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Object lesson No 6 Trainers

Poor old plimsolls. With thick slabs of rubber for soles and a canvas upper, the original sports shoes were cheap and functional - but that was all. They didn't look good and they let the rain in. You wouldn't wear them down the shops, never mind the disco.

But sports coach Bill Bowerman had big plans for pumps. He worked out that if he could make his athletes' shoes an ounce lighter it would save them having to lift the equivalent of 200lbs every mile. So he got busy with his wife's waffle iron making corrugated rubber soles and went on to co-found the company that now we call Nike.

During the American jogging craze of the Seventies, sporty types started wearing trainers even when they weren't exercising, just because they were comfortable. Then Nike (named after the Greek goddess of victory) capitalised on the "athleisure" crossover with the Air - the basketball shoe with a bubble that became a street culture icon and star of a thousand pop videos.

When eighties ravers needed something light and durable to keep them dancing all night, they chose the trainer. The fitness boom and football terrace fashion also did heir bit to make sports footwear where it's at in the fashion stakes. Ninety per cent of trainers might never set foot on a running track or gym, but it's appearance not performance that matters.

Branding is central to trainer culture. Adidas's three stripes (originally intended to strengthen the side of the shoe), Nike's "swoosh" (the student who designed it was paid just $35), and Reebok's curved cross hatching are instantly recognisable.

What the best-dressed feet are wearing changes every season (there are four new sportswear collections annually compared with two for couture). Even burglars have their favourites - police analysis of scene-of-crime footprints in 1999 found the Reebok Classic had taken over from the Nike Air as the housebreaker's choice.

In the mid-Nineties, trainers started losing out in the fashion stakes to skateboarding, hiking and designer styles. But sports shoes could be making a comeback. Now you can buy zip-up Lycra styles that fit like socks and others inspired by animals with tiny claws and pads and even cloven hooves. Just don't go running in them. That would be so uncool.

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