Matthew: Any truth to what I heard, that British Bobbies were the first to wear sneakers to help them sneak up on Jack the Ripper? —Webwalker, somewhere on the Net
Hey, Matt A.: Some of my pals and I have a disagreement over the history of a style of shoes: the heavily soled, heavily priced, heavily bought, and heavy (if you can dig it) “creepers. ” I learned somewhere that creepers were made in the late 1800s for prominent married men in England, designed so they could quietly get around inside of brothels without being noticed. My buds say, “NOT!” Matt, you gotta help me keep my Cliff Clavin status. — Bruce Stone, Spring Valley
Not quite enough ammunition here to knock you off your know-it-all pedestal, Bruce, but your pals should keep an eye on you. The shoes with the thick, wedge-shaped crepe soles, now known as creepers, were named brothel creepers by English street toughs, Teddy Boys, in the 1950s. They wore outrageous adaptations of the then-fashionable Edwardian style of dress (slim-waisted, flared suit jackets; narrow, straight-legged pants; velvet-collared overcoats) in reaction to the American-influenced, denim-wearing “Rockers.” Brothel creepers weren’t really an Edwardian accessory, though the Edwardian era was when rubber-soled shoes for the discreet of feet became available. Thieves and others in the British and American underworlds (perhaps including philandering husbands) were particularly fond of the quiet “sneakers,” as any canvas-topped, rubber-soled shoes were already known.
Creepers faded in popularity somewhat during the punk era, though Sid Vicious was partial to them. They came back with a vengeance in the late ’80s, eventually replaced by Doc Martens. By the way, Doc Marten is really Doctor Klaus Maertens, a German designer who first marketed his cushion-soled shoes and boots in 1947. British skinheads adopted them in the ’60s as the favorite boot for inflicting lots of damage during soccer riots. When a British company bought the manufacturing rights, they Anglicized Doc’s name to Marten.
As for Bobbies in sneakers, Web, more likely the Ripper wore them than the police, who wore copper-toed boots. India rubber-coated leather shoes had been around since the 1830s, but not until Goodyear figured out how to vulcanize rubber in the 1860s did anybody do much with it. And for a while, it was more an upper-class thing. But by 1900 you could buy canvas-and-rubber sneakers through the Sears catalog, and American cops began wearing rubber-soled shoes, hence the term “gumshoe,” well-known by 1910.