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Swing Fashion: Keds

May 27, 2011

Sorry I’ve been off schedule the last few weeks; I’ve got something big planned, and was hoping to put it out today, for Frankie’s birthday, but I’m too busy to finish it off at the moment. So, this isn’t much, definitely not worth Frankie’s birthday, but I didn’t want to leave the week without a post.

Following a post I did on stripey socks, I realized I could do several essays on vintage swing dance fashion. And our readers know there’s nothing we here at Swungover enjoy more than starting new series.

The basic Keds shoe (called “The Champion” today) and other Keds-like sneakers first appeared in 1917 and were the shoes the Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers began wearing to perform fast, high flying Lindy Hop routines. They were, after all, the 1930s equivalent of Nike Basketball shoes.

We have a rough time line of when that began: Their first film performance, Day at the Races in 1937: no sneakers. Radio City Revels, in 1938: no sneakers. Keep Punching in 1939, we start to see Keds and sneakers on the Whitey’s. So, between 1938 and 1939.

In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm mentions how, in the 1940s, he would take part in Lindy Hop contests, which read like jam circle contests (I have an entire post on the Lindy Hop sections of the Malcolm X autobiography coming soon.) He mentioned how the followers would run to the sidelines, take off their heels, and put on their sneakers.

Classic Keds sneakers were (and are still) great swing shoes for several reasons: First off, the original “pebble bottom” rubber soles, which are still on many of their modern shoes, wore into a great texture for both traction and twisting. Leaders can grip the floor to throw, followers can still get a swivel in. Second, they are simple in design and go with any outfit.

The modern "pebble sole. "

The pebble bottom soles, which take awhile to smooth out to their “sweet spot,” are unique among shoes. This is because Keds were supposedly made by a rubber company (U. S. Rubber) as a plan to get rid of the dregs of their supply—so those pebble bottom soles are really just a bunch of cheap melted rubber. (It makes sense, when you notice they have the texture and consistency of the cheese Waffle House melts on hash browns.)

Keds has always carried the women’s canvas shoes with the pebble-sole bottom, and recently re-released their classic men’s shoes (“Champions”) with the pebble bottoms (well, only slightly altered.) Men should know that Ked’s sizing is all weird—aside from not being true to size, their men’s shoes are also a little pointy for my personal taste, (there’s too much room in front of my toe, but the rest of the shoe fits great.)

And, DON’T GET THE MEN’S WHITE CANVAS SHOES: they don’t have the pebble bottom (the bastards!). The Men’s White Champions have what is probably one of the worst soles for dancing I’ve ever tried.

When I ordered a pair of both black and white Keds, I was surprised when the black had the pebble sole, but the white’s had the Sole of Perfect Static Friction. I called Keds, told a really bored lady basically the information in this blog, thinking she could possibly get a promotion if she knew this kind of stuff, and where were the damn men’s white pebble-bottom Keds. She seemed to think I was stupid for assuming the men’s black champion and the men’s white champion would have the exact same sole. “Well, they’re two different shoes.”

So, I decided to take the tried-and-trusted route. It didn’t fail me when I was looking for stripey socks in 2001, and it didn’t fail me when I was first looking for high-wasted wide legged pants.

“Okay, okay. What’s the equivalent size in women’s?”

4 Comments leave one →
  1. shani permalink
    May 28, 2011 11:43 am

    First, I want to thank you (and Malcolm) for pointing out that the follows routinely kicked off their heels to throw on a pair of keds. I am often looked at strangely for doing this before accepting a fast dance with a lindy hopper, but alas, I’m not crazy…or at least I’m not alone.

    And secondly, I’m now wondering if we should start wearing Nike Basketball shoes? Do we mimic the fashion exactly or the feeling of being cutting edge fashionistas? Of course I’m kidding though, could you imagine those chunky neon high tops with a short skirt or kickerbockers and stripped sock?!? Eww

  2. April 15, 2012 10:52 am

    The Parisians managed high tops it seems…! http://realmendance.tumblr.com/post/19508798490/paris-jitterbug-maudelynn-french-university

  3. ronald permalink
    December 5, 2012 4:47 pm

    Earlier this year in 2012, I bought two pair of Men’s Keds Champions online: a blue pair and a white pair. Both had the pebble soles!

  4. August 31, 2016 12:33 am

    I always wondered where this trend started, thanks!

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