OPN Woman in trainer shoes-1573297887973
At a moment when we are supposed to care about sustainability, trainers are monuments of inbuilt obsolescence. Image Credit:

That shapeless and malodorous article of footwear, the trainer, is having a moment.

Recently, Sotheby’s New York held its first ever auction of rare trainers. The collection of 100 pairs of the “rarest sneakers ever produced” included two pairs of limited edition, self-lacing Nike Mags, four pairs of the unreleased version of Travis Scott’s Air Jordan 4 “Cactus Jack” design (no, me neither), and a pair of 1972 Nike Moon Shoes — the only unworn example of an edition of a mere dozen.

The entire collection was snapped up for almost $1.3 million by a Canadian businessman, Miles Nadal, who plans to exhibit it in his private museum in Toronto, where visitors can admire the waffle sole of the Moon Shoes. Their creator, Oregon University track coach Bill Bowerman, poured rubber into his wife’s waffle iron to create a prototype (history unaccountably fails to record Mrs Bowerman’s reaction).

In June, fervent trainer-fanciers crashed websites and camped outside stores across the UK in the hope of bagging a pair of Adidas Yeezy Boost 350s (a design like the love child of a carpet slipper and a bicycle tyre).

Meanwhile, in the Home Counties [counties that surround London, although several of them do not border it], white pumps have become the default choice of the fashion-conscious matron. The Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex and the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, have all been photographed out and about on duty in trainers. Dame Emma Thompson even wore a pair to Buckingham Palace to collect her gong.

Symbol of female empowerment

It turns out that wearing a trainer for non-sporting purposes isn’t simply a way to take the pressure off your bunions, but a symbol of female empowerment, according to Melinda Gates, who praised British women for their “strength” in wearing trainers on professional duty. Yet amid this proliferation of ruinously expensive and ideologically impeccable athleisurewear, I feel strangely isolated.

I find trainers impossible to love: the designs are dull or grotesque; the cost is absurd; worst of all, at a moment when we are supposed to care about sustainability, trainers are monuments of inbuilt obsolescence.

If you look at the 1972 Moon Shoes online and compare them with a Manolo Blahnik shoe of the same vintage in the V & A’s [Victoria and Albert Museum] collection, you will notice the difference. The latter remain achingly desirable; the former look like something your mum would throw out as a health hazard.

If celebrity advocates of sustainable fashion want a real object lesson in iconic cobbling, they should take a look at Sir William Nicholson’s painting of Miss Jekyll’s Gardening Boots at Tate Britain.

Soles parting from uppers, laces writhing — those boots offer a more vivid and moving account of the great gardener’s character than her likeness (also by Nicholson) in the National Portrait Gallery.

Would a future portrait of Dame Emma’s Trainers prove as revealing? I wonder.

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019

Jane Shilling is a book critic for the Telegraph and the author of two books.