The last time a thong was glimpsed at the White House, it was clinging to the backside of Monica Lewinsky. But recently thongs of a different sort—the shoes more popularly known as flip-flops—appeared at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In a photograph of the Northwestern University women's lacrosse team taken with President Bush, four sets of flip-flops are plainly on display. The president, a lacrosse stick in each hand, appears characteristically unfazed. The girls smile tranquilly, unaware that their exposed toes are a scandal in the making.
Upon seeing the photo on the team's Web site, midfielder Kate Darmody's dismayed older brother shot off an e-mail: "YOU WORE FLIP-FLOPS TO THE WHITE HOUSE???!!!" The Chicago Tribune ran an article fretting about whether flip-flops were appropriate for formal occasions, quoting a team mother: "As somebody who is 52 years old it mortified me. I don't go out of the house without pantyhose on." The young women were forced to defend their faux pas. "I tried to think of something that would go well with my outfit and at the same time not be that uncomfortable," the 22-year-old Darmody said. "Nobody was wearing old beach flip-flops," noted her teammate, 20-year-old Aly Josephs, who had opted for a bejeweled brown pair. While the controversy obviously reveals a generation gap when it comes to views on casual dressing, it also raises the question: Why do we scorn the flip-flop?
It is often assumed that the flip-flop provokes us because it reveals too much flesh: toe cleavage, phallic protrusions—the foot's private parts. In truth, however, we aren't nearly so prudish. Mules and open-toed shoes, for example, both expose plenty of skin and fissures and are generally inoffensive. In the lacrosse team photo, the other front-row athletes wear strappy sandals that are at least as minimalist as their teammates' flip-flops. About these shoes there has not been a critical word.
If it's not the foot revealed by the flop-flop that bothers us, then it must be the flip-flop itself. Partly, I think, it's that the flip-flop seems altogether lazy—not only on the part of the wearer, who can't be bothered with buckles or laces, but on the part of the shoe. The flip-flop, essentially a flat piece of rubber or leather held on the foot by a thin strip (known to designers as a "toe plug") that fits between the first and second toes, seems too simple, crudely put together, lacking in underlying design. We'd like our shoes to be the product of more ambition. Our contempt for the flip-flop might also arise from the "toe plug," that undignified strip content to slum around precincts other sandals wouldn't be caught dead in. The trouble may not be that the flip-flop reveals the toes, but that it prefers the dark, dirty places between them.
Mostly, though, our problem with flip-flops is one of pedigree. While the style has been around for centuries—Cleopatra likely slipped her hennaed feet into some version of flip-flops—in the United States, the shoe's origins are shady. They were first favored by fringe groups: surfers and habitual beach-goers. (Mules and stilettos, by contrast, were originally worn by Hollywood starlets.) Most fashion historians agree that flip-flops first appeared in this country sometime around World War II, as rubber imitations of the wooden thongs, called zori, that had long been worn in Japan. Elizabeth Semmelhack, a curator for Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum, has stated that returning soldiers brought flip-flops back as souvenirs, while other scholars have argued that the rubber thongs were created during the war for use in submarines. Whatever the case, the flimsy sandals, dubbed "go-aheads" because it was nearly impossible to walk backward while wearing them, first caught on in California and Hawaii after the war, and then spread to beach communities in other parts of the country.
These were the cheap, poorly constructed flip-flops sold in large bins at the local grocery or discount store, made of shoddy rubber that could be smelled all the way down the aisle. These were the ever-breaking shoes Jimmy Buffet sang about in "Margaritaville"—"I blew out my flip-flop/ Stepped on a pop-top"—and for years, they remained the official footwear of the beach bum.Two forces brought them into the mainstream: The dot-com boom of the early '90s created "casual Fridays" and gave the slob-with-a-lot-of-leisure-time look a certain cachet; and the fashion world, ever fond of the ironic gesture, adopted the lowbrow shoes as a wry counterpoint to expensive clothing. By early 2003, flip-flops had completed their journey from subculture accessory to cultural staple. Designers like Helmut Lang, Burberry, and Manolo Blahnik offered various interpretations, and fashion writers crowed about the "Year of the Upmarket Flip-Flop." With women and men flip-flopping down filthy streets all over America, the trend shows no signs of abating.
In fact, it appears that the flip-flop's status is changing, perhaps because the young have no memory of its humble beginnings. Teenagers now wear flip-flops to prom under long sequined gowns. Celebrities prefer them to stilettos for walks down the red carpet. Fara Abramson, the self-proclaimed "Flip-Flop Guru" and co-owner of www.flipfloptrunkshow.com, says that many women get married in white flip-flops, as Sarah Michelle Gellar did. And perhaps the president didn't notice the girls' shoes—or lack of them—because his own daughter Jenna is an enthusiast; she wore a black pair with pink Capri pants to her court appearance in 2001. If this isn't enough to convince you that flip-flops are fast becoming part of our cultural uniform, consider that Old Navy, the McDonald's of clothiers, declared April 3, 2005, the "First Official Day of Flip-Flops," announcing sales of "more than 45 million pairs." (There are now so many flip-flops in the world that discarded rubber thongs wash up by the thousands on the shores of Australia's Cocos and Keeling Islands.)
Why have flip-flops caught on? Perhaps it's because they provide a certain visceral satisfaction. There's the catchy, onomatopoeic name. And the metronomic noise they make when you walk—pleasing, I suspect, because it confirms your existence with every step. But for most, flip-flops are about ease and comfort; they're easy to slip on and more comfortable to wear than shoes with some structure. And this is precisely why the recent instance of flip-floppery met with such objection, even as the shoes have become mainstream: You're not supposed to be at ease when you're meeting the president.