The only thing more ubiquitous than ugly sandals on the streets of cool and/or gentrified neighborhoods are stories about just how cool said ugly sandals are. They tend to sprout up every spring, as if orthopedic footwear-as-fashion-statement were a novel concept. But indeed, we’ve been doing this for a well over a generation.
In 1966, German-American designer Margot Fraser was on a spa trip back to Germany when she discovered Birkenstocks. Although the company had been around since 1774, it hadn’t made it to the States until Fraser began importing its wares to San Francisco, and even though shoe stores initially refused to sell them (because, well, they were ugly), she found luck at health food stores where hippies shopped. Thus, the dorky, boat-like orthopedic sandals were forever regarded as groovy and granola.
So when Phoebe Philo, in 2012, sent models down the Céline runway in her own fur-lined versions of Birkenstock Arizonas, it wasn’t the first time those particular ugly sandals had clopped their way into high fashion. As a 2015 New Yorker feature on the subject notes, Birkenstock’s association with the counterculture has ensured that they were “cyclically fashionable” ever since the ’60s — Kate Moss famously wore them in an influential magazine spread in 1990, while Marc Jacobs included them in his 1992 grunge collection for Perry Ellis.
Yet Birkenstocks weren’t even the first fashionable ugly shoe of the new millennium. Born, again, in Germany and known as “grandma shoes” for older European women, Worishofer sandals appeared in a 2006 issue of Lucky magazine, which called them “chic” and “ridiculously comfortable,” according to a 2010 Slate piece. The comfy-cutesy sandals were the perfect orthopedic shoe of the twee era, and that fall, WWD included them in a roundup of “senior-inspired fashion.” The next summer, they appeared on a Today show segment, where they were described as “actually very chic!”
It was also around this time, just after the height of Crocs mania, that New York magazine devoted a 2007 spread to the ugly shoe phenomenon, tracing its roots from the ’60s Birkenstock to Tevas in the ’90s and finally to the contemporaneous phenomenon of hipsters in Worishofers and Salt Water sandals.
But the next major revamp that Big Fashion gave the ugly sandal didn’t come until Céline’s “furkenstock” moment in 2012, which the New Yorker likened to Oppenheim’s gazelle fur-covered teacup (“witty, provocative, and slightly silly”). The original brand received a flurry of breathless coverage afterward, beginning with the staffers of the fashion bible itself: “Pretty Ugly: Why Vogue Staffers Have Fallen for the Birkenstock,” declared a July 2013 piece.
Predictably, they were ahead of an even larger style movement: Normcore, coined by New York magazine in February of the following year, glamorized the nondescript style of a Midwestern parent on vacation in the ’90s, which along with Birks also happened to include some of the ugliest sandals known to mankind: Tevas.
While ugly sandals would continue to permeate the mainstream in the years that followed — for instance, J. Crew collaborated with Birkenstock for an exclusive line in 2014, and it wasn’t long before you could buy Tevas at Urban Outfitters — high fashion’s obsession wasn’t slowing down. Marni, Chanel, Prada, Rick Owens, Miu Miu, and Marc Jacobs all showed their own takes on chunky, Tevas-like sandals at one point or another.
If anything, the sandals are only getting uglier. Rihanna’s Fenty Puma shoes for spring include flip-flop with enormous ankle bands, while Kanye West recently debuted his utterly featureless bright blue slides on Twitter, to the delight of everyone else on the website. This spring, Who What Wear also declared the toe ring sandal — y’know, the kind where your big toe is, for some reason, nestled inside its own leather prison — as the next major footwear trend.
So why, after all this time, does the ugly, clunky sandal persist? The answer may have nothing to do with fashion trends at all. Way back in 2008, a certain foam exercise sandal, called FitFlops, was one of Oprah’s Favorite Things, much to the chagrin of the New York Times’s T magazine. They were an “ungainly” fitness gimmick that claimed to sculpt the butt muscles simply by walking, but it wasn’t just the promise of a tighter ass that made them attractive to buyers.
“First off, they made the model’s feet look so dainty because the Flops themselves are gargantuan,” wrote Alex Kuczynski. “If you strapped two Styrofoam kickboards to your feet, your feet would look small.” Even the inventor of FitFlops, the entrepreneur Marcia Kilgore, admitted that this was part of the appeal. “My theory is: Big shoes and big handbags make everything nearby look smaller,” she said. “If you know what I mean.”
Perhaps this is part of why we keep returning to ungraceful sandals. Not only do they make the wearer look dainty by comparison — a goal of women’s fashion regardless of what happens to be on trend — but they also add an unstudied element. As one Vogue staffer in the 2013 piece put it, “There’s nothing better than a really pretty dress with an ugly shoe.” And of her new line of ultra-high foam platform flip flops, the celebrity stylist Elizabeth Saltzman said, “Today it’s all about pretty-slash-ugly.” But maybe that’s always been the case.