Flip-Flops in the Office: Tragedy or Triumph?

February 25th, 2011

President Obama caused a flap early this year when he became the first U.S. president ever photographed in flip-flops—he was on vacation in Hawaii. This threw fuel on the footwear flame war of the decade: When is it acceptable to wear flip-flops? Fashion experts Clinton Kelly, Stacy London, and Tim Gunn have expressed disdain for the cheap, rubber thong sandal that’s made its way into office casual attire. We asked author and shoe expert Elizabeth Semmelhack, the Senior Curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, to weigh in on the debate (see her interview last year about high heels), and to tell us about the flip-flops the Dalai Lama gifted the museum.

Wide Hausa thong sandals from West Africa are dyed with natural pigments. This pair is circa 1965.

Wide Hausa thong sandals from West Africa are dyed with natural pigments. This pair is circa 1965.

When were flip-flops—or really, thong sandals—first worn? That’s the million-dollar question. The idea of a flat sandal with a thong that goes between the big toe and the second toe and then stretches across the foot on either side—I can’t think of a more elegant way of putting it—certainly dates back as far as ancient Egyptian times.

At the Bata Shoe Museum we have examples that date to the New Kingdom (16th to 11th century B.C.E.). These ancient thong sandals were clearly simple yet effective forms of footwear.

However, the flip-flop that we wear today doesn’t find its roots in ancient Egypt. Instead it has its origins in Japan, where a similar type of footwear called the zori inspired the flip-flop as we know it.

At first flip-flops were so linked to children, that for a man to wear them, it would be as if he showed up in shortie shorts.

The flip-flop is probably not even the first form of footwear ever invented. I don’t believe that there a single progression toward what we would call a shoe today. It’s not as though the thong sandal was the most rudimentary form of footwear, and finally, someone invented something more complex.

The recent Armenian shoe discovery that dates back 5,500 years ago, is more of a moccasin in construction and shows that, really, people who needed to put something on their feet based their footwear designs on what would answer their environmental and social needs. The thong sandal isn’t necessarily more simplistic or more “primitive.” In many parts of the world, all some people need to be comfortably shod is a pair of thong sandals. It’s just one of myriad examples of footwear solutions that people invented very early on.

Collectors Weekly: How did the zori become the modern flip-flop?

Semmelhack: The basic vegetable-fiber zori was a part of traditional dress in Japan for centuries. In fact, it still is an important part of formal dress for Japanese men in particular.

A late-19th century pair of Japanese zori, with velvet straps and double rice-straw soles.

A late-19th century pair of Japanese zori, with velvet straps and double rice-straw soles.

Women also wear zori with traditional dress, but theirs tend to be more decorative and most women’s zori feature soles with multiple layers.

How the zori came to inspire the flip-flop appears to date to World War II, when there was obviously a lot of interaction between East and West. Western soldiers would have been exposed to Japanese zori and some may have brought examples home. In addition, there are stories suggesting that Japanese soldiers, out of necessity, made zori out of old tires.

You certainly see this happening throughout contemporary Africa, where flip-flop-like shoes are being made from old tires. These rubber zori may have inspired the idea for the flip-flop, but this is where I’m still doing some research. The reason why I’m questioning this is that the Japanese production of rubber footwear was already well established prior to World War II, so the availability of mass-produced rubber zori may actually predate this story. Meaning, that rather than innovating the flip-flop, the West may simply have adopted it.

Simple rice-straw zori are suitable for everyday wear.

Simple rice-straw zori are suitable for everyday wear.

One of the most compelling stories concerning the Western flip-flop is that of John Cowie, the man considered to be the inventor of the “jandal,” which is the term for flip-flop in New Zealand and Australia. Supposedly during the 1940s, he decided to mass-produce rubber zori which he called “jandals,” short for “Japanese sandals.” These jandals were quickly embraced by beach culture in those countries in the postwar era. Before long, jandals or flip-flops could be found on the feet of surfers on the West Coast of the United States.

A challenge to this story of flip-flops entering United States dress via surfing culture, however, is the immediate postwar marketing of “foam zori,” as they were called, to American housewives. These zori were positioned to woman as something to be worn with a housecoat while puttering around the house. If one simply looks at ads from the period, it could be argued that the flip-flop moved from the house to the beach.

Collectors Weekly: Do you know how the name flip-flop came about?

A trio of leather sandals from the Coptic period, Egypt.

A trio of leather sandals from the Coptic period, Egypt.

Semmelhack: I think it’s an onomatopoeia, simply based on the sound that they make when worn. That’s actually one thing that I’m trying to determine right now, because when they first come into dress in the States, they are called zori. They’re not called flip-flops. They don’t get called flip-flops until the 1960s.

It doesn’t appear that the term flip-flop was ever really branded; it’s not like there was one producer who made the flip-flop. So, in answer to your question, I think the name came from that flapping noise that they make when worn. The next thing you know, that’s what everyone’s calling them.

Collectors Weekly: So when exactly did flip-flops move to the beach?

Semmelhack: I would say in second half of the 1950s. But the popularity of the flip-flop also has to do with the emergence of youth culture. We know that flip-flops have managed to worm their way into our society as something that many people wear all the time. Flip-flops were associated with beachwear, but they were something that kids were wearing when running around the house or playing outside.

The Dalai Lama wears flip-flops everywhere, even when meeting with heads of state.

The Dalai Lama wears flip-flops everywhere, even when meeting with heads of state.

Like the sneaker, the flip-flop became a type of footwear associated with youth culture in the ’60s and ’70s. If you look at the trajectory of the flip-flop, in the late ’50s and early ’60s, you have surfers wearing them as well as women and children. By the ’70s, they are a ubiquitous form of summer footwear with clear associations to youthfulness and leisure.

It is interesting that President Obama received some criticism recently for wearing flip-flops while on vacation. Obama is the first president to ever be photographed wearing flip-flops, and some deemed this look to lack presidential panache. However, he wasn’t at the Oval Office wearing flip-flops. It is clear that even though we see flip-flops in the city all summer long, they still connote a sense of leisure and youth culture. I wonder if President Bush ever wore flip-flops on vacation.

Collectors Weekly: Does this go back to the sense that it was once gauche to wear flip-flops outside of the house?

Semmelhack: Yes. A lot of sandals, in fact, were so linked to children and play, that for someone like an adult man to wear those things would be as if he showed up in shortie shorts, or something equally juvenile. There’s a kind of youthful sense to this footwear that’s also related to expressions of social standing. So it’s interesting that increasing numbers of men are very, very comfortable wearing their flip-flops.

Collectors Weekly: What is your take on the debate about whether men should wear flip-flops to work with their khakis and button-down shirts?

Semmelhack: I may be the wrong person to ask because I’m always looking at footwear. Certainly, at least where I live in Canada, we keep our feet under wraps most of the year. There’s a shocking amount of reveal that can happen over the summer months that can’t be ignored when someone dons a pair of flip-flops. But having said that, they work well, they are an efficient form of footwear.

There’s something exceptionally democratic about the flip-flop.

Clearly, since this design has been around since the times of ancient Egypt, structurally flip-flops are a durable design. They’re a form of footwear that has stood the test of time, let’s say. I can’t criticize anybody for running around in a pair, but what you put on your body makes a visual statement that another person is meant to take in instantly and determine something about you. Flip-flops still, I would argue, very loudly proclaim casualness. If that’s the statement you want to make, fine, but just be aware, or beware, of the statement you’re making.

Collectors Weekly: So is it okay for women to wear flip-flops at work?

Semmelhack: I remember in around 2001 or 2002, I was giving an interview at a press conference for a traveling exhibition. I saw a woman reporter who was in a suit and flip-flops. I was intrigued that she bothered to come to the press conference dressed in a suit but hadn’t changed her footwear. She was willing to be dressed in a traditional symbol of authority in every way, with the exception of her feet. I don’t know if it was a small expression of rebellion or youthfulness or what it was, but it was a contrast to the rest of her outfit, for sure.

But even if you’re wearing a pair of $10 flip-flops, you’re not looking your best if you don’t have your $30 pedicure. So there’s a constant demand for upkeep that keeps the money flowing. Increasingly, men are feeling that pedicure pressure, too. I don’t think as many are bowing down to it, but some are.

Collectors Weekly: Is there such as thing dressy flip-flops, like the ones with flowers or bows on them?

Semmelhack: There’s the opportunity with all the different colors these days to be matchy-matchy. There are myriad different ways for you to augment your outfit with your flip-flops. I don’t think you could find a less expensive form of footwear.

These velvet-covered betrothal sandals are a special gift a man gives to a woman at the time of their engagement. The two-layered sole is symbolic of their union.

These velvet-covered betrothal sandals are a special gift a man gives to a woman at the time of their engagement. The two-layered sole is symbolic of their union.

Men’s flip-flops, however, tend to be slightly more rugged and more heavy-duty, their work-shoe version, whereas women’s tend to remain playful.

Decorative flip-flops are relatively recent. Flip-flops were originally very standard in form, with the only difference being the colors that were available. That was one of the benefits of the cheap materials that they were made out of; they could be made in very cheerful colors. But you didn’t have the addition of flowers on the thong strap or heels being added until the late ’90s and early 2000s. I think that’s part of the transition of the flip-flop into something that can be worn away from vacation time.

The structure of the flip-flop has remained pretty standard. It is so functional that the only thing people have really done to the basic flip-flop is ornament them. They’ve either added some color to the foot bed—or words or design—or they’ve done something by embellishing the straps. Many have tarted up the flip-flop, but no one’s profoundly altered it. The only true alteration was the added, integral heel that was in fashion for a very short period of time. This was the only structural change, really, that anyone’s made. It’s a good thing, so why would people change it?

Collectors Weekly: When did it become more acceptable to wear flip-flops outside of the home or during the week?

Semmelhack: Sigerson Morrison made expensive heeled flip-flops at the end of the ’90s. When they made it, it created a buzz because they were also charging quite a bit for those flip-flops. They were not your average $10 flip-flop. I think they cost more than a hundred bucks when they were first offered.

A pair of Bata flip-flops, given to the Bata Shoe Museum by their wearer, the Dalai Lama.

A pair of Bata flip-flops, given to the Bata Shoe Museum by their wearer, the Dalai Lama.

The acceptability of the flip-flop is related to the hypersexualization of women’s dress. That’s why my research has been focused on the high heel. The introduction of the sandal—not the flip-flop but the toe-exposing sandal—in the 1930s, was part of a greater trend towards the “nudification,” for lack of a better term, of the female body. I feel that there has been a marked progression toward increased exposure of the female body.

What I find intriguing now is that men have begun to follow suit—perhaps not the best term here. Men are now falling in line with this increased exposure, and it could be argued this increased exposure is starting at their feet. With that increased exposure is concern about male pedicures and all kinds of grooming of the male body. I do see this as part of this larger continuum toward hypersexualization in dress. But if this exposure of the body is related to hyersexualization, I think the question—are flip-flops sexy—also needs to be asked, and I think the answer is no.

Consider the Sigerson Morrison high-heeled flip-flop. At the end of the ’90s, we certainly saw a lot of high-heeled sandal-like evening shoes for women that exuded erotic appeal. And yet, somehow, that exact same structure, the heeled flip-flop structure wrought in inexpensive plastic, wasn’t. I think that the materials used to make flip-flops, their garish colors and their consistent association with play, has kept the flip-flop from really becoming sexy. On the cover of “Playboy,” you will see women in high heeled thronged sandals, but you don’t see them wearing a pair of flip-flops.

Collectors Weekly: The other craze of the past decade has been for Crocs.

Semmelhack: Yes, but I don’t think they were worn to augment sex appeal. Crocs were embraced so quickly, they came to rival the flip-flops. People wore them in the same way that they wore flip-flops—casual dress, throw them on, run around, do your stuff. They established that you’re part of the trend, the fad, but they weren’t integrated into the more serious wardrobe.

In 2010, Buddy Valastro, TV's "Cake Boss," baked and frosted a cake in the shape of a Vineyard Vines flip-flop.

In 2010, Buddy Valastro, TV’s “Cake Boss,” baked and frosted a cake in the shape of a Vineyard Vines flip-flop.

I don’t know how many Crocs were worn to work. They certainly were worn to work in hospitals and places like that, where they had some kind of functionality. Very quickly Crocs did attempt to morph into multiple different types of Crocs as you mentioned—Mary Janes, high-heeled—but it didn’t stick at all.

The flip-flop is similar. It doesn’t have the exact same trajectory, but I think that it doesn’t need any structural change. The original Croc was successful because it was comfortable, and the flip-flop’s the same way. It doesn’t need to be morphed into, say, the Brogue flip-flop for the businessman.

Collectors Weekly: Are the formal, fiber thong sandals in Japan woven?

Semmelhack: Yes. There’s a bunch of different ways of making them, but yes, they’re woven together. Sometimes the plaiting—it’s not really weaving—is exceptionally fine, just gorgeous, gorgeous pieces.

There are versions of this footwear in many different cultures, but I wouldn’t call those versions flip-flops because flip-flops connote really cheap, bright-colored sandals. These thong sandals can be quite sophisticated.

In the 1990s, Sigerson Morrison created a stir when it added a kitten heel to a pair of flip-flops.

In the 1990s, Sigerson Morrison created a stir when it added a kitten heel to a pair of flip-flops.

In India or in Africa, the Akan people wear some shoes that are structurally similar. For the Asantehenes, who are the regional rulers, their sandals often feature very wide straps, sometimes covered with expensive textiles. Most often, however, they’re leather and they’re covered with gold foil or gold-leafed covered wooden-carved symbols. They can be really elaborate, and they’re absolutely beautiful.

Among the Tuareg and the Hausa, there’s again this basic sandal structure created, although the foot bed is much wider—this is because they’re often walking on sand. The shoe is designed to facilitate movement across a sandy surface that gives. They can be incredibly beautifully decorated with leather work and pigmentation.

Collectors Weekly: What about the flip-flop’s impact on your feet?

Semmelhack: Well, they’re great to wear in the gym shower, but in terms of daily wear, I am sure you will not find a podiatrist who will advocate them. But the history of footwear pretty much shows that people aren’t that interested in having footwear that is absolutely perfect for their stance and their mobility. Footwear is more often about looking good. Comfort and actually helping with gait and mobility is infrequently the focus of footwear.

Collectors Weekly: What does the flip-flop craze say about our culture?

Semmelhack: There’s something exceptionally democratic about the flip-flop. You can buy a pair for a dollar. It is also a very unisex form of footwear. We’ve discussed gender differences in some flip-flop structures, but you can still go to Old Navy and everybody in the family can buy the exact same blue flip-flop. And you could walk out of the store with footwear for everybody for under—I don’t know—25 bucks.

This circa-1930 example from Ghana was worn by the Asantehene of Kumasi and features soles in the shape of human figures and gold-leafed ornaments.

This circa-1930 example from Ghana was worn by the Asantehene of Kumasi and features soles in the shape of human figures and gold-leafed ornaments.

Versions of those same blue flip-flops are also worn around the world. In Europe and India, China and Mexico, people are running around in the exact same flip-flops that you and I are wearing to the beach. Again, that’s hugely democratizing. I can’t think of another moment in time when so many people around the world were wearing the exact same type of footwear.

Even sneakers, which I would argue are a close competitor in terms of democratized fashion, can’t match the ubiquity of the flip-flop because there’s still a huge difference in the types of sneakers that are available and worn. The humble flip-flop, however, is pretty much standard around the world.

Collectors Weekly: Even the Dalai Lama wears them, right?

Semmelhack: Yes, and believe it or not, the pair that the Dalai Lama recently donated to the museum were Bata flip-flops. The focus of our collection is not Bata footwear, but the Bata company does makes many, many flip-flops, so it makes sense that he would own a pair.

Collectors Weekly: Will rubber flip-flops ever become collectible?

Semmelhack: They could, potentially, but at this moment, like I’ve said, there still isn’t the same kind of brand identity as there is with sneakers. “I’m wearing my Nike flip-flops.” “I’m wearing my Adidas flip-flops.” “I’m wearing my Prada flip-flops.” We still aren’t at that point with flip-flops. We’re just wearing our flip-flops. In order to make them collectible, maybe flip-flops need to cease being so democratic.

(Photos from the Bata Shoe Museum. Cake Boss photo from Cake Walk. Sigerson Morrison from Texasdna)

14 comments so far

  1. Marianne Dow Says:

    Loved this piece! For some reason it is a fascinating topic. I am wearing flip flops now, and they are my footwear of choice. After a career of waitressing, my feet love being free. And yes, the price is right.

    The only time I was sent to the principal’s office in high school, was for a dress code infraction. This was 1971, so, yes, we had ridiculous rules still. I wore my lovely velvet “Jap Flaps” (an deservedly un-P.C. term today), and was made to change into my P.E. sneakers. A silly rule, and I was trying to be a rebel and get the rule changed.

    Well, the times have certainly changed. But those good old cheap rubber flip flops are still around.

  2. zzz Says:

    Flip-flops are only known as jandals in New Zealand – in Australia, they’re called thongs.

  3. unclelooney Says:

    In 1960’s Iowa/Illinois they were called thongs.

  4. Erika Says:

    “but at this moment, like I’ve said, there still isn’t the same kind of brand identity as there is with sneakers”
    Maybe people don’t identify with brands like Nike or Prada for their flip flops, but I would say “I am wearing my Reefs” and I think many people in my area (Austin, TX) would recognize that I meant a specific (higher quality) brand of flip flops.

  5. Megan Says:

    To argue against the lack of branding idea, Rainbows are definitely a symbol of higher quality flip flops.

  6. Danielle Says:

    After reading Erika’s post, I agree. I grew up in the beach part of NC right on the ocean and we had popular leather flip flops called Rainbows. Any flip flops were fine, but Rainbows were the top most popular. They looked quite plain, but they still had a very distinct look to them. One could look across the room and know off the bat if the brown flip flops were rainbows or not. I wonder if this is a beach thing…or what?

  7. Julie Says:

    From the time I moved to FL in the 70s I have worn some form of leather sandle or thong. Cheap rubber flip flops hurt the area between my toes. In the early 90s while visiting Key West, I discovered REEFS… YAY You can find them in most beach shops along FL’s East coast and in all FL college towns. Part leather part rubber, best flip flop ever.

  8. Marcobabe Says:

    Anyone who loves flip flops should know about SwitchFlops. I love mine! I have dozens of different colors and styles of straps that can be attached to the same shoe at a moment’s notice. An ambitious and innovative young woman invented them and had a patent before she graduated from high school. As Lindsay says, “change your look, not your sole.”
    Check this out:

  9. Richard Says:

    To me the wearing of flip-flops, (shower shoes to me) in public is rather gauche. Although I like the general movement to a less formal attire in recent decades, it seems a line has been crossed. Even in church you see shower shoes, halter tops, short shorts. Our local paper recently showed a teacher in the classroom wearing shower shoes, and generated several negative comments. “Trailer trash” comes to mind.

  10. Tia Serena Says:

    How can an article about flip-flops not even mention Havaianas, the brazilian sandals that took the world by storm in the late 90s and was the major contributor to the acceptance of these sandals in fashion circles. Havainas have been to the red carpet, to the World Cup, decorated with Svarovsky Crystals and even H. Stern diamonds, Gaultier’s fashion shows. Models like Naomi Campbell and Giselle Buchner wore theirs to social function and made them acceptable – actually a veritable craze from Australia to Europe.
    I guess that just like American stylists reject the flip-flops, so does the article.
    If you want to read a very in depth article about these desirable sandals in Australia, the Sydney Herald has this great article:

  11. Karen Says:

    Rubber thongs were “drug store” shoes in the 60’s. Then came the Zori in the mid seventies – yes, we called them Jap Flaps, too. They had a grass type woven foot bed and faux velvet straps. Those were quickly replaced by “Beachcomber Bills. The first true “flip flop” with three colors layered in the sole. Guys wore them first at my high school, girls jumped onto the trend right after. As for collecting flip flops, sadly, my husband would have first hand knowledge that they are very collectible. I must have 30 pairs. P.S. Don’t wear flip flops to the office. It presents too casual an attitude to your bosses.

  12. Leonard Afesi Says:

    Am an artist who uses the flip flop in talking about issues and currently am working on it. In Ghana flip flop was in called” chale wote”which means chale (friend) let’s go. So the theme on work is -“migration to traces “.

  13. Antryg Windrose Says:

    I seem to recall drugstore flip-flops around L.A. circa 1960 at 59 cents. Cheapest rubber in black and pink. Not real comfy on my big feet but better than barefooting on lava-hot surfaces.

  14. Kai Says:

    Awesome article! Actually, it could be argued that slippahs (what we call flipflops in Hawaii) came to the US from Hawaii, as surfing itself did. During the sugarcane plantation days of the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, the owners of the plantations needed cheap footwear for the labor that came in from all over Asian and Portugal. They noticed the Japanese had the Zori and slippahs were mass produced for it was cheap to do so. When Duke Kahanamoku made surfing mainstream across the U.S. mainland, slippahs came with the image and was embraced by what became of the mainland surf culture.

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