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The feel of rubber between your toes

Times Staff Writer

Before Sarah Michelle Gellar wore white Mellas in her wedding; before pairs of Havaianas turned up, bejeweled, in goodie bags for this year’s Oscar nominees; before an entire shipment of Sigerson Morrisons sold out in Manhattan on a single day in April -- in short, before this became the Year of the Upmarket Flip-Flop -- there were certain things that were only about the beach.

One was the soft, thwick-thwack of thong sandals slapping bare feet. Another was the cheap smell of new rubber footgear in baskets and dime store bins. “Go-aheads,” Southern Californians called them in the 1950s, because they’d fall off your feet if you tried to walk backward -- they were that poorly constructed.

Blisters formed where they split toes and rubbed tender insteps. Rare was the pair that went three weeks without breaking. Their sole promise -- temporary, like so many things about summer -- was that they’d keep the hot sand away from your skin.

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Subliminally, though, they conveyed other signals that -- again, like so many things about summer -- have, over time, become commodified. They meant you were free, so free, in fact, that leisure could strike at any moment, so you’d better dress for it. That’s what Californians of a certain age will tell you, because even here, fashion was not always open and easy. There was a time, even in sunny L.A., when people kept their toes to themselves when they weren’t on vacation. Toes were personal. Toes were too much information. Toes had cleavage.

“At the beginning of the 20th century, women could not show their feet at all,” said Mary Trasko, author of “Heavenly Soles,” a history of footwear. “Feet were considered a very private part of the body.” From the Middle Ages, in fact, a glimpse of a woman’s foot in most places was tantamount to trespassing on another man’s property.

Kevin Jones, curator of the museum at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, says that toes made a brief reappearance after the French Revolution, but shoes were closed again by 1810. They stayed that way into the 20th century.

“Even in the ‘20s and ‘30s,” Trasko said, “the clothes were very modest. It wasn’t until things opened up and women’s roles changed that they could show their feet in polite society.”

But when the Italian-born shoemaker Salvatore Ferragamo arrived in Hollywood to make sandals for biblical epics -- and inevitably for film stars -- America was ready, said Jones. Open-toed shoes became popular, as did open-heeled mules and flat slippers; World War II veterans brought back Japanese zoris and shoe manufacturers joined in postwar experimentation in industrial plastics. From these sweeping forces came the lowly flip-flop.

“I grew up in Laguna Beach in the 1950s, and I remember guys back from Japan wearing them after the Korean War,” recalls surf promoter and historian Allan Seymour, who is now 60. “Up until then, people just wore these clunky leather sandals that we called ‘Jesus Boots’ in the ‘60s.”

Whatever the source, he says, they quickly were absorbed into the informal landscape of surf culture -- flimsy and loose in the ‘50s, the color of Popsicles in the ‘60s, then in every imaginable permutation from bamboo to platforms. They crammed trinket shops in beach towns and littered landfills in autumn. They became, for most of America, what you put on when the season coaxed you out of your inhibitions.

“They were the closest you could come,” Seymour explains, “to bare feet.”

But flip-flops still were just summer shoes for most of the country until the 1990s changed workplace fashion, some believe permanently. The dot-com revolution made overnight millionaires of 20-year-olds steeped in West Coast youth culture who wanted to know why they shouldn’t wear what they chose to the office.

Corporations loosened dress codes and declared Casual Fridays. Fashion, as ever, followed the money: Now there was status in dressing as if work was just something to pop in on between yoga classes. Now dressing for success meant dressing as if leisure could strike at any moment. Summer was not just summer; summer was subtext.

“Suddenly,” said Trasko, “every day was Casual Friday. And of course, never say never in fashion, but there has really been no going back.”

For trend-followers, change has meant a sudden run on the beach’s once-least-remarkable footwear. Havaianas -- $3 Brazilian flip-flops of synthetic rubber that, for more than three decades, were the footwear of Sao Paulo peasants -- took off after supermodels such as Kate Moss sang their praises last year. In bright colors for $10-$15 a pair or studded with Swarovski crystals for $150, they’ve shown up during the past year at the Cannes Film Festival and on the catwalk of designer Jean-Paul Gaultier. Exports -- which were at zero three years ago -- soared to 20 million pairs last year.

Sigerson Morrison’s $85 rubber flip-flop with the kitten heel has repeatedly sold out at high-end boutiques. The season has also unveiled new Chanel flip-flops, Manolo Blahnik flip-flops, Gucci flip-flops, even Birkenstock flip-flops. Mella makes them in terrycloth and canvas. Coach is selling a flip-flop with a flower on the big toe.

The trend also has impacted brands that assiduously avoid the mass market, such as San Clemente-based Rainbows, whose $45-and-up, hand-assembled flip-flops have had a cult following among surfers since 1974.

Jay “Sparky” Longley, a 59-year-old surfer who for years limited his production of Rainbow Sandals “so I wouldn’t have to leave the beach and move to L.A.,” said he finally succumbed two years ago to entreaties for more orders from the mom-and-pop surf stores he sells to. He opened a second factory and doubled production, thinking that would be plenty for a beach sandal that relies mostly on word-of-mouth and is designed to last decades. He was mistaken.

“We sold $5.5 million last year, we’ll do $10 million this year, and we could double that next year if we wanted,” said Longley.

On a recent Saturday in a Newport Beach surf shop, crowds of students bore out his projections. “I wear flip-flops to church,” laughed 24-year-old Jack Flynn, swatting sand fleas from one ankle.

“I wore mine to a formal,” countered Tracy Sorenson, 20. “Had to. My date was short.”

Fashion industry analysts say the flip-flop is the largest selling shoe in the developing world now. “Flip-flops are holding up the casual end of the market,” says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group in New York. “The casual sandal market is a $1.8 billion business, up 22% overall this year, and it’s almost entirely flip-flops.

“For California,” Cohen said, “it’s more of the same lifestyle, but the casualization of America has changed everything for the rest of the country.”

Summer is endless now -- not that everyone is comfortable here in Beach Nation.

“Now that we have to go outside to smoke like Californians,” the New York Observer said, mourning the proliferation of bare toes across Gotham, “do we have to give up and dress like them, too?”


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