These are man-repelling shoes, and mothers frown on them too. Still, women are willing to embrace them even after being weaned on towering Blahnik stilettos or dainty Vivier heels. The almost-sudden love for styles that look like orthopaedic footwear, however, is not really a new affair. For as long as there have been Birkenstocks and Teva river sandals, women (and men) have loved being clunkily shod.
Since we have been talking about Kate Moss in the previous post, it is, perhaps, interesting to note that the popularity of Birkenstocks has never really waned since she wore them in one of those iconic pictures shot by Corrine Day. And that was in 1993! Those double-strapped, thick-soled ‘Arizona’ slip-ons with the generously ample toe-box (perfect for wearing to the pedicurist) are still available today, and any time at the Birkenstock boutique in Wheelock Place, you’ll see them being snapped up.
Corrine Day’s shot of Kate Moss from the 1990s
While Ms Moss’s clothes received much of the world’s attention, especially those unsightly cut-off denim shorts, her choice of footwear too had far-reaching impact. Indeed, throughout much of the mid-Nineties, Birkenstock sandals (including those from the sister line Papillio) and similar were the deliberate choice of many savvy souls who could make the unattractive attractive, a proposition quite often witnessed at the house of Prada. Challenging conventional notions of what is beautiful does not have to start at the face or the body, it can, as Birkenstock has shown, begin at the feet. Prada, too, had made their share of so-nasty-they’re-cool shoes. As Miuccia Prada told T Mag last year, “The investigation of ugliness is… more interesting than the bourgeois idea of beauty”. That search has never ceased and can still be exemplified in the current line of sporty sandals, some festooned with faux gem stones (to augment its kitsch value?).
Back in the Nineties, the Birkenstock allure came hot on the heels of Doc Martens, a brand closely associated with grunge. Grunge—“a hippied romantic version of punk”, as defined by its proponent Marc Jacobs—may have largely exited the scene when Mr Jacobs was ousted from Perry Ellis in 1993, but the penchant for unfeminine thick-soled shoes was so pervasive that many designers wondered aloud if women will ever know how to wear heels again.
Today, Birkenstock sandals may not be everyone’s cup of bubble tea since the dubious beauty of their designs does not seem to commensurate with the steep prices they charge, but theirs is a lack of appeal that has, through time and one model endorsement after another (lately, Miranda Kerr), changed perceptions. They are able to do this by remaining unattractive, serving as counterpoint to the surfeit of ‘prettiness’ that has, for too long, prevailed in women’s wear. They predate, for foam resin clog lovers (!), similarly girthed and wide-toed, but covered Crocs. These shoes, unfortunately, are not “pretty ugly”, a deliberately oxymoronic compliment paid by Vogue in describing Birkenstock and its kind when the mag sang the shoes’ praises last July. With Crocs, a name that clearly alludes to a certain hideous-looking reptile, they’ve forsaken beauty for the beast.
Lest we have been giving too much attention to Birkenstock, we should also point to Celine for those only concerned with recent developments. Phoebe Philo first introduced her take on Birkenstocks with those fur-lined ones, seen in the SS 2013 collection in Paris in the fall of 2012 (and now also reinterpreted by Givenchy as seen in the ‘Barka’ sandal). By Christmas that year, fashionistas were spotted on Orchard Road with their Birkenstocks in anticipation of an idea burgeoning into a trend. As we saw with Ms Philo’s first bag—the Paddington for Chloé, it was really a matter of time.
A year after the Celine debut, flat and clunky sandals have yet to retire to an ignored corner of the shoe cabinet. As the popularity of these shoes hit a high point, here at SOTD, we’re partial to the Doc Martens ‘Aggy’ sandals. We like the thick sole, the wide white corridor (with orange stitching!), and, as with a Birkenstock, the long-wearing comfort. Call us boring. We don’t care.
Prada sandals, from SGD1,250, available at Prada, Ion Orchard. Doc Martens Aggy sandals, SGD259, available at the Doc Martens, Wheelock Place. Birkenstock Arizona sandals, SGD99, available at all Birkenstock stores