Why are Dunlop Volleys so popular in Australia?

Well-worn Dunlop Volleys (photo by Roger Browne - CC-BY)

Dunlop Volleys showing typical wear holes (photo by Roger Browne - CC-BY)

Dunlop Volley tennis shoes were a big hit in the 1960s, but tennis players nowadays wear more specialised footwear. The Volley is way out of fashion and hard to find anywhere else in the world. So why do people in Australia keep buying them, with over 20 million pairs sold according to Dunlop? And who has taken over from tennis players as the customers?

Dunlop Volleys have a very simple design. A thick canvas upper is attached to a rubber sole and toepiece, and there’s no arch either internally or externally. But some of the design features are important to the two groups of people who keep buying these shoes: roof tilers and bushwalkers.

The sole is constructed with a zig-zag pattern, and uses a rubber with good grip and a high “smear”—the propensity to bend and twist to increase the grip. This, combined with the large sole (due to the absence of the arch) gives a particularly good grip. So, for a roof tiler working on sloping tiles on a pitched roof, Volleys work better than most other kinds of shoes.

The same “grip” makes Volleys ideal for bushwalking (the Australian term for wilderness or back-country hiking) where there’s lots of sandstone to be found. For scrambling up ravines and over boulders, it’s hard to beat the Volley. For the same reason, they’re popular for abseiling and canyoning.

Environmentally they’re great, because their flat sole doesn’t break up the surface of the soil like the chunky protruberances on hiking boots.

One place where Volleys aren’t effective is on alpine snow grasses on sloping ground, where you’ll keep slipping over. They’re also not suitable for walking in the central Australian deserts, where the sharp spikes of the spinifex stick right through the canvas.

Volleys have a broad fit, and are well-suited to the Australian foot (which is wider than the “standard” foot used in European shoe designs). They’re made inexpensively in China and imported by the container-load.

A pair will last for about six months of heavy outdoor action before they start to fall apart. After they first get wet, the canvas shrinks a little and they can be less comfortable until the canvas stretches again. Towards the end of their life, holes start appearing in the canvas and they are at their wabi sabi moment, fitting perfectly and being supremely comfortable just before they self-destruct.

Good places to buy Volleys include chain stores and disposal stores. There’s not enough mark-up for them to be sold at specialist bushwalking outfitters, where they’ll probably try to sell you some kind of high-tech northern hemisphere hiking boot instead.

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