Flip-Flopping on Crocs

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Flip-Flopping on Crocs

Chicago Sun-Times, Jun 30, 2006

The moment for flip-flop outrage has passed. Perhaps it still seemed possible, last summer, to stem the tide of thwick-thwacking, near-naked feet invading offices and social events and White House photo opportunities. But, at a certain moment, the once-humble rubber thong crossed over into mainstream acceptability.

The flip-flop is, in fact, rather understated when compared to the latest craze in plastic footwear: the Croc.

Because, while it is entirely possible to overlook a pair of flip- flops, CROCS, most often worn in Palm Beach shades of pink, green and yellow, have a kind of in-your-face casual-ness.

Originally created as a lightweight, non-slip deck shoe for boaters, CROCS hit the market in fall 2002. Soon adopted by active, outdoorsy types (who’d seen their beloved Tevas snapped up by tourists and were desperately looking for a less conspicuously trendy replacement), the foamy cloglike CROCS later found their way to the hard-working feet of chefs, nurses and pregnant women everywhere.

Which is where they might have stayed. Because, Mario Batali notwithstanding, chefs, nurses and pregnant women don’t exactly form a holy trinity of fashion coolness.

Then kids started wearing them.

Not teenager kids. Actual small children.

And, somehow — unlike, say, aqua-socks or sneakers with light- up soles or other kiddie footwear trends of summers past — CROCS began to catch on with adults everywhere.

They are, of course, incredibly comfortable. Over time, they mold themselves to the shape of your foot, cushioning your arches in all the right places.

But they are ridiculously goofy looking. Not just juvenile, but actually ugly. And it’s an insistent kind of ugliness, like the ugliness of fuzzy bunny slippers, that dares you to stare at their wearer’s feet.

The sociology of shoes

There is probably some sort of sociological meaning that can be teased out of the Croc-wearing trend, the way grown-ups now find it charming to dress like their children, rather than vice-versa. And it probably says something about our self-obsessed culture, the way people have taken to CROCS, wearing them like campaign buttons that say, “Comfortable feet are my top priority in life.”

One could also, if one were so inclined, trace the evolution of office etiquette from the days when people wore dress shoes because it was expected of them, to the critical, Zeitgeist-changing moment when pragmatism, and a major transit strike, prompted them to start commuting in sneakers and changing into heels and oxfords once they arrived at their desks. It’s been a slippery slide since then, right past the shoe industry’s failed looks-like-a-pump-feels-like-a- sneaker campaigns, into a business casual world in which it seems hopelessly square to use a footwear choice to convey your professionalism.

But I’m not going to write about any of that. Because I’m really just interested what the Croc-wearers have done to make the world safe for flip-flops.

‘APPROPRIATE’ IS A RELATIVE THING

Last summer, people actually bothered to get upset when several members of Northwestern University’s national champion women’s lacrosse team wore flip-flops at their congratulatory White House reception. Even at the time, this struck me as kind of a funny thing to be outraged about. (Personally, I try to save my fits of righteous indignation for, um, violations of the Constitution and Geneva Convention. But that’s just me.)

A year later, though, when creators of expensive leather shoes are so consistently borrowing from the design elements of $5 plastic sandals that it’s hard to tell the difference between Old Navy flip- flops and the latest Italian imports, the idea that toe-baring thongs would be inappropriate for a big occasion seems laughable indeed.

At least, you have to say now, taking a second look at the photo of the Northwestern lacrosse players, posing with the President in their summer skirts and dresses, none of them is wearing a pair of bright orange CROCS.

And, yet, as soon as we draw the inappropriateness line at CROCS, some other trend will pop up to make them look positively subtle and refined.

This is, inevitably, a generational thing. At some (biologically determined and/or culturally influenced) age, our brains start to lock in certain ideas. We become less eager to try new foods, new music and new looks. “New” starts to morph into “strange.” And familiar becomes a synonym for right.

Last year, I immediately recognized this creeping fuddy-duddyism in the people who raised a fuss about college women wearing flip flops to the White House. So I had to wonder if my nose-wrinkling reaction to the CROCS trend was coming from the same “you kids today with your funny-looking shoes” sort of place.

Which is why I went to try on a pair of CROCS for myself. And why I can’t wait to get home to wear them. In private.

- Debra Pickett

Read Debra Pickett’s blog at blogs.suntimes.com

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