Anyone who has dared to venture outside during this infernal summer has probably noticed a surprising procession of clunky, clog-like, open-toed shoes, generally known by the trade name Birkenstock. I say surprising because few would have predicted that this would be the season to go short on crypto and long on the centuries-old, homely German import once associated with health-food stores, Rhineland treks, and plantar fasciitis relief. Invented in 1774 by a German village shoemaker, the Birk arrived in the United States in the mid-1960s, thanks to an American dressmaker who had experienced podiatric relief from the shoe during a visit to her ancestral country. She promoted the shoe to American retailers but received only a few orders from health-store managers serving a hippieish clientele. Normie department-store buyers took one look at the Birk’s rugged leather straps and bulky footbed and fell down laughing. To the premillennial American eye, the shoe was just plain ugly.
But fashion, like movies, thrives on sequels. Over the past few years, Birkenstock has rebranded, and its shoes have taken on new life as a social media and pavement megastar, beloved by everyone from luxury designers like Dior, Proenza Schouler, and Valentino to Walmart shoppers. Birkenstocks now come lined with shearling or, for those who can afford to indulge their feet as well as their sense of irony, mink. You can browse webpages packed with Birks studded with rhinestones or embroidered with flowers; in jewel tones, neon hues, primary colors, or earth tones; and in high-end leather, microfiber, or waterproof plastic. Celebrity shoe artisan Manolo Blahnik designed a Birkenstock with transparent straps that sells for $470, a steal compared with the $845 Birk-inspired leopard number from Saint Laurent. Photos of Dakota, Kendall, Gwyneth, Julianne, and Gigi walking the dog or carrying groceries in their Birkenstocks have become a fan magazine staple; the shoe even graced the red carpet when Frances McDormand wore custom Valentino-designed “acid yellow” Birks, to the 2019 Oscars. Meantime, Instagram and TikTok boost the company’s social media machine.
Still, the ascension of the ill-bred, orthotic-adjacent clodhopper from the flower child commune to the Parisian atelier remains a puzzling cultural phenomenon. A few theories might explain it.
Theory Number One: Birkenstocks are the perfect fashion statement for the much-ballyhooed sex recession. As most Internet observers know, singles are having less sex with fewer partners than they did in past decades, and teens are losing their virginity later than previous generations did. Also notable is the recent emergence of the demisexual. Apparently forced into the closet until recently, demis are people who feel sexually attracted only to people with whom they’ve developed a close emotional bond. Asexuals (“Someone who identifies as a member of the asexual community experiences little or no sexual attraction”) also find their name on current lists of approved sexual identities.
To understand why the Birk is the “it” shoe of the sex recession, you have only to contrast its down-to-earth pragmatism with a cultural touchstone of the 1990s: the stiletto. The nineties were the era of Sex and the City, a television series and encomium to both women’s sexual freedom and high heels. Actress Sarah Jessica Parker starred as the show’s main character, Carrie Bradshaw, and was known for running the streets of New York City in five-inch heels (often designed by the aforementioned Manolo Blahnik, now a guest member of the Birkenstock stable). Women gamely ignored podiatrists’ warnings about hammertoes and Achilles tendinitis to flaunt the accentuated arch and elongated legs that are the visual effect of the stiletto. (They might have sensed what later research would show: that wearing high heels lifts the wearer’s buttocks and encourages a more “feminine gait.”)
By contrast, Birkenstocks are about as far as you can imagine from a hookup shoe. They give off a strong not-interested, or at least a not-so-fast, vibe. A moviemaker might entice viewers after showing a passionate kiss by panning around a bedroom floor, lingering on high heels seemingly flung off in careless abandon, and then onto lacey underwear before landing on disheveled bed sheets. Substitute Birkenstocks in that shot and the movie never gets a distributor.
Theory Number Two? Covid. Admittedly, the pandemic is now the go-to explanation for just about every current social trend, from the Netflix hit series Ozark to an urban crime wave, but it’s fitting in this case. Birkenstocks were a reasonable response to the new work-from-home routine. Sitting at the computer in sweatpants and taking only occasional outings to the supermarket requires something sturdier than slippers but less substantial than a hard shoe. Suzanne Levine, a Manhattan foot surgeon, told the Wall Street Journal that relaxed, lockdown-inspired shoe habits allowed feet to widen and lengthen—so much so that some folks are having trouble squeezing into the pumps, ballet flats, or Oxfords that they used to wear to the office.
In any case, many people became indifferent to fashion during the pandemic, if only temporarily. After all, there’s little reason to dress up in heels or wingtips if you’re not going anywhere. Dress-shoe sales plummeted 60 percent during the first year of the pandemic, and overall shoe sales were down 20 percent. Birkenstock spied an opportunity to cash in. “If anything good has come from the pandemic, it is that it has forced us to ask ourselves what is important to us and what really matters in our lives,” said Birkenstock CEO Oliver Reichert, spinning what has become for his company a massively lucrative pivot to comfortable shoes. As people returned to work and restaurants, many realized what was important to them was eye-catching, neon-yellow Birks.
And finally, Theory Number Three: the Birkenstock is a capitalist nod to—or should I say appropriation of?—the current anti-capitalist zeitgeist. Many young adults are looking askance at “late-stage capitalism” and either joining the Democratic Socialists of America or becoming socialism-curious. In their minds, consumerism is toxic to the environment and implicated in climate change. The original Birkenstock’s humble ancestry and drab appearance advertised the wearer’s anti-fashion mindset and environmental wokeness. Regardless of its $100-plus price tag, the Birk seemed politically progressive. And after all, we all need shoes.
It’s far from the first time that fashionistas have become enamored of apparel usually worn by down-market consumers: think only of blue jeans, once limited to the closets of cowboys and blue-collar workers; or puffer jackets, essential gear for mountain climbers and ice fishers. The fashion industry is nothing if not brilliant at transforming a banal object into something novel and eye-catching: slap on an alarming price tag, and almost any item can seem chic. Designers revamped jeans to hug the buttocks (a theme in successful fashion marketing) and show off the midriff, just as they turned puffers into a luxe item by adding impossibly lightweight goose-down stuffing and dramatic styling. The once-staid company Birkenstock followed suit, turning anti-fashion into fashion by updating the colors and materials of a provincial clog and eventually getting it onto celebrities’ and influencers’ feet. And so anti-fashion morphs into fashion cliché.
As with other such transformations, however, Birkenstock’s journey from niche subculture and progressive cred to the mass market will likely spell its demise. The sex recession and Covid will become yesterday’s news. Same goes for the two-strapped, leopard-skin Birk.
Photo by Melodie Jeng/Getty Images