Slippers: Footwear Of A Nation

It is often said that when it comes to dressing to go out, Singaporeans place comfort above all else. Are we really so comfortable with a nation of flip-flop wearers?

Flip-flop everywhere P1

One thing we can say with certainty about flip-flops in Singapore is that they are not a flop! Just one shoe style is enough to serve a whole nation’s footwear needs, whether it’s for a ballroom bash or the stage during a presentation on data science. Its ubiquity even prompted The Straits Times to call it a “National Shoe”. That’s rather impressive for a slip-on that’s barely there.

It’s hard to say when they became a serve-all-occasion near-obsession. The flip-flops, or slippers as we call them, have become the footwear of choice even when we are not going to 7-Eleven to buy bread or meet the MP in the void deck, or the pool to watch over the kids while they receive training to be the next Joseph Schooling. It is as if we were born with them on.

As far as everyone we spoke to was aware, including department store shoe buyers, we have been wearing flip-flops or some version—sandal, if you will—for as long as we were once a fishing village, even before Parameswara, the last Sultan of Singapura and, if you wish to go further afield, the founder of Melaka. Sure, most of the people of that time probably went about barefooted, but the difference then and now is a piece of rubber in the shape of your feet sole-side. We are no longer a largely coastal community, but we are still shod as if we spend a lot of time on board a sampan. It’s tempting to call this a love of the retro, but we wouldn’t go that far.

Flip-flop everywhere P2In a crowd, even if they don’t know each other, they’re united by their flip-flops

The weather is constantly blamed for our footwear of choice. Hot! Terok! Buay tahan! Proponents tell us that slippers are, therefore, ideal since they do not encase the feet, which means there isn’t a portable sauna attached to them. Without a hot and moist environment, we’re not going to be breeding fungi more than we’re breeding children. Since tinea pedis, for many people, is named after Hong Kong (which in the SAR is considered a “slang”) rather than connected to athletes, many are hopeful that we would not contract a variant that may need to be called Singapore’s Foot some day, which could propel our island towards an apocalyptic end.

People wore sarongs in the old days, too. A cloth wrapped round the lower half of the body is, as some kampong folk will vouch, heat-friendly as well, but those covers are not today exactly the go-to pants/skirt alternative no matter how much the sun is in love with our island. But, conversely, we have kept to the exposed feet of yore, even in the relative comfort of what Lee Kuan Yew called “a most important invention for us, perhaps one of the signal inventions of history”—air-conditioning.

Tat Sing slippers now adimaxWhat we know as Tat Sing slippers (left) is now sold as ‘adimax’

While flip-flops have been very much a part of our footwear choices in the past, it was not until the slow invasion of Sao Paulo-based Havaianas here in 2003 that slippers were seen as fashionable. Sure, when they first started to catch on, the less-informed balked at purchasing slippers for more that S$20 a pair. After all, they look similar to those worn to kopi tiams that cost a lot less than a McDonald’s Value Meal (now half, priced at S$2.50). However, those familiar rubber slippers with their blue straps, white tops, and black underside—thought to be local, but is produced in the Malaysian Peninsular by Tat Sing Plastic Industry (and now mysteriously sold as ‘adimax’*)—are not what you’d be seen in anywhere near Orchard Road.

Called chinelos in Brazil, Havaianas was founded in 1962 and was named after the Portuguese feminine noun for Hawaiian. Although it became wildly popular in its native Brazil (and enjoyed some success in the US in the ’70s), it only became a global sensation post-2000. Not long after its Singapore debut, Havaianas took off, surprising many shoe-business owners and watchers. These were clearly not the flip-flops we used to wear; these were immediately seen as different and, crucially, cool.

In the annals of brand successes in Singapore, one stood out—NewUrbanMale, even if only for the introduction of Havaianas to the populace. NewUrbanMale was started by three enterprising friends, Chua Shenzi, James Kwek, and Calvin Soh. They had wanted to cash in on the craze for fitted tees and tank tops that gym-buffed guys were seriously into, in and out of the gym—particularly out. Instead, they elevated the status of the humble slipper to something wearers considered a fashion statement. Their success with Havaianas took the owners by surprise and quickly launched NewUrbanMale to multiple-store prominence.

Havaianas slippers, without a free-standing store, are mostly available in department stores

NewUrbanMale’s first store in 2003 was situated in Orchard Road, in The Heeren, when the mall had HMV as the anchor tenant (not Robinsons as it now is), a three-story music haven before digital everything hit the delete key on them. NUM, as they soon referred to themselves, made it perfectly acceptable to wear flip-flops in the relative swankiness of the most visited shopping stretch on our island at that time when the owners styled themselves as walking billboards for the Havaianas, as well as the ringer-style tank tops that they sold.

Led by the media-friendly spokesperson Mr Chua, NUM staff—mostly muscular, fair-skinned, youth-blessed men—were kitted as if they were off to a game of beach volleyball. Everyday. This sun-and-sea vibe especially appealed to gay men, for whom insouciant casualness topped by overt sportiness was the height of sexiness. The NUM store was known as the “community centre for cute boys”. Even straight guys wanted in on “how good” these muscled men looked.

The rising popularity of Havaianas, too, coincided with the burgeoning dance music festival ZoukOut, an annual rave that put SG on the dance circuit map since 2000. Held at Sentosa’s usually sterile Siloso Beach, ZoukOut was, in part, the perfect excuse to put on footwear that would not do battle with the sand on the seashore. The slippers were sported on almost every male party goer’s feet. That, and the queer crowd’s “party tanks” that NUM were also known for. From city pavement to sandy beach and back again, flip-flops’ growing ubiquity meant that they were on track to conspire with the weather to be our nation’s preferred footwear of any place, any time.

HavaianasThe unmistakable Havaiana slippers, now commonly seen at the front door

NUM soon became a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. Towards the end of the 00s, people were num to the “clonish” offerings of the store. Tight-fitted clothes, by the middle of that century, had lost its initial look-at-my-gym-bod appeal. In 2007, NewUrbanMale lost the distributorship of Havaianas to the Philippines group Terry S.A. Five years later, NUM was no longer seen, except online and through the e-tailer The Jock Shop. The company is now headquartered in Taipei—“their first love”, according to people who know the owners, and a city with a more vibrant “party” scene.

But the popularity of Havaianas did not decline as the new distributor (operating under Moda Pacifica Pte Ltd in SG) continued to ensure that the demand for the Brazilian flip-flops did not wane. Still, it was hard to keep popularity at the top of the food chain, and Havaianas lost its good-enough-for-Orchard-Road shine. Smart-looking slippers were reaching all corners of our island. Who would have thought that in image-conscious, affluent Singapore, flip-flops would be this widely loved? By 2010, our appetite for them contributed to the reported 150 million pairs of Havaianas produced. According to the Financial Times, flip-flops have now become a £4-billion (about S$7 billion) global business.

Despite its increasing visibility in unexpected places, such as hotel restaurants, and those that are to be expected, such as lecture theatres of tertiary institutions, flip-flops were mostly adopted by men. Women, after all, have all manner of sandals and skimpy heels to choose from. While fashion had started to introduce to the world the shouldn’t-be-attractive Birkenstocks, including those with top straps of T-shape, rather than the common Y-shape, it would take the even uglier and flashier Fitflop to change women’s attitude towards slippers.

A commuter wearing what appears to be a pair of Fitflop

Fitflop, launched in 2007 in London by Bliss Spa and Soap & Glory skincare brand founder Marcia Kilgore, and available here in the same year, is the slipper that should not have been. However elevated they were marketed to be, they were the Crocs of their time. Touted for their supposed health benefits, Fitflops were able to tempt women here into buying and wearing them because these platform versions have come to enrich their lives with the comfort of bedroom slippers, the freshness of debutantes, and the brass of tai-tais.

It is understandable why women took a shine to them. Fitflops, if you are past the basic styles, allow you to graduate to more sophisticated iterations such as those sequinned or appliqued to the point that you may wonder if someone had attached hair accessories to the slippers. Women of a certain age, especially, took to them like buttons to button holes; they began building a collection of Fitflops, just as men did with Havaianas four years earlier. Fitflops, because they are supposedly better looking than the average flip-flops, and definitely more expensive, slowly entered the work force. If Havaianas took flip-flops out of the heartlands, Fitflops brought them to the office.

Slippers were, by now, enjoying a status we once accorded court shoes. We no longer talked about them in relation to going to the market, to buy nasi lemak for supper, as pre-game (such as tennis) footwear. We now spoke of (and chose) flip-flops as wardrobe choice for work, meetings with clients, and even for attending a colleague’s wedding (as one Fitflop catchphrase goes, “from walking to dancing”). Slippers, as a consequences, increasingly and visibly became the footwear of choice among those who have professional obligations too.

Flip-flops & work wear P6Lunch break and the feet need a break from closed footwear?

While HR guidelines may not stipulate proper footwear for the office, in these day of conscious and constant “wokefullness”, it is uncertain that the director of human resource would have the courage to tell a woman her flip-flops are not appropriate for the corporate corridor. Any sartorial barring might be seen as shaming, or the much-feared sexist. People are sensitive when it comes to their choice of clothing and, indeed, footwear, more so in a society that’s now too emotionally fragile.

To be sure that we weren’t observing incorrectly, we spent several lunchtimes in places with high office-girl traffic, and it appeared to us that even with the rapidly declining popularity of heels, women are not giving in to flats, not even a pair of sling-backs. One of our contributors, Mao Shan Wang, pointed out to us that the slippers we saw are what women tend to slip into when they are in the office and when they go out for lunch. They do wear “appropriate shoes” to work, we were told. This, apparently, is common, and can be seen in many work places, both corporate and back-of-house.

It is natural then to surmise that the shoes women wear to work are generally so uncomfortable that only replacing them with flip-flops when in the office that the tasks of the day could be completed with no stress to feet. Or, perhaps, the need to free the feet from close, clinging shoes is a sign of something else more to do with the “laid-back” attitude to dress that we, as a people, are certainly known for.

Flip-flops & work wear P7.jpgFeet and footwear are often apart when it comes to flip-flops

The change into flip-flops at work throughout work hours is, as we see it, akin to slipping into something more comfortable when one is in a comfortable environment such as one’s home. There is, after all, no more divide between private space and public space (or professional space). Key is “slipping into”, which suggests a sense of ease and has the attendant opposite action of “slipping out of”, also indicating how effortless it is if one is inclined to free oneself from the confines of the slipper. Clothes-wise, would we then need to some day also slip into the equivalent of the flip-flop once we arrived at our office cubicle?

Despite the near-nudity flip-flops afford the feet of the wearer, there is the habit of wanting a visible separation from them: Feet and slippers not enjoying close proximity. Sometimes, flip-flops encourage the whole leg to join the rest of the body on the chair. The need to extricate one’s foot—or feet—from the strap-retainers of the flip-flop as soon as one is seated (or even standing) is not easy to fathom. Wearing them is akin to having on the thong bikini bottom: You are already wearing close-to-nothing. So scant are flip-flops that it is tempting to compare them to underpants. The Australians, in fact, call them thongs! But underpants have to go under something. The flip-flop is free of such a commitment.

Flip-flops & work wear P8Flip-flops love company: they move in groups

Slippers have changed how we walk and sit—we drag our feet, rather than walk, and we loll, rather than sit, often times with legs splayed, or placed anywhere, but on the ground. How we conduct ourselves—in flip-flops everything is approached casually, with a chin-chai attitude. How we do not mind how others see us—too lazy to bother with shoes, simply sloppy, lacking in taste: doesn’t matter.

We are so used to flip-flopping that even when we wear sneakers, we shuffle, as if any effort in lifting one foot off the ground would result in some unimaginable injury to the ankle. So prevalent is this loose stride of hauling ourselves from point A to B and back again that even girls in high heels scrape their feet forward. The Chinese term for flip-flops perfectly describes their function: 拖鞋 (tuo xie) or ‘dragging shoes’. Women, mindful of deportment and feminine steps, complain of how the young these days cannot walk elegantly since most place their foot forward after the other in such a way that the feet placement mimics the vertical flip of the Chinese numeral for 8 (or 八).

It could also be the herd mentality at work. Everyone wears slippers; so we should. This is a Singaporean thing, we hear defenders of the flip-flop say. Deal with it. This is our destiny. Just as with chope, you can’t argue against it. This is who we are. We don’t care if we’re in a bus or in a plane, by Rochor Canal or in the middle of Gardens by the Bay, eating bak kut teh or bouillabaisse, we just want to be comfortable in our battered slippers. We don’t give a damn.

Shoes and slippers“One (pair) of things things is not like the others. One (pair) of these things just doesn’t belong”. Photo: source

Inappropriate habiliments, as with inappropriate behaviour, is rife, and a modern reality and, as we’re told, to be regarded as normal. This normal came to full public view last week when a photograph of no particular artistic value circulated online, and eventually received cracking coverage on The Online Citizen. At first look, nothing stood out. Just four guys, seated in a row on stage, participating in what could be presumed to be a forum. Then we noticed, just as they teach on Sesame Street, that “one of these things just doesn’t belong”.

In the centre of the lower-half of the photograph—shot by a non-photographer, a pale foot, underscored by a pair of black flip-flops, drew the eye. This popped up alongside other feet shod in what appeared to be business shoes. The offensive foot would not have been so or garnered attention if not for the fact that it belongs to Li Hongyi, the second son of our PM. Social media, as expected, saw either fierce disdain or hearty approval. To be sure, it was more of the former.

In Thailand, the wearing of flip-flops on occasions that require attendees to be held in due esteem is not only frowned upon, but totally avoided. Seated cross-legged with foot, covered or not, pointed at anyone is considered extremely rude. And open toes directed at any statue or image of Buddha is total sacrilege. But, here on the Little Red Dot, Mr Li, and so many others before him, showed that we really don’t care about such things. But you already knew that.

*We could be wrong about this. It is possible that the slippers are from a different brand

Photos (except indicated): Chin Boh Kay