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The oldest shoe design in the world?

Investigating the story behind the humble flip-flop.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © Sue Colvil | iStockphoto.com

It is almost a certainty that if you go to a tourist beach anywhere in the world, you will see ‘flip-flops’ being worn. Typically purchased for use as casual wear, this is perhaps the simplest of all footwear designs. It consists of a thin, flat sole held onto the foot by a V-shaped strap attached to a ‘toe thong’ or ‘toe post’, which passes between the first and second toes and around both sides of the foot. A close relative to the flip-flop features a reasonable hard sole with a strap across all the toes – popularly called ‘slides’ or ‘sliders’.

Flip-flops normally do not have a strap around the heel, although such styles are available. There are also flip-flops that have been designed as sportswear, with added support similar to that use in an athletic shoe.

Because of the simplicity of their design and the market they are aimed at, most modern flip-flops are inexpensive to purchase.

The term ‘flip-flop’ has been used in the USA and Britain since the 1960s to describe the toe post sandal. It is onomatopoeic of the sound made by the footwear when the wearer is walking. ‘Flip-flop’ is not an international name, however, as shown in the box ‘What’s in a name?’

What’s in a name?

The onomatopoeic nature of the name ‘flip-flop’ has not travelled around the world to accompany the footwear, as shown by the variety of names chosen in different countries, for example:

Australia – ‘Thongs’
Bahamas – ‘Slippers’
Brazil – ‘Chinelos’
Bulgaria – ‘Djapanki’
Croatia – ‘Japanke’
Ghana – ‘Charlie wote’
Italy – ‘Infradito’
Latvia – ‘Yezenes’
New Zealand – ‘Jandals’
Poland – ‘Japonki’
Russia and Ukraine – ‘Vietnamki’
Somalia – ‘Dacas’

An ancient design

Walters Art Museum

Soles for ancient Egyptian toe post sandals

The single-thong style of footwear has been worn by the people of many cultures around the world for many thousands of years. For example, the ancient Egyptian shoe soles shown in this article have been dated to between 1550 and 1307 BCE. Each consists of a single piece of cut leather, and a round hole has been punched into each sole for the attachment of a toe post between the first and second toes. In this particular sandal, straps to go around the back of the foot were included. Another pair of ancient Egyptian sandals on display in the British Museum was made from papyrus leaves and is thought to date back to 1500 BCE.

Those early Egyptians also used palm leaves when making sandals, and other others materials were utilised by other peoples. In China and Japan, the forerunners of flip-flops were made from rice straw, and sisal plant leaves were used to make twine for sandals in South America. In Africa, the Masai made use of rawhide, wood was the material of choice in India, and the natives of Mexico selected the yucca plant.

A thong between two toes

There was no consensus among ancient nations about where the toe post should be positioned. Greek sandals were made so that it fitted between the first and second toes, while Roman toe posts divided the second and third toes and the Mesopotamians wore sandals with the post positioned between the third and fourth toes.

Modern descendants

According to the Encyclopaedia of History of Japanese Manners and Customs, a flip-flop-type sandal called a ‘zori’ was worn during the Heian period (794-1185 BCE) by Japanese children when first learning to walk. Over the centuries, Japan developed several traditional sandals which became popular with adults, as they permitted the free circulation of air around the wearer’s feet, thus aiding comfort in the humid climate found in much of the country. Zori are also easily slipped on and off, which is important in a culture where shoes are constantly being removed and donned again.

Moyan Brenn

Men’s ‘zori’ sandals

While modern forms of flip-flop-type sandals are fairly common in Japan, especially in summer, the importance within Japanese culture of traditional toe post sandals can also be seen when this footwear is worn with traditional clothing. Sandals (called ‘geta’) which incorporate a wooden platform are now usually worn with the informal ‘yukata’ kimono, while zori are often the footwear of choice with the more formal kimono. Bulrush-covered zori that resemble tatami floor mats are not worn with a kimono. These are considered to be working wear or may be matched with casual Japanese or Western styles of clothing.

CocoSan | iStockphoto.com

There are a number of traditional toe post sandal styles still worn in Japan

The Japanese often wear their toe post sandals with a ‘tabi’ sock, which features a single slot for the strap. The importance within Japanese culture of wearing the correct footwear and accessory combination is sometimes utilised in the nation’s media, with some artists depicting a hero wearing tabi socks while the villain has no socks.

Neptuul

Japanese ‘tabi’ socks for use with toe post sandals

Following World War II, Japan managed to build a successful industry mass-producing this simple type of footwear, and this helped to rebuild the nation’s economy. American soldiers based in Japan after the war saw the benefits of these sandals and took them back to the USA. By the late 1950s, toe post sandals had become adopted into American popular culture. These were soon redesigned, with natural materials being replaced by the latest synthetic offerings. Manufacturers began to incorporate rubber soles and straps that could be made in the bright colours that were so popular in the US footwear industry at the end of the decade. Some even carried advertising.

Surfin’ USA

As in Japan, these sandals quickly became popular as a result of their convenience and comfort, and during the 1960s, flip-flops became firmly associated with the beach lifestyle. They were marketed as a simple and fun unisex accessory, being typically worn with shorts, bathing suits or summer dresses. As their popularity increased, some people even began to wear them for more formal occasions to accompany smarter apparel. During the seventies, the ‘hippie’ culture developed a major fashion, with its beads, flip-flops, flowers, sandals and tie-dye clothes.

In 1962, Brazilian footwear producer Alpargatas marketed a version of flip-flops known as ‘Havaianas’. By 2010, more than 150 million pairs of Havaianas were being manufactured each year. Not content to simply wear plain flip-flops, many teenage girls – and younger women – started to decorate their sandals with such embellishments as beads, chains, charms or rhinestones. Not slow to recognise a gap in the market when one appears, shoemakers soon began to produce flip-flops already decorated with an attracted array of trims.

The question of whether flip-flops were suitable for dignified occasions came to the fore in 2005 when members of a women’s university lacrosse team wore this style of footwear when visiting the White House in Washington DC. Some commentators declared that the sandal’s casual appearance which exposed so much of the wearer’s feet was both improper and disrespectful. Today, the wearing of flip-flops remains a contentious issue in some parts of the world regarding formal dress codes.

While flip-flops initially found a market in younger Western wearers, it is not unusual to see older people wearing these sandals in bright colours, particularly when they are made from leather or sophisticated synthetic materials. In 2011, while visiting his native Hawaii, Barack Obama became the first president of the USA to be photographed wearing a pair of flip-flops.

Material choice

Today, flip-flops are made from a variety of materials, such as foam, leather, plastic, rubber and suede. In response to some environmental concerns raised about the materials used (in common with many types of footwear), some shoemakers have started using hemp or recycled rubber sourced from old tyres. As part of their community social responsibility, a number of manufacturers now offer a recycling programme for worn-out products.

Gtipton | Dreamstime.com

Modern flip-flops come in a wide variety of styles and prices

Medical implications

Flip-flops undoubtedly provide the wearer with protection from hazards on the ground, such as hot sand, broken glass, and even viruses in changing rooms or public swimming pools. When worn for extended periods of time, simple flip-flops are said to possibly cause pain in the ankles, feet and legs. A 2009 study at a US university claimed that flip-flop wearers take shorter steps and that their heels hit the ground with less vertical force than if they were wearing sports shoes.

Some flip-flops are manufactured with a spongy sole, and researchers have claimed that this component can cause the wearer’s foot to roll further inward than normal when it hits the ground. This action (called ‘over-pronation’) is said to be responsible for many foot problems. Flip-flops are also claimed to cause a person to overuse the tendons in his or her feet, which may result in tendonitis. In addition, such shoes do not offer much underfoot grip. Nor are they contoured along the curves of the feet, and so provide little support.

Mainstream acceptance

The toe post sandal has been described as ‘the oldest type of shoe in history’. From common use by the people of ancient civilisations to humble footwear for lowly Japanese peasants, the modern flip-flop has evolved into a style for very diverse markets. While it largely remains an inexpensive and very casual product for the beach, it also may cost up to £18,000 (nearly £14,000) per pair, be jewel-encrusted and worn by people showing off their wealth. That is not bad for a design of shoe that basically remains the same as it was thousands of years ago. 

How can we help?

Please email SATRA’s footwear testing team (footwear@satra.com) for assistance with the design and production of flip-flops. You may also want to read the articles ‘Determining toe post position’ and ‘Key features of toe post sandals’.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 12 of the May 2019 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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