Birkenstocks, Tevas; Uggs and flatforms; clogs and Crocs: Our current obsession with the Birkenstock shoes may feel so sudden, so now—but, in fact, has some deep throwback and seriously fashionable roots. It’s all part and parcel of the continuing wave of ’90s nostalgia that has us tightly in its grips. We’re especially feeling the decade’s slacker mood now that summer has arrived along with predictions that temperatures will be broiling, and one of the best ways to communicate that vibe is with footwear—pairing a grunge-inspired slip, say, with a pair of Birks (even in the office, even at Vogue), or wide-legged denim with a clog.
It should be noted that there is a distinction between the modish and the non-fashion pretty/ugly shoe. (Maybe the latter is better called jolie laide.) And no matter how you want to describe it, its indisputable godmother is Miuccia Prada. For Spring 1996 the Milanese designer presented a collection that featured a jarring palette seemingly taken from a ’70s appliance-maker, faux-naive prints, and chunky, clunky Birkenstock Sandals. She titled it “Banal Eccentricity.” Prada’s postmodern take on fashion is often prophetic, and it gets straight to the heart of what makes our hearts yearn for footwear that has no logical appeal. Because these shoes are out of context, of taste, or intended use, that they appeal to wearers and designers like Narciso Rodriguez, who showed cashmere Birks (remember those?) for Fall 1998, and Celine’s Phoebe Philo, who upgraded the humble pool slide with fur for Spring 2013, a move that might have inspired Rihanna’s sold-out hirsute Fenty x Puma slip-ons.
Though all of the classic clunkers we most love predate the ’90s—the clog is ageless; Tevas date back to 1984 when a Grand Canyon river guide secured a pair of flip-flops to the feet with Velcro watchbands; the Adilette slide, in its current form, dropped in 1972; and Birkenstock outlet debuted its first sandal in 1964 (the thong style dates to 1982)—they came of age in the ’90s. Most people weren’t wearing fashion versions then, but were repurposing footwear intended for orthopedic use, locker rooms, and tackling the rugged outdoors, for urban casual wear. Wearers were expressing their individuality by messing with the message. And, as these shoes share a “granola” aesthetic, they also were expressive of an ironic, detached, “come as you are” attitude that thumbed the nose at convention, polish, and glamour. (Waifs were all the rage at that time too.)
It seems like there are as many designer as “non-fashion” pretty/ugly shoe options these days, though the price tags vary more than the silhouettes, adding a double dose of irony to a trend that shows no sign of slowing down.