On a blustery Monday morning, 16-year-old Liz Markey climbed out of bed and ran to look out her bedroom window. She saw tree branches glittering with ice as thick as the glass on her mirror.
The wind whipped so hard that the walls of the suburban Arlington, Va., home seemed to bounce and bend. Weather predictions warned of 20-degree temperatures, possible snow and more ice. So what did she do?
She painted her toenails so they sparkled as much as the frost on the trees. Then she stepped into a skirt, a sensible sweater and a pair of . . . open-toed sandals.
“It was cold! But it looked so cute,” said Liz, a high school junior. “It’s what we all wear.”
Black flip-flops were sophomore Dama Kaur’s choice for class in Gaithersburg, Md. Later, she shoveled her driveway in the rubber-soled, thin thongs that expose every toe.
She was freezing. But she had her vanity to keep her warm.
“Flip-flops are so comfortable,” said Dama, 15. “Plus, it’s just cool looking.”
This winter, flip-flops and sandals have started popping up on chilly, nearly purple young toes at colleges and at middle and high schools along the East Coast, and apparently in Europe as well. England’s trendsetter and heartthrob Prince William was spotted by the paparazzi sporting flip-flops during a community service effort on a chilly British day.
U.S. shoe stores and teenage retail havens such as Abercrombie & Fitch are seeing more interest in the sandals, especially during the gift-giving season.
“People are wanting sandals, big time,” said Carolyn Duffy, who works at a Georgetown shoe store. “Open-toed, flip-flops, strappy, Adidas. They walk in from the snow and walk out with sandals.”
The trend befuddles, amuses and worries parents and teachers.
“I hope it’s some form of creative expression,” said Liz’s mother, Blondine Markey. “The other day she came home and said she bought another pair of sandals. I was, like, huh, what? Sandals? It’s snowing outside. I hope she doesn’t get sick.”
Teens have all sorts of excuses for showing off their toes.
“It’s better for my back,” said Zack Hoisington, of Alexandria, Va. His father, standing nearby, started laughing.
“Your back?” asked Jeff Hoisington. “You’re only 13!”
Walking through the snow wearing flip-flops, Arlington third-grader Justina Mendez, 9, said she was “hot,” hence the open-toed footwear.
“I’m not cold at all,” Justina said. Her mother, Betty Mendez, shook her head.
“We worry about so many things with our kids. But they really don’t get sick from doing this,” Mendez said. “It’s like kids are a lot stronger than the rest of us. And they are always hot.”
Are teenagers’ body temperatures higher than adults’? Is that why they never want to wear their coats or big, bulky boots in winter?
“No!” said Brian Doyle, clinical professor of psychiatry and family medicine at Georgetown Medical School. “They’re maybe a little warmer than the rest of us, because those little engines are revved up, and it’s a very vital, active time of life. But it’s not that. It’s just cool to wear sandals in the winter, and besides which, it drives your parents and teachers crazy.”
For the most part, schools have stayed out of the debate. Tank tops and the eye-raising, short shorts--"booty shorts,” in teenage parlance--are a no-way. But naked toes, even in the dead of winter, are OK.
“I don’t know if they are making a statement or just doing something different or it’s just more comfortable,” said Jim Person, a high school principal in Ashburn, Va. “But I’ve got plenty of things to do without worrying about this. As long as they aren’t barefoot, it’s fine by me.”
Some parents demand that their kids at least wear socks. Others give up and just let life make its points.
Anna Jaffe, 14, of Washington, got a chilly lesson when she had to walk home through the snow in her flip-flops.
“I don’t wear them anymore,” said Anna.
Still, most teenagers interviewed admit that they shrug off the bone-chilling discomfort, since they value looking good over all pain. Clara Brenner, 15, of Bethesda, Md., owns four pairs of flip-flops in different styles: straw, velvet, two-tone and rubber with daisies. A typical outfit could include her round mink hat; her faux-Kate Spade, faux-zebra fur bag; a long hot-pink coat; and a pair of the aforementioned open-toed footwear.
“We wear them all year long,” Clara said. “The teachers complain a lot. My feet do get cold. But it’s OK.”
“They all want to look swaggering,” said her mother, Jane Loos.
“ ‘Swaggering,’ Mom? Where did you get that word?” Clara asked.
Her mother just shrugged. She smiled at her daughter.
“It’s probably good psychology to let them wear these,” Loos said. “It focuses all their stress release on this.
“But, sometimes on a really cold day, you do want to say: For the love of God, put some real shoes on!”