Sneakers that Defined 1990s Britpop
In the 1990s, England was home to a unique sartorial mashup of mods, hooligans, and school teachers. Spearheaded by the two vanguards of Britpop (the combustible Gallagher brothers from Manchester, and the ‘Southern Softies’ from Essex), Oasis and Blur took it to the studio in an attempt to reign during the battle of Britpop.
But the rivalry extended well beyond Radio 1, and as more talent filled the airwaves (Jarvis Cocker, Richard Ashcroft, Suede, etc.), the noise from the 90s came to reverberate across England’s zeitgeist, informing style, politics and sneakers.
Rejecting the morose navel-gazing of grunge from across the pond, the sneakers of Britpop featured everything from terracewear icons to mod revivalism, as Britain looked to stomp their way into the millennium riding a wave of economic optimism and cultural influence.
These were the sneakers of ‘Cool Britannia’.
‘Coming in a mess, going out in style, I ain’t good looking but I’m someone’s child.’ – D’You Know What I Mean?
What’s the Story?
For northerners, Noel and Liam Gallagher were hailed as working class icons, football fans fuelled by beer, loutish behaviour, and the blood of Manchester. Appropriating elements of 1980s hooliganism and terracewear, both brothers laced sneakers like the adidas Samba and Gazelle, a look prompted by the kind of stylistic pilgrimage football fans made across Europe during the 70s and 80s.
While bands like Oasis were inspired by the howling terraces of England, Damon Albarn and Blur took footwear cues from a blend of mod and skinhead nostalgia, drawing harder, more linear lines across their wardrobe. Viewed as ‘Southern Softies’ by Oasis and their fans, Harrington jackets and cherry red Dr. Martens came to epitomise Blur’s conception of Parklife, and it was a look that spilled across the UK. (What did Liam think of the Blur’s LP? ‘Like Southern England personified.’)
Still, the Dr. Marten continues to be one of the sneakersphere’s great Forrest Gumps, constantly reappearing during United Kingdom’s seismic cultural periods. The utilitarian boot landed in England during the 1960s, delivering nasty blows by the skinheads, embodying the DIY attitudes of punks in the 70s and, later, offering an aesthetic cue to the factionalism of 90s Britpop (a battle that would reach its zenith during the ‘Country House’ and ‘Roll With It’ tracks of 1995).
‘If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I’m getting rid of grunge.’ – Damon Albarn,
A Bittersweet Wallabee
But it wasn’t just Oasis and Blur battling for the top spot on Radio 1’s airwaves. Empowered by their love of drugs, psychedelic rock and Clarks Wallabees, The Verve stormed the charts with Urban Hymns in 1997. Led by their spindly frontman Richard Ashcroft (‘Mad Richard’), The Verve built on the legacy of their sartorial godfathers – the mods. In terms of footwear, Ashcroft’s love of the Clarks Wallabee ensured the shoe would hit its cultural apotheosis when the moccasin-style build graced the cover of Urban Hymns, before appearing in the legendary music clip to ‘Bittersweet Symphony’.
The Wallabee would later catch the eye of hip hop pioneers MF Doom (who dropped his own legitimate collaboration with Clarks), Drake and Kanye West, but it was figures like Richard Ashcroft (and, across the pond, the Wu Tang Clan) who provided the cultural bridge for the Wallabees during the 21st century.
‘Americans want grungy people, stabbing themselves in the head on stage. They get a bright bunch like us, with deodorant on, they don’t get it.’ – Liam Gallagher
Don’t Look Back in Anger
What began as a middle finger to bourgeois sensibilities (and the overt introspection of Seattle grunge) ended with the slow pasteurisation by politics on Downing Street. Viewed from a cynical lens, the Britpop scene had already begun its process of sterilisation from within midway through the 90s, somewhat promulgated by a kind of working-class fetishisation.
‘All of a sudden, you had people that had never set foot on a football pitch in the eighties claiming to love football, guitar music, beer [and] Adidas trainers’ Gary Aspen, a brand consultant for adidas told GQ. ‘I could say that most of that shift was blatant class tourism, as it took eighties working-class culture and made it mainstream.’
But despite what Britpop and the cringe-worthy concept of ‘Cool Britannia’ did for chauvinism (and indeed, its bewildering resurgence in 2019), it’s impossible to deny Britpop’s stylistic hallmarks and the radical effect the scene continues to have on contemporary sneaker culture within the UK and abroad.