The Museum Curator and the Flip-Flops

Manolo says, last year, our friends at the Collectors Weekly ran the most fascinating interview with the Elizabeth Semmelhack, author of the book The Heights of Fashion and the senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum, about the high heels.

This time, the Elizabeth Semmelhack is interviewed about the history and meaning of the flip-flops. Here is the excerpt.

Collectors Weekly: When did it become more acceptable to wear flip-flops outside of the home or during the week?

Semmelhack: Sigerson Morrison made expensive heeled flip-flops at the end of the ’90s. When they made it, it created a buzz because they were also charging quite a bit for those flip-flops. They were not your average $10 flip-flop. I think they cost more than a hundred bucks when they were first offered.

Sigerson Morrison Kitten Heel Thong

Sigerson Morrison Kitten Heel Thong

The acceptability of the flip-flop is related to the hypersexualization of women’s dress. That’s why my research has been focused on the high heel. The introduction of the sandal—not the flip-flop but the toe-exposing sandal—in the 1930s, was part of a greater trend towards the “nudification,” for lack of a better term, of the female body. I feel that there has been a marked progression toward increased exposure of the female body.

What I find intriguing now is that men have begun to follow suit—perhaps not the best term here. Men are now falling in line with this increased exposure, and it could be argued this increased exposure is starting at their feet. With that increased exposure is concern about male pedicures and all kinds of grooming of the male body. I do see this as part of this larger continuum toward hypersexualization in dress. But if this exposure of the body is related to hyersexualization, I think the question—are flip-flops sexy—also needs to be asked, and I think the answer is no.

Consider the Sigerson Morrison high-heeled flip-flop. At the end of the ’90s, we certainly saw a lot of high-heeled sandal-like evening shoes for women that exuded erotic appeal.

Traditional Japanese Zori

19th Century Japanese Zori

And yet, somehow, that exact same structure, the heeled flip-flop structure wrought in inexpensive plastic, wasn’t. I think that the materials used to make flip-flops, their garish colors and their consistent association with play, has kept the flip-flop from really becoming sexy. On the cover of “Playboy,” you will see women in high heeled thronged sandals, but you don’t see them wearing a pair of flip-flops.

The “nudification” of the female body! This is why the Elizabeth Semmelhack has become one of the Manolo’s favorite fashion intellectuals.

Of the course, she is exactly right. For the past century, the general trend has been the freeing of the female form; bustles, corsets, girdles, and now the panty hose, all gone the way of the dodo bird.

Once the peep-toe shoes were too sexy for the work place, and now, thanks to the modern nudification project, everyone is vajazzaling.

But you must go read the whole thing for it is very interesting.

6 Responses to “The Museum Curator and the Flip-Flops”

  1. Valerie in San Diego April 12, 2011 at 2:06 pm #

    I somehow still feel that sandals are not generally ideal in the workplace. At least in my workplace. I work in a business IT department in a large university, and I admit I see people wearing such shoes here, but it often seems a bit too undressed for true propriety — that said, I have seen demure, classy peep-toe pumps with suits that look just fine. Though generally the wearer is also wearing nylons.

    So perhaps I’m a bit old fashioned; but flip-flops in the workplace seem to me to be almost vulgar. While perfectly practical for the beach, they are not flattering, and they draw attention to the nakedness of the foot in a way that one may not wish to be distracted while on the company clock. And when the foot nakedness is enhanced by chipped nail polish or a possibly less than well-cleansed arch, well… In the interest of politeness, let me just say that there are other things I’d prefer to view.

  2. Bronwyn April 12, 2011 at 3:37 pm #

    Goodness gracious me, I’m very glad I don’t live in America.I also work in IT in a big university, and we wear whatever we want. In summer this can mean shorts and flip-flops (we call them jandals), and in winter it could be jeans and boots. Sometimes I decide to wear a pair of heels,with the appropriate clothes, but not very often. If we were dealing with the public I dare say we’d be a bit more formal, but not an awful lot. Probably wouldn’t wear shorts.

    • Valerie in San Diego April 13, 2011 at 12:18 am #

      Technical staff get a lot more latitude with dress. I’m a project manager dealing with external directors a great deal. The folks doing the real work come in with jeans and sneakers and that seems fine to me. Still not a huge fan of flip-flops though.

      Hmm. I sound much snottier than I am :-)

  3. raincoaster April 12, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    As well, it took the death of pantyhose (thanks, Princess Diana!) for sandals to truly come into their own. It’s impossible to wear sandals of any kind with pantyhose. Once that was no longer a consideration, sandals of all kinds became an option.

  4. Nora Charles April 12, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

    Sounds like Bronwyn is an kiwi (hey bro!). :-D

    Also here in Australia the general mood in dress is casual – even more so if you are working out of the public eye.

    Our colder capital cities (Sydney, Melbourne in particular) are more formal for work wear but in the warmer climes of the Gold Coast and Brisbane and points north, stylish strappy sandals without pantyhose is quite acceptable for work (I have several quite nice slides and I only wear hose in the depths of winter when it’s 18-degree C).

    But flip flops/jandles/thongs are not acceptable workwear in any office at any time (although I’m working from home today and wearing them, but will change into suitable shoes for my 11am meeting).

  5. Bronwyn April 13, 2011 at 2:43 am #

    Yep, certainly am a Kiwi, and from Dunedin, so your juxtaposition of “depths of winter” and “18°C” cracked me up.