Flipped out

Editorial Notebook

July 23, 2005|By Karen Hosler

IF OPPRESSIVELY HOT and muggy weather wasn't clue enough, there was a sure sign of summer this week in the news out of Washington.

Call it the Sandal Scandal - a flap that arose after a White House photograph of Northwestern University's national championship women's lacrosse team revealed four of the athletes posed next to President Bush were wearing flip-flops.

Relatives of the students were aghast when they saw the pictures posted on the Internet. They feared the footwear might be interpreted as a sign of disrespect to perhaps the most formal venue in the nation. Etiquette arbiters dutifully cluck-clucked in disapproval.

But such critics missed the point. The student athletes didn't dress down for their White House appearance by wearing flip-flops. Rather, the humble beach sandal has arrived in fashion's mainstream.

The flat little pads with a thong between the toes have burst well out of the confines of boardwalks and boat docks to become what footwear expert Meghan Cleary called "the ubiquitous shoe."

Americans spent nearly $190 million on flip-flops last year, reflecting a red hot trend fostered by eager manufacturers who charge up to $300 per pair. Flip-flops come with sequins and rhinestones for evening wear, in denim or leather for rugged casual, and in all imaginable colors and patterns. Some have thick, molded soles for better support; others come with tiny heels or wedges.

And these sassy little shoes aren't just for the young women who are their most avid fans. Men constitute the fastest growing flip-flop market, boosting their purchases of the thong-style footwear last year by 65 percent.

From gritty Manhattan streets to the church aisle at weddings, few places are flip-flop-free. They go to school, they go to work, they go out to dinner. Reaching the White House was only a matter of time.

The trend toward flimsy footwear is a mixed blessing for comfort. Open-air shoes are liberating when the weather is sticky hot. But the American Podiatric Medical Association warns against spending much time in backless shoes with little support in the sole. Adding a heel that pitches the body forward is begging for trouble.

Baltimore podiatrist Craig Friedman blames flip-flops for a rash of foot injuries he's seeing, from mashed toes to sunburn, and the spills that result when people try to play volleyball or basketball in them.

Controversy over flip-flops stems not so much from orthopedic concerns, though, as from outmoded notions of how and where the bare foot should be revealed.

Not every foot belongs on public display, of course, as a matter of aesthetics. Men, in particular, are not always as careful about nail care as a viewer would hope, and they typically don't use polish to hide the flaws.

But there is little practical difference between the one-strap flip-flops the Northwestern students were wearing in the White House photo and the multi-strap, open-toed sandals worn by other team members deemed appropriately attired.

And why are mules, which cover the toes but leave the ankle and heel exposed, acceptable for formal wear when thongs are not? Perhaps because mules allow for hose - another arbitrary requirement for formality. More likely is that flip-flops simply haven't yet entirely escaped their past as shower shoes.

Are flip-flops appropriate for a State Dinner? No, but that's mostly because there might be dancing after dinner, and the dance floor is one place the flip-flop definitely does not belong.

Especially with global warming upon us, it's time for flip-flop prejudice to be stamped out.

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