Updated: May 4
In 2011, President Obama caused a stir when he was photographed on vacation wearing a pair of flip-flops. According to presidential historians, this was the first time in recorded history that a U.S. President had been recorded wearing flip-flops, or even exposing their toes in public. This was clearly a landmark case in history, lending a level of discussion to the legitimacy of the shoe’s use in modern fashion.
Flip-flops trace their origins Ancient Egypt, with references to as early as 3100 B.C. They are believed to have been called “Thebet”, a reference to the sandal makers at Thebes. The average Egyptian generally walked barefoot until shoes were later adopted and they were woven from papyrus or palm leaves. By the time of the Middle Kingdom, they were considered the garb of royalty and officials, to the point where it was a sign of respect to remove one’s own shoes in the presence of authority.
From there, the shoes spread throughout the world, with references in the Bible and evidence of use in Ancient Rome. They’ve known by names such as: “thongs” in Australia; “slops” or “visplakkies” in South Africa; “japaki” in Poland; “chinelos” in Brazil; and as “zori” in Japan. U.S. soldiers stationed in Japan after WWII saw these zori, then a traditional garb, and brought the fashion to America. The term “flip-flop” came to represent the shoes in America in the 60’s due to the sound of walking in them.
Flip-flops represent a level of comfort in shoes perhaps only matched by crocs. They are easy to slip on or off and practically built for a long days on the beach or grass. They not only provide light protection from the ground, but make it a simple matter of sliding out one’s foot in order to enjoy the grass or sand beneath the feet.
This can be a double-edged sword, as this very same thin layer results in a lack of protection from most other types of ground. An area with rocky ground tends to provide an uncomfortable surface that can be felt through the thin soles of the shoes, and areas with particularly dirty or busy streets are absolutely terrible for the shoes’ durability. For instance, if one were to wear flip-flops in New York City, the odds are increased for toes to stepped on by tourists, for the shoe to slip in a puddle of what’s hopefully normal water, or for any number of nasty things to poke up from the ground.
These issues are exacerbated by links to foot pain from improper foot support but thankfully can be avoided through purchasing shoes with thicker soles, preferably made from leather and with better heel support. Dirtiness can also be mitigated through the method of wearing socks with flip-flops.
Fashion experts have had many debates about how fashionable flip-flops are. Some see them as a comfortable and relaxing shoe reflecting a similar personality. Others see them as lazy or ill-made, especially with the socks or while wearing jeans. One counter is the creation of “flip-flop socks”, or socks that conform to the toes and are specifically designed to be worn with flip-flops. They are so audacious as to loop back around to being a valid and daring self-expression.
More popular with fashionistas are thong heels, flip-flops with a heel designed to be a fashion statement while still being comfortable. Paying more attention to comfort is laudable, though prices can be ludicrous. $40 is not a bad price for such shoes, but $300 is ridiculous.
Flip-flops have endured for millennia and are not likely to disappear from the arsenal of comfort clothing. They are easy to wear and perfect for parks and beaches, though not without their drawbacks. For the best experience, they should be bought at a fair price in a design that uses proper materials and with plenty of heel support, perhaps with a pair of flip-flop socks or a heel to highlight the fashionable aspect of them. Anyone that wears them with jeans should be prepared for an onslaught of destruction by even the least fashion-forward among us, but otherwise, flip-flops are a quality shoe that should rest in everyone’s closet.