"Last year a trend setter, this year a follower, next year my mom"
May 13, 2015 11:13 AM   Subscribe

"That’s what makes things interesting—when you look at something, and you aren’t sure if you like it or not." Birkenstocks, the charmingly ugly "sensible shoes" long associated with crunchy hippie stereotypes, are in style once again. First brought to the United States in the 60s by Margot Fraser, the sandals enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the early 90s, and the current trend can be traced to Céline's spring 2013 fashion show. Even Manolo Blahnik is a fan. While the sandals cycle in and out of fashion, the company chugs on: "When they’re all gone… Well, we’re still here."
posted by Metroid Baby (51 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I wanted them in college because they were so granola, but now I wear them because nothing makes my back and feet feel better.
posted by mecran01 at 11:18 AM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

My lady, who works in the fashion industry, just got some Birkenstocks, and I was all like, "What??" and she was all like, "Hell, yeah."

apparently the fact that I wore them in college is not impressive, because 90s.
posted by Huck500 at 11:21 AM on May 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have basically zero fashion sense, and my standard dress hasn't changed appreciably in the last 20 years or so. It's always fun to see something I've been wearing all along go from cool, to lame, and right back around to cool (apparently).

The only bad thing I can say about Birkenstocks is that the relatively plain style I've been wearing all this time seems to disappear (or get re-named) from time-to-time, causing some angst when I need a new pair.
posted by tocts at 11:28 AM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

You could see this coming - Birkenstock clogs have been a Thing in certain men's style locations for the past couple of years, those Kork-Ease women's shoes have been a big deal and there have been various mini-fashions for some of the other cork-bed old school sandals.

Leaving all else aside, I do not lead a sandal kind of life - there's way too much grit and glass and so on on the streets of my neighborhood for it to be comfortable to wear non-closed shoes, and they're really not work-suitable.

Also I have very high arches and they've never really fit me right.

I do like the periodic fashion for ugly shoes, though, since my fashion sense really solidified in the mid-nineties.
posted by Frowner at 11:28 AM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Comfy, yes, but unless you wear them with socks (and really, you want to be that guy?) those cork footbeds will become the most hideously rank-smelling things in the world.

Trust me; I was in college in the late '90s.
posted by leotrotsky at 11:31 AM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Yes, leotrotsky, I want to be that guy, and lemme tell you why. I miss Birkenstock socks, not just because I'm a slightly overweight middle-aged European bloke with no fashion sense and therefore fully qualified to wear them, but also because I'm syndactyl and I'd quite like to stop traumatizing passersby with my mutant feet kthx.
posted by scruss at 11:34 AM on May 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

I wore Birkenstocks regularly, nearly every day, for about 15 years. I still have a pair somewhere -- they were lost in the move. I often think about getting a new pair and shedding my obsession with big black steel-toe boots in favor of my old hippie ways. They are easily the best shoes I ever wore.

Plus, wearing them meant I had knitter friends who would give me socks regularly, because with my sandals I was showing off their work. #unexpectedsidebenefit
posted by hippybear at 11:38 AM on May 13, 2015 [6 favorites]

You think the fashionification of Birkenstocks is terrible, let me introduce you to Opening Ceremony x Teva (not a joke).
posted by neroli at 11:40 AM on May 13, 2015

but unless you wear them with socks (and really, you want to be that guy?) those cork footbeds any non-flipflop/thong footwear will become the most hideously rank-smelling things in the world.

Fixed that for ya, well at least for me anyway. No amount of silver impregnated footbeds, talc powder, baking soda, sunlight, or airing out will save the poor shoes if I don't wear socks with them. Socks: kinda like condoms for feet - shoe intercourse.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:55 AM on May 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

One of the craziest things about getting older is watching things fall out and in and out and in of fashion.

When I was in high school my sister got a pair of Doc Martens, which were actually pretty hard to buy in our neck of the woods back then, and when my grandmother saw them she was flabbergasted that they were cool because when she was young she'd had to wear them for their original orthopedic purpose and was roundly made fun of.
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:56 AM on May 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

I must have some weird-ass, bizarrely shaped feet or something, because the one time I tried them on MAN were they uncomfortable. I don't get it.
posted by holborne at 11:58 AM on May 13, 2015

I would like the gold Opening Ceremony x Tevas please.

When I wore Doctor Martens in the early nineties, I had to special-order them from a company who advertised in the back of Spin Magazine. They were really, really good, though - much better even than the UK-made ones you'd get later when they started to be popular, and of course way better than the ones made in China after that. The leather was much nicer, mostly - more pliable and with a better/thinner finishing coat, so that it actually took shoe creme. Also the sole was more robust.

My mother could not believe those shoes - "shit-kickers", she called all the shoes I had back then, and she is a woman who very rarely swears. I mean, I still wear basically the same kind of shoes, but she's grown resigned.
posted by Frowner at 11:59 AM on May 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

I think one of the cycles of the fashion industry is to alternate between grasping for the foreign, exotic or offbeat and retrenching at home. This is just the cyclic antipode of the UGG boot.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:00 PM on May 13, 2015

holborne - I'm sure others will chime in, but the way Birkenstocks work is that they eventually conform to your feet. One of the more painful things I've ever put on my feet are a pair of my wife's birkies - especially the ridges!
posted by King Sky Prawn at 12:15 PM on May 13, 2015

When I wore Doctor Martens in the early nineties, I had to special-order them from a company who advertised in the back of Spin Magazine.


Literally every person I know wore Docs in the early nineties. They were everywhere.

Also, thanks to this post, I finally remembered to go look up how to clean the mold out of my Birks' footbeds. I don't know why both pairs decided to grow mold this year, they've never done that before.

One pair that I just finally got rid of is the primary reason I was able to walk around in labor for 74 hours straight before finally giving birth to my son (naturally, of course, because I am a Birkenstock wearing hippie). Goddamn Birkenstocks are comfy.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 12:29 PM on May 13, 2015

In my experience there is a certain stamp of approval / guarantee of quality conferred by freaks on the goods they're willing to spend big bucks on (often to the detriment of other areas of their lives, but that's beside the point). Birkenstocks are one such item.

There's definitely some break in. That was all part of the pitch among devotees in the 90s: they, like, mould to your feet, man, promote a more natural stride, like how people walked before all this confining, uptight footwear! My arms don't swing when I walk, so what do I know about stride, but these sandals sure are comfortable. And being able to wear them with socks without raising an eyebrow is one thing I do like about the crunchy, hippie haven from which I hail.
posted by Lorin at 12:32 PM on May 13, 2015

It was 1995.

We were in high school.

We wore our Birkenstocks with two different colored socks.

The world was full of possibility.
posted by Windigo at 12:41 PM on May 13, 2015 [11 favorites]

If you put your sandals in the freezer overnight it helps to cut down the odor.
posted by olopua at 12:41 PM on May 13, 2015

Today I am wearing a pair of black Birkenstock loafers that I bought used at least twenty years ago (maybe 25?). They are so old I can't even find a picture of the style anywhere on line. I just looked inside to see if there was any identifying information and there's nothing except Birkenstock and 'brand sohle leder'. These are my go to when I need a comfortable shoe. I also have a pair of the oxfords that I remember rich kids wearing in the 70's. I often think when I wear these shoes that these are the shoes I can pass down in my will because there is no way I can wear them out.
posted by readery at 12:41 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]


Literally every person I know wore Docs in the early nineties. They were everywhere.

Not in 1991 in the suburbs, they weren't.

The Doc Martens trajectory seems to have really taken off about 91-92. I first wanted a pair in 1990 because the most artsy and stylish girl in my class had them. I assume she'd gotten them in Chicago, but I wasn't allowed to roam around in the city unescorted and would not have been able to begin to find a place where you could get them.

I got a fake pair at the Wild Pair at the only remotely trendy mall for miles in maybe late 1991.

When I was in college, the college town had them in one store in relatively limited sizes and styles. There were a couple of places to buy them in Minneapolis. Only the most fashionable people had them at my college - there was one of the guys in the GLBT group who had a pair of green Gibsons, but those were basically unattainable.

Then I think that it must have been about 93-94 they were suddenly everywhere, there were Doctor Martens stores opening up in affluent suburban areas, the brand started to diversify its styles, etc.

I'm not saying that one could not get Doc Martens prior to 1990, but it was very difficult if you were, say, a high school student in a suburb and there was no internet and your fashion resources did not even extend to Sassy. I'm sure it was different in a big city or on the coast.

I remember all this stuff very vividly, because I grew up very isolated and lonely and broke, and matter changed for me fairly abruptly when I was about 16 - I developed what was essentially an eating disorder and became normal-chubby instead of fat, I started doing some paid caretaking for my grandparents and had a little bit of money (not allowed to get a job), and my mother got her library degree and was able to work a white collar gig so our family finances improved a lot. And as a result, I went from never being able to afford anything or fit into anything that wasn't from the fat lady shop to being able to look for and buy things I actually liked, and it was a huge deal for me, starting me on the path to clothes-horse-dom.

I guess - if we were going to reference gayness-as-cruising-as-paying-deep-patient-careful-attention from yesterday's article - that I learned to cruise shoes.
posted by Frowner at 12:46 PM on May 13, 2015 [6 favorites]

I often think when I wear these shoes that these are the shoes I can pass down in my will because there is no way I can wear them out.

I have a pair that belonged to my dad, couldn't bear to throw em away. In fact, they've now outlasted his Fluevogs by several years.
posted by Lorin at 12:49 PM on May 13, 2015

Just no.
posted by spitbull at 12:53 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

i was telling my brother recently that my feet were hurting - we went through the whole thing, when, where, how long - and then he finally turned to me and said, "so why aren't you wearing the family sandal?" because for at least as long as i've been alive, as people in my family age they pick up the birks habit. i'm probably going to fold next year and finally get my pair.
posted by nadawi at 12:56 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

The real question though is Arizona or Milano? Do you want to be able to kick off your sandals and traipse through the sand on a moonlit night? Or do you prefer the security, the stability of being buckled in, the shoe as extension of foot, ready to follow you anywhere? Take this quiz to find out.
posted by Lorin at 12:58 PM on May 13, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm not much of a sandal person. I rarely go outside of the house without socks. But I absolutely adore my Birkenstock Londons, which I wear without socks. Brown, clunky, weird looking, and impossibly comfortable. And markedly different from the typical Arizona or Milano open-back sandals.

They were tough to break in, but eight years later I still love them. I'm sure they'll last another eight (they've well outlasted the Danskos I've owned). And they've never begun to stink.
posted by the matching mole at 1:37 PM on May 13, 2015 [3 favorites]

Birkenstocks over Crocs, any day.
posted by dnash at 1:54 PM on May 13, 2015

Ooh! Time to bring out my metallic ice blue ("arctic") Kingstons with white soles (and gold buckles!)!

I love Birks in unnatural materials in unnatural shades. Like my Orlandos in bronze with flowers painted on them. Or my black patent Sydneys.

Did I mention I love Birks?
posted by needled at 2:19 PM on May 13, 2015

My mother could not believe those shoes - "shit-kickers", she called all the shoes I had back then, and she is a woman who very rarely swears. I mean, I still wear basically the same kind of shoes, but she's grown resigned.

I showed up for a big family dinner one night after work in about 1992--my grandparents were in town and taking us all out, and I had dressed up a bit for work (indie record store) so I could come straight over, so of course I was wearing a black crushed velvet babydoll dress and I'd shined my ten-eye docs the night before.

My cousin was wearing a floral mid-length dress with a crocheted lace collar (you can picture it, no?) with nice pumps, and she gave me the smuggest favorite-grandchild sneer when I walked into the house but my grandfather stepped up to greet me and he held me at arms length and pronounced in his loud boom that "THOSE ARE SOME SENSIBLE SHOES! GOOD FOR YOU!"

padraigin 1, cousin 0.
posted by padraigin at 2:25 PM on May 13, 2015 [14 favorites]

That is so sweet. I am gonna have to remember to be nice to my grandchildren.
posted by RustyBrooks at 2:29 PM on May 13, 2015

I had a pair of black Arizonas from 1991 until 2009, when I finally came to grips with their shabbiness and the splotch of wood stain that I never got out of the footbed and the shredding cork and the fact that no one wears these now. It's almost 2010, there is no need to keep these. The past is dead. I mean I legit felt sad about tossing them. Now just look at this shit. I should never listen to myself.
posted by little mouth at 3:04 PM on May 13, 2015 [4 favorites]

Birkenstocks over Crocs, any day.

It is with only a tiny amount of shame that I admit I wear Crocs. But only inside the house. They give me some nice cushioning over walking barefoot, protect my toes from stubbing, keep my feet cooler than slippers, and don't scuff up the floor like regular shoes. Also they're pretty cheap so I don't feel bad replacing them regularly. I would never dare wear them outside the house though.

I do sometimes wear them when we have company over, to my wife's great embarrassment.
posted by primethyme at 3:26 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

A long time ago I spent the winters working at a ski hill and wore heavy boots all day, every day. There was no better feeling then slipping on a pair of clean, dry, woolie socks and my Birks at the end of the day.

Add in a sunny patio and beer and I was in heaven.

(And yes I wore them while there was snow on the ground)
posted by Jalliah at 3:28 PM on May 13, 2015

those cork footbeds will become the most hideously rank-smelling things in the world.

There are few things which upset all my senses simultaneously and as thoroughly as being in the presence of someone's sockless footwear which has a footbed that is black with grime and sweat and shiny with horrors unimaginable.
posted by poffin boffin at 3:37 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've been wearing Birkenstocks since I was a kid 30-odd years ago. Yes. 1980s. This was Eugene after all.

Took two pairs I got as a teen with me to France. Still have one of them. It's been fun watching the metamorphosis:
1997 France: "..............what?!?! Just... what?! Are you insane?! Putain mais c'est de la merde ces trucs !!" (translation: "holy crap those are shit!!")
2005 France: "oh ugh she's wearing... what are those anyway? I've never even seen American tourists wear those." (translation: major footwear insult)
2015 France: "WHOA THOSE ARE AWESOME where'd you get those! I can't find any like that? What's that model??"

And they don't stink if you take care of them. You can wash them. Decent Birkenstock stores will show you how. With a bit of care they do indeed last forever. Rule number one is the same as for any shoe: don't wear them two days in a row, they need to air out for at least 24 hours. Rule number two: wipe the footbed with a damp (not wet, damp) cloth just after you take them off. For further cleaning, check with a good Birkenstock dealer. (The one in that "Eugene" link was great, but last I went was 15 years ago.)

Same deal with sandals, if you wipe the footbed right after you take them off, there's none of that disgusting build-up.

/dirty hippy with cleaner Birkies than bourgeois tee hee hee
posted by fraula at 3:59 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I saw to, my shock, a teenager with her mom in downtown Walnut Creek the other day wearing Birkenstocks. We were all waiting for a traffic light to change so I had time to inspect: they were the traditional Arizona style with white leather top and white rubber soles. I LOVED THEM. I had to will myself not to buy some immediately from Zappos.

I figured Birkies were on the comeback; and here's an fpp to confirm the notion. (Great articles linked, btw.)

I owned a pair of deep purple suede Arizona Birks in the 90s and they were comfy as hell and the intensity of the purple was beautiful. I just do not care that others find them ugly, any shoe that is that comfortable is just fine by me.

BTW you know they're in because Target has a number of Birkenripoffs, not only the Target brand (and here's their knockoff of the white/white Arizona Birks I mention above, although I opted for the cognac), but Sam & Libby metallic ones with metal thumbtack type things on the side, and a fetching, over-the-top gold option. I got the cognac fake leather ones and they are amazingly foot-cradling and soft, check em out.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 4:13 PM on May 13, 2015

Yeah, my one friend who is super fashion-y is wearing the white Arizonas right now.

I just bought myself a pair of the dumb shearling-lined ones (shut up, I know they're dumb), because I have breast cancer and I'm pissed about it, so I'm doing absurd insomniac shopping. Also, I live in the Bay Area and it's always chilly.

Since I wore tan Milanos in college in the late '90s, I had to wrestle hard with the "if you wore it the last time it was in fashion you can't wear it again" maxim. But, fuck it. Shearling.
posted by purpleclover at 4:57 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't think I can get away with these at work. But I am all about ugly and comfortable shoes, when I can manage it. Feet take a lot of abuse, we should be nicer to them.

I too used to make fun of socks with sandals, until I realized that most people have hideous feet (me too, unless I work on them). Better to see socks than gnarly ape toes.
posted by emjaybee at 5:05 PM on May 13, 2015

Thanks to this FPP I am now very tempted to get a pair of silver Mayaris.

Also time to browse through the European Birkenstock vendor sites, as they tend to carry models and colors that U.S. vendors don't seem to carry - there are so many more styles than Arizona or Milano.
posted by needled at 5:22 PM on May 13, 2015

We were selling some birkenstocks on ebay the other day and some guy kept messaging us trying to get pictures of them with feet in them. A little too insistently for comfort.
posted by Ferreous at 5:27 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Back in the early 90s in their previous iteration of popularity I used to get $10 knock-offs from Target that would only last a year or two, but shit, you could buy 10 pairs of $10 knock-offs for the price of one pair of authentic Birks, and unless your authentic Birks make it to 20 years you wind up ahead financially.

Well, in spring of 2013 I was combating a bout of plantar fasciitis and thought that Birk-esque sandals might be a good choice for supportive footwear. But wouldn't you know it, there was not a knock-off anywhere to be found! I wound up having to buy the real deal. A year later and they had come back into style and knock-offs are now everywhere. Despite the price tag, my real-deal Birks are already getting worn through in the rubber tread and the cork under the heal is starting to crumble--they might make it through a 3rd season of wear but it's debatable. I should stock up on knock-offs for the next drought.
posted by drlith at 5:31 PM on May 13, 2015

When I was 12 I didn't really know much about anything, except that I had somehow heard of Birkenstock being a reputable shoe brand and that when I saw a pair of suede Arizonas in my favorite color (burgundy) at a specialty shoe shop, I wasn't leaving without them. I also knew nothing about their crunchiness or that the style was about to become trendy at my middle school, or that my mom would forbid me to wear open-toed shoes to school -- so when everyone showed up a year later with Target knockoffs and called them "birkenstocks" because they thought it was a generic style, not a brand name, it was absolute torture to not be able to wear my REAL Birkenstocks to school and be cooler than everyone else for once.

Twenty years later I still have that same pair -- but now I basically just wear them when I need to step outside for the mail or something. The suede has long since faded to a dusty red and the cork is a bit too thrashed to justify resoling them, even though they have worn so unevenly they're probably negating any benefit the shoe's design offers. And even though they've mostly enjoyed a life in the shoe closet for most of those 20 years, I've never been able to let go of them. Now, I can be cool again! And it turns out that mom is too busy with her own Birkenstocks -- an unnecessarily large collection of stylish Birkis with fancy patterned synthetics and lots of pastels -- to even remember that she thought my pair wasn't suitable for school. Figures.
posted by phatkitten at 5:35 PM on May 13, 2015

well, there goes that! i was gonna buy a pair to stave off summer foot-rot but i guess i'll have to buy Teva's now.
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 5:51 PM on May 13, 2015

TIL my feet are magic. Leather flip-flops last me like five years and I wear them constantly during the summer and there is no build-up or smell or anything.
posted by griphus at 6:06 PM on May 13, 2015

Also in high school I wore emerald green docs with rainbow laces I bought on a whim and never really put that together with why there was an ongoing rumor that I was gay.
posted by griphus at 6:09 PM on May 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

I wear Arizonas in the summer, Milanos in the spring and fall, Bostons in the winter. All but the Bostons are over 15 years old. I get them recrafted at a Birk store in my neighborhood. I could really give two flips about what's fashionable; they are the most comfortable shoes for this fat lady with giant wide feet.
posted by candyland at 6:18 PM on May 13, 2015

  Birkenstock Londons … Brown, clunky, weird looking, and impossibly comfortable.

Oh, but Londons were the only way that weighty Friends (that is, Quakers, and those with a certain moral heft) could be shod in the 90s. They basically added +20 to the Groundedness of any ministry.
posted by scruss at 6:23 PM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

Well, at least it's not those damn Chuck Taylors.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:06 PM on May 13, 2015

I only wore Birks when I was in my last trimester, and only then because they were the only things that fit over my swollen, sweaty pregnant lady feet. When I really need all-day comfort now I wear Palladiums with UGG insoles. Probably equally as dorky, but they work when I'm on my feet 10+ hours.
posted by biddeford at 8:37 PM on May 13, 2015

Ok so maybe i'm cursed, but firstly i've had exactly one pair of birkenstocks. They lasted exactly one summer and COMPLETELY FELL APART. I never even got them wet, or did anything stupid. The straps ripped off the sides, and the cork just started to disintegrate. What the hell did i do wrong? How do people end up with these beautifully worn in decades old birkenstocks? what?


If you put your sandals in the freezer overnight it helps to cut down the odor.


After one particularly hairy urban exploration trip, in which we went so far in to fuckass nowhere that we rented a junky motel room to crash and drink heavily in... My shoes smelled amazingly bad. They weren't sneakers, just leather shoes... so i tried this.

The next morning they had frozen like popsicles. They were completely stiff and frosty, and i was afraid of them breaking. How are you supposed to put them on? wait for them to warm up? we had to check out!

... So i threw them in the microwave, on defrost.

It created a weaponized gas that would be banned by any reasonable international laws against chemical warfare. We seriously had to run out of the room screaming and choking and gagging. I've smelled some terrible things, and that was one of the very strongest. It had a palpable thickness to it.

It was like, the stinkiest feet you can imagine nebulized and forced directly in to your nose with a hose.

posted by emptythought at 10:46 PM on May 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was paired with a random roommate in the dorm during my freshman year at the University of Georgia. Classic story: nothing in common.

The thing is, he didn't sleep until the weekend. I don't think he was using any drugs to maintain his state of acute alertness. He just didn't sleep during the week and then slept about 40 hours on Sat/Sun.

This meant that this fella wore Birkenstocks for 5 days straight. In the rain, through the mud, and always in the room. The whole room REEKED of feet. It was stifling.

So I began waiting until he fell asleep on Saturday morning and then I would Febreeze the fuck out of his feet, which hung off the edge of the bed because he was a tall motherfucker, and out of his Birks. I don't know if it really helped, but it made me feel better.
posted by robstercraw at 6:48 AM on May 14, 2015

My shearling Birkenstocks arrived today, and I love them irrationally and completely. I look like a deranged cavewoman.

I may never take them off.
posted by purpleclover at 4:31 PM on May 15, 2015

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