This spring season, the fashion industry has enthusiastically endorsed what has come to be known as the “ugly shoe” trend. Google “Birkenstocks” and you will be bombarded with images of fashion bloggers sporting the chunky, thick-buckle-strapped sandals and overwhelmed by the hundreds of articles from Vogue to the Man Repeller instructing eager fashionistas on where to buy and how to best style the trend. But, can you imagine the type of results you may have received had you Googled “Birkenstocks” just a few years ago? Presumably, “Vogue” would be in no way associated with such a frumpy, fashion-less item. Likely, your Google image search results would not look like a stylishly curated Pinterest board. To those who have not been recently educated on the acceptance of this trend, the sandal is still likely to conjure up images of the outdoorsy dad and the tree-hugging Vermonter. Birkenstocks present us with a classic example of the fashion industry’s habit of recycling past trends and re-appropriating them. However, the appropriation of Birkenstocks is a unique case because it shows how the shoe still has a connection to it’s historical roots and the brand itself is still having its own success despite the prevalence of designer reinterpretations. In this case, appropriation can be defined as the act of borrowing an object and then shifting its meaning through a process of re-contextualization without actually destroying the relevance of the original object.
History of Birkenstocks:
The Birkenstock brand traces its roots back to 16th century Germany, where Johann Adam Birkenstock developed the first contoured insole for use by shoemakers in the production of custom footwear. By 1964, Karl Birkenstock developed these inserts into the original Birkenstock sandal. From its inception, the Birkenstock was considered orthopedic footwear, often recommended by podiatrists to patients with chronic foot pain. The Birkenstock was rooted primarily in comfort and function and was by most standards, the antithesis to fashionable footwear.
1st Round of Appropriation: 1960’s – 1970’s
For many, the Birkenstocks are commonly associated with the Hippie counterculture movement of the 1960’s. The Hippie subculture was originally a youth movement composed of mostly white teenagers and young adults that arose in the United States in response to the conservative sociopolitical climate of the 1950’s. The Hippies rejected established institutions, criticized middle class values, opposed nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War, embraced liberal politics, pushed for broad reforms on issues of gay rights and abortion, promoted the use of drugs, and were often vegetarian and eco-friendly. Hippies opposed political and social conventions, and instead, chose a more utopian ideology of peace and love. Generally, Hippies perceived the dominant culture as a corrupt entity ( McRobbie 148).
One expression of hippie independence from societal norms was found in their standard of dress, which made hippies instantly recognizable to one another and continues to be an enduring symbol of hippie culture in society today. Through their appearance, hippies declared their willingness to question authority and to reject mainstream conformity. Through dress, the hippie subculture challenged traditional gender norms and rejected consumer culture. Both men and women wore loose fitting unisex clothing, had long hair and if not barefoot, became known for wearing Birkenstocks. The Hippie movement embraced the comfort, health and functionality that the Birkenstock sandal provided. In his piece, “ The Jeaning of America” Fiske discusses how in the 1960’s, “wearing jeans was a sign of freedom from the constrains on behavior and identity that social categories imposed” (Fiske 2). It seems to me that wearing Birkenstocks represented this same freedom. Furthermore, the Birkenstock’s literally became a representation of the body and ideas of individuality due to the shoe’s ability to mold uniquely to an individuals foot. No pair of sandals was the same because no body was the same. Through its appropriation, the Birkenstock’s became a symbol of hippie culture and American liberalism. The footwear became imbued with a set of political and social ideologies. The style became representative of a particular lifestyle and political struggle. To the mainstream, the Birkenstocks were viewed as ugly, dirty, smelly and undesirable.
2nd Round of Appropriation: 1990’s – early 2000’s
It was not until the 1990’s that the Birkenstocks had a revival from their iconic 1960 hippie days. During this time, the Birkenstock was generally re-appropriated by neo-hippies, liberals, college and high-school students, and environmental activists. The shoe became associated with the outdoorsy, tree-hugging, eco-friendly granola type. It also became a symbol of liberal politics. A search in Google for “Birkenstocks and Liberals” yields an amusing slew of conservative headlines associating the shoe with socialists, “hairy-legged feminazis” and lefties. Some noteworthy stories describe the Birkenstock wearers as “Jon Stewart-watching lefties”, “ Granola-eating tree-huggers who want to take your guns”, “Volvo-driving, granola-crunching liberals”, and “clove-smoking vegetarians”. Clearly, during this time, the Birkenstocks became an emblem of contemporary liberalism as well as an area of conservative contention. Most notably, during the 2004 election, Howard Dean supporters became known as “Birkenstock liberals”. Through the sandals re-appropriation in the 90’s, they maintained many aspects of the hippie movement, such as the naturalness and earthy style but tacked on an extra political emphasis and negative stigma of liberalness. Despite the slight shift in meaning, the Birkenstock brand itself still dominated with no challenge to its product.
3rd Round of Appropriation: 2013-2014 : High- Fashion & Recontextualization
The Birkenstock is now in its transition from hippie staple to high-fashion “it” shoe. The Birkenstock presents a fascinating case of appropriation for two reasons. The first is that typically, in cases of appropriation, the object loses much of its meaning and historical relevance through its commodification. The second is that often, the original object becomes obsolete and replaced by an upscale designer version. An example of this common loss of meaning scenario can be illustrated through the appropriation of Zoot-Suit style. Once used by Pachucos as “an emblem of ethnicity and a way of negotiating identity”, the style was effectively stripped of its significance through its appropriation ( Cosgrove 78). Its substance was lost. The case of the Birkenstock, however is slightly different. For many, the historical image of Hippies or liberal tree-huggers and their connection to Birkenstocks isn’t fading away quite as readily. Despite designers efforts to convince women that the bulky sandals are actually much more flattering on the leg than one may think and their many attempts to depoliticize and re-brand the Birkenstock as a laid-back, sexy, effortless, cool look, it’s clear there is still some hesitance. The image of the outdoorsy dad or the rock-climbing Vermonter is still part of popular culture. Those people still exist and they are still wearing the Birkenstocks. Therefore, correctly pulling off this look in a fashionable way is viewed as slightly tricky terrain. In Davis’s piece “ Do Clothes Speak? What Makes them Fashion?” he argues that “ the signifier-signified relationship is unstable” (Davis 151). Essentially, he is making the case that fashion is under-coded and meaning shifts depending on contexts. In the case of Birkenstock’s, we can only understand their meaning based on the person who is wearing the sandal and how it is styled. With this in mind, hundreds of articles are dedicated to showing people how to look cool when wearing Birkenstocks. In his piece, “Distinction”, Bourdieu argues that “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly” ( Bourdieu 6). Vogue channels Bourdieu’s theory of taste when instructing readers on how to embody the trend correctly. They warn their readers against wearing the old beige suede Birkenstocks and instead, recommend the metallic leather or polished patent style for a more elevated feel. They go on to say that a pedicure is also a must. Clean and manicured toes contradict the hippie stereotype. And to really make it clear you’re not from Vermont, the article suggests styling the sandals with a tailored pant or a lady-like dress. The application of Bourdieu’s theory of taste works to classify those who are wearing the Birkenstocks in a fashionable way versus those who are not. The overall argument for stylish Birkenstocks is based on the premise that the wearer has good taste.
Through the many fashion articles, which almost always start by condemning the notion that Birkenstocks are frumpy, it is clear that the fashion industry still has not fully shifted the symbolic meaning of the sandal to one of high-fashion. Hebdidge’s piece, “From Culture to Hegemony” discusses how subcultures struggle for possession and control over the meanings of their signs (Hebdidge 151). This effort is echoed in Laura Portwood-Stacers study of Anarchist culture. In the case of the Birkenstocks, however, it seems as though there is still a connection between the Birkenstock sandal and its original meaning as a hippie, liberal cultural artifact – a powerful connection that most subcultures could only dream of maintaining. Bloggers and the fashion industry as a whole are using their cultural capital to re-code the meaning of Birkenstocks through continually recontextualizing the sandal and presenting it in a high-fashion narrative. The shift in meaning is certainly working based off the amount of blogger coverage of the trend.Perhaps the trend will catch on in full force and go mainstream by next season.
The second reason the appropriation of Birkenstocks is a unique case is due to the continued success of the original Birkenstock brand. Though the trend began last winter when Phoebe Philo debuted a pair of furry, jewel encrusted Birkenstock-style sandals at Celine’s Spring/Summer 2013 runway show, the classic Birkenstocks are still just as on-trend.
Trendsetters such as the Olsen twins and well-known bloggers such as Susie Bubble and Leandra Medine of Man Repeller were photographed wearing the classic Birkenstocks. This situation contradicts most other cases of appropriation. For example, Hooks article “Eating the Other”, argues that the appropriated objects are “eaten, consumed, and forgotten” (Hook 380). That is not the case here. Birkenstock’s have never been more popular or more relevant. Yes, there are designer interpretations of the shoe but the classic Birkenstock is far from being forgotten. Retailers such as J Crew and Topshop have begun stocking the Birkenstock brand and there is no doubt that Birkenstock will witness a significant increase in sales compared to past seasons. Even high-end online retailer, Net-a-porter is selling the original brand. It’s almost funny to look back at the shoes origins and then see it placed in conversation with high-end labels such as Alexander McQueen and Botega Veneta. The Birkenstock stands out as a counter-example to most cases of appropriation and illustrates the ways in which appropriation can work to shift meaning, while still paying tribute to its original source