the target market for LED sneakers at the time were seduced by the novelty of the lights, which they saw as a way to impress their peers.
Unfortunately, some of these early LED sneakers had a serious—and dangerous—design flaw: unsafe levels of mercury in the batteries. Many parents became extremely fearful about putting these shoes on their children’s feet, and the state of Minnesota even went so far as the ban the sale of LED sneakers altogether. Sales continued to be surprisingly brisk despite these setbacks, but gradually the public’s mood soured, and the company that had introduced LED sneakers hit a downturn from which it never completely recovered.
Today’s LED Sneakers—Not Just for Kids
Today, the kids who wore those LED sneakers in the 1990s are all grown up, and many of them feel a strong sense of nostalgia for the fun, magical sneakers of their youth. It may seem quaint to say this today, but those LED sneakers were the first electronic gadgets many of those kids ever possessed, and many of those now-grown kids feel they’d like to re-capture a bit of that magic. Or at least be able to buy a safe pair for their kidsAccordingly, LED sneakers are making a fierce comeback. Enter “HoverKicks,” a new line of cool LED sneakers for adults. These light-up shoes have a more modern style, with LED lights encircling the sole of the shoe rather than just in the heel, and they come in a stunning array of designs. Some come in simple, solid colors, while others feature wild graphic designs. These grown-up LED sneakers come with safe, USB-rechargeable batteries (which contain no mercury), and one charge is good for over six hours.