When is a flip-flop not a flip-flop? When it has a heel? When it costs as much as a strappy sandal?
Do shiny embellishments make common beachwear suitable for a visit to the home of the Leader of the Free World?
Apparently, yes. Or at least that's what the women of the Northwestern University lacrosse team asserted when harangued about the flip-flops they wore in a photo-op with President Bush last week.
Even though many of the women's shoes were decorated with jewels or rhinestones, the picture of the smiling players - in skirts, sundresses and flip-flops, next to a suited-up Bush - caused quite a stir.
Newspapers ran articles critical of the women's casual attire. At least one, the Chicago Tribune, considered the fashion faux pas a front-page story. The team - fresh off an NCAA championship-winning high - even were lambasted by friends and family members and all sorts of indignant, letter-writing keepers of proper etiquette.
The increasingly ubiquitous flip-flop had crossed yet another threshold: the White House. Once seen largely on the beach or in the locker room, this most casual of footwear styles now turns up in the office, at church and other more formal settings. It was perhaps inevitable, some say, as people have grown more comfortable with fashionable exposure: Bare arms and bare legs, for example, have long lost their shock-value in many workplaces.
"People have gotten more used to seeing a whole foot, toes, a little more skin," says Wendy Wolther, designer of Sugar Shoes, which sells a number of flip-flops in various styles. "It used to be older women used to want a little more foot coverage. But in the heat, people really go for the barest shoe possible, and that is the thong."
But how did this happen? How did a tatty old beach shoe become a "thong" - acceptable-everywhere gear?
It happened the same way jeans moved from coal-miner's clothing to high-end fashion staples. And why bare legs are no longer a clutch-the-pearls scandal.
At one point in time, a flip-flop, thong or any kind of open-toed shoe would never have been acceptable in the workplace, for instance. But just take a look around your own office. Bare toes (hopefully, polished ones) abound.
"Fortunately or unfortunately, we have let the genie out of the bottle," says Ellen Goldstein, chairwoman of the accessories design department at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology and a member of the pantyhose-for-life club. "And we've basically grown accustomed to this kind of lack of adornment. Is it appropriate? Probably not. But us baby boomers can't criticize anything like this, because if you go back to what we were wearing in the '60s and '70s, that was considered scantily clad when we wore miniskirts and hot pants and halter tops."
"It's one of the standard ways that clothing evolves, from less formal to more formal," says Melissa Leventon, a shoe expert and founding partner and principal of Curatrix Group, San Francisco-based museum consultants and appraisers specializing in costumes and textiles. "Flip-flops started out as beachwear, casual wear, something reasonably priced that could give you protection from the sand and the rocks and could be slipped on and off pretty easily. And then they got pretty decorative. And then people started to push the envelope and started wearing them to all sorts of occasions."
But not without controversy, as the Northwestern team's flip-flop flap has revealed.
"If you're getting dressed up for a formal affair, if you're going on a job interview, if you're meeting the president at the White House," Goldstein says, "a normal, everyday person should think twice about wearing flip-flops. It's really inappropriate."
The fact that the girls are a sports team, and not a group from, say, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, does blur the lines a little, Goldstein says.
"It could have been seen as a uniform," she offered.
Still, if the girls' photo-op "uniform" had been sandals instead of flip-flops, we'd barely have heard a word about their fashion choices. Goldstein says that's because the informal nature of the flip-flop makes it less appropriate for many indoor activities, such as working in a business office - or meeting the president.
"The flip-flop is really considered an `athleisure' shoe, a combination of athletic and leisure. And that's what it is," Goldstein says. "It's comfort, it's laid-back. It's that `I don't really care whether I'm going to the beach or stepping into McDonald's.' Whereas a sandal is more of a substantial shoe."
For their part, the lacrosse team members from the Evanston, Ill., school find the fray a little silly.
"The event seemed pretty casual. Most of the time was spent on the White House lawn," says Aly Josephs, 20, of Reisterstown, one of the lacrosse team members who chose the informal footwear last week. "I really didn't think twice about it. None of the other girls did either. I just slipped on nice ones - they were brown, suede, with rhinestones. ... No one was wearing beach flip-flops."