As so-called “ugly” shoes clomp down the runway, the era of classic elegance seems to be over. Or is it the very definition of beauty that’s up for debate?
Originally published in the November 2018 issue of Vogue Arabia
Few things kick off an office-wide conversation like when a pair of look-at-me shoes arrives in the fashion closet. Saint Laurent’s flamboyantly feathered stilettos, Prada’s fiery neon wedges, Balenciaga’s ostentatious pantashoes… They all leave us momentarily speechless, before they’re handed around reverentially to ooh and aah over.
When Christopher Kane sent gem-encrusted Crocs down his SS17 runway, Vogue offices around the world – this one included – reeled. Surely he was having a laugh. Wasn’t he…? Would women who know their Ann Demeulemeester from their Demna Gvasalia actually wear the slip-on foam rubber clog so beloved of people who think cruise ships are acceptable vacation locations? Yet the trend for so-called “ugly” footwear proliferated. A trend usually becomes entrenched in three stages: from the runway it moves to style influencers and fashion editorials and, eventually, it trickles down to its most commercial and accessible form: retail. By the time it hits the shops, we’re in love with it.
Perhaps it started with Birkenstocks, the treasured hippie sandal now ubiquitous in every influencer’s wardrobe. That trend morphed into the plastic pool slide, which is now a perennial bestseller, despite conjuring up horrifying visions of gym showers. Clogs and slip-ons followed in our quest for ever-more comfortable feet, which has culminated in the bulky sneaker. Balenciaga, Chanel, Prada, and Gucci all got in on the act, with the latter sending hulking jewel encrusted sneakers down its SS19 runway. Had the stiletto fallen from grace? Was this the end of the strappy sandal? Was nothing sacred anymore?
The emergence of the ugly shoe can, of course, be perceived as just another fad, which will inevitably go the way of harem pants and bootleg jeans. But trends, especially the ones that stick around season after season, have a way of cannily channeling the zeitgeist. Fashion is a highly visible proxy for culture, after all. So what does this flat footed revolution portend? Is classically beautiful… boring? This does open up a Pandora’s box of philosophical questions: what even is beauty? Why are dainty heels and pointy toes seen as pretty, when they alter the foot’s natural form and are, by definition, near impossible to move in naturally? Is it women’s very mobility that is “ugly” and needs to be curtailed within the “beautiful” confines of a stiletto?
For centuries, women have been told that footwear that makes them immobile and uncomfortable is “attractive” and “feminine.” Beauty is pain, the adage goes, with Christian Louboutin even scoffing at the idea of anyone describing his shoes as “comfortable.” Some designers, though, embrace ugliness not for its shock value, but as a valuable tool to foster creativity. Dries Van Noten starts most collections by using a color he hates as inspiration. “I prefer ugly things,” he’s said. “Things which are surprising. It forces you to ask yourself questions.” Miuccia Prada has never shied away from what repulses her, even designing an entire show around golf attire.
If you consider the quintessential “beautiful” or “feminine” shoe, it’s a stiletto that springs to mind. It echoes the shape of a woman’s body in a way a block or wedge heel just can’t conjure up. It elongates the leg, changes your stance and attitude, makes your body sway to a different tempo, like a coquettish flamingo. Few items punctuate a look so decisively as a shoe. A hat draws attention, sure; a sculptured dress gives silhouette, but a shoe – a shoe literally anchors you and brings everything together. Get it wrong and the entire look falls flat. Or perhaps that is the point. We’re no longer shaping our lives and our shoes around what men find desirable. Cue Prada’s sell-out canvas, rubber, and leather hiking sandals. From there it’s just a hop, skip, and effortless jump to Balenciaga’s Triple S trainers, Loewe’s Resort 2019 toe sandals, and Gucci’s orthopedic sneakers.
Maybe we are overthinking this. But fashion reflects the era we live in, as Azzedine Alaïa said. And there’s no denying we live in an age when women the world over have had enough of being silenced, objectified, pushed around (and subsequently toppling over in heels). Our comfortable, against-all-instincts, “ugly” footwear reflects that. Surely, in 2018, fashion should challenge the norms. It should push back against convention, find new ways of thinking, and always move forward. And what better to move forward in than a nonrestrictive shoe.