Birkenstocks – those most earnest German sandals, with their oversized cork soles like walking wholegrain crispbreads – are the ugliest shoes ever made and should be banned immediately by an act of parliament. Or only permitted to be sold as contraceptive devices. I’ve just bought my seventh pair. (Apple green patent in the ‘Gizeh’ toe-post stylee.)
The problem with the damn things is they are so addictively comfortable. Once you have worn them, it’s almost impossible to wear any other shoes.
That’s partly because your feet spread to resemble those of the maid in Tom and Jerry, so by the end of a Birkenstock summer you can no longer squash them back into normal footwear. Every year, as the temperatures start to fall I have to break my feet in again to wear proper shoes.
And that’s not the only problem. The cork ‘health’ sole that absorbs the shock of each step so blissfully and moulds to your foot over time, making each sandal fit your particular trotter as perfectly as a bespoke Lobb half-brogue, also sucks the moisture out of your heels.
Over time they become as cracked and dry as the Arizona desert and you find yourself haunting the heel-care area of Boots, in search of specialist unguents. The most effective of these contain urea. Lovely.
The woman who tends to my toes at the hairdressers says she can spot Birkenstock feet immediately by these parmesan rind heels. They just get sexier, don’t they?
So why do I keep buying the bloody things? It is mainly the comfort, which is not simply derived from them being flat and open. I love my Havaianas for those qualities too, but you can’t walk far in flip flops, can you?
Birkos give you the lack of foot restriction and the air conditioning of a through breeze, but combined with proper foot foundation. While it nearly kills me to admit it, I do find myself more aware of the concept of arch support as the cinematic calendar of life flips ever forward.
Yet there is something else to the Birkenstock appeal beyond comfort. You can get all manner of terrifyingly pragmatic walkable sandals and those rubber-soled, Velcro-fastened Teva objects, in particular, are one step beyond. I don’t care how comfortable they are, I couldn’t even try a pair on. Thick hair would sprout in my armpits. My mojo would never recover.
Although I sometimes wonder if I’ve tricked myself into believing this, so I can carry on wearing the fugly things, I have come to believe that Birkenstocks are the jolies laides of the shoe rack.
They have that honest aesthetic appeal particular to things designed pragmatically and a long time ago. I love my black canvas with tan trim game bag with the same part of my heart. It ain’t pretty, but it’s right.
Sandals with a soul
Birkenstocks certainly have the heritage. The company has been going since 1774, though it wasn’t until 1897 that the founder’s grandson, Konrad Birkenstock, had the nifty idea of shaping the inside of a shoe to support the natural shape of the foot.
In 1964, his grandson Carl had the brainwave of making that sole available as the sandal we know today. But it wasn’t until about 40 years later that they became a mainstream option. It was about 2002, in Sydney, when I first spotted a pair of the toe-post style in cheeky black patent and a light bulb went on in my head.
For all the heritage-pragmatic style reasons above, I had secretly coveted the clog-style ones my acupuncturist used to wear, back in the 1980s, when you could only buy them in the Natural Shoe Store in London. I’d slink in there and look at them, but didn’t quite have the confidence to buy some, because I knew my friends would laugh and point and make references to Greenham Common.
But the shiny black patent and toe-post arrangement took it all to another level and within days I had made two discoveries about Birkenstocks. Not only were they the most comfortable shoes I’d ever worn, but the black patent styling gave them a post-modern ironic twist which made me feel they went with absolutely anything. Exactly as I felt about my dark navy denim jacket in the same era.
I’ve worn them every summer since. Always Gizehs, though I do also like the Sydney and Madrid styles, and always patent. In my Birkenstock decade I have come to two further conclusions about them: you need to change them regularly, ideally a new pair every year. And you must always wear them with immaculately painted toe nails.