Cheap Flip Flops and the Beauty of Simplicity
Tuesday, March 16, 2010

There are times in this life when being elaborate is the way to go: high-end sport shoes named after superstar athletes and fabulous pumps from world famous European designers both have their place. But if you're walking down a sandy beach, high heels are useless and those fancy sports shoes will get filled with sand like any other shoe. And what if you just want to run out and pick up the mail on a summer afternoon. You don't want to deal with lacing up your regular shoes just to run in and out of the house, but its sure nice to have something between your feet and the hot pavement. And so the appeal of cheap flip-flops. Purchased at discount and sometimes in bulk by even the wealthiest and pickiest of shoppers, there's never anything fussy about flip flops. They've gone by other names, from the proper "thong," -- which can obviously create confusion with a very differently positioned article of minimal clothing -- to "jandals," and the somewhat less well-known "pluggers", and of course "sandals". In any case, minimalist shoes by any other name still protect the bottom of your feet.

The roots of the flip flop are as ancient as the concept of the shoe itself and go back literally to the dawn of civilization. However, it's popularity in the developed world is a little more recent. Thong-like shoes called "flip flaps" may have been in use in the United States during the pre-Civil War era, and versions of the simple Japanese sandal called the Zori were being worn in New Zealand as early as the 1930s. After the end of the war in the Pacific in 1945, thousands more allied servicemen were introduced to the zori concept while stationed in occupied Japan, and the style became more internationally popular.

Still, the modern day rubber and plastic design wasn't introduced for more than a decade. In 1957, New Zealander Morris Yock patented the modern design of the shoe which was later marketed in that country as the "Jandal" (for "Japanese Sandal"). Though there is an ongoing dispute between Yock's heirs and those of another inventor, John Cowie, there was simply no stopping the simple, basic, yet effective design of the modern day thong/flip flop/Jandal. Certainly, as the most inexpensive, casual and open-air footwear there is, its popularity in beach communities, where "no shoes, no shirts, no service" signs are as ubiquitous as saltwater, seems to be never-ending.

Today, flip flops come in an enormous variety of styles aimed at both genders, from the most colorful and outlandish designs imaginable to styles so conservative they almost seem businesslike. There are even dressier versions for women that created a stir some years back when some of the Women's Lacrosse Team from Northwestern University wore them to the White House. Some found it an insult for the young women to wear such a casual footwear to the home of the U.S. President, but the women countered that they weren't wearing ordinary flip-flops but dressy sandals that happened to have a thong design. In any case, those wishing to stem the tide of informality that has swept the U.S. over the last several decades are invariably swimming upstream.

The thong-type shoes worn at that photo-op with the President weren't cheap flip-flops and there's no way around the fact that being inexpensive and almost disposable is a major part of the deal with this most laid back of all foot-coverings. The bulk of flip-flops are worn for months at a time, rarely for years -- though some folks have been known to keep them together with safety pins and Scotch tape, extending their cheapness well beyond the usual levels. Still, when you think of it, the appeal of flip-flops comes down to two wonderful feelings: comfort and the joy of a product that is nearly always sold at a giant discount.