Fashion is cyclical—every few decades, popular styles from years past come back in vogue. Sometimes, this phenomenon is hard to understand; take acid-wash jeans, crop tops, and the choker necklace, for example. But there’s one item that’s never gone out of style since its invention thousands of years ago: the sandal—it has serious staying power.
The oldest known sandals, discovered in an Oregon cave in 1938, were made of sagebrush bark. Carbon dating puts them at around 10,000 years old. But despite their ancient origins, the Fort Rock Cave sandals are essentially the same simple shoes loved by many today, with a flat sole and covering over the top of the foot to keep it on.
While these early specimens were found in North America, the sandal is a global phenomenon. From Greek mythology to the Bible, and the wet, chilly winters of Japan to the hot, arid climates of North Africa and the Middle East, the sandal has played a huge role in history, including a surprising impact in the U.S. around World War II.
Next time you slip into a pair of flip-flops to hit the beach, remember that you’re participating in a crucial piece of world history.
The First Sandals
Today, sandals are found worldwide on people from all walks of life, but it wasn’t always that way. In ancient Egypt, it’s thought that sandals were a symbol of the elite. A pharaoh's sandals were typically left on the throne as a placeholder when their owner was absent. Footwear was also seen as a metaphor for the journey into the afterlife, which might explain why pharaohs were sometimes buried wearing their sandals.
Like many fashion trends, the sandal eventually caught on with the masses, and by the time the Romans occupied Egypt, most Egyptians were sporting them. The Romans wore sandals too but had their own version. These sandals were considerably stiffer than their Egyptian counterpart, and the sole and upper part of the shoe was held together with tacks. This style was helpful to centurions and allowed them to patrol longer distances.
Sandals are mentioned throughout the Bible as well. It’s thought that biblical sandals were probably made of animal hides and dried grasses. These shoes helped make it possible to travel through the desert for forty years at a stretch.
Sandals become Fashionable
Sandals were originally useful in warm climates because they breathe while still protecting the foot from hot terrain. Eventually, the straightforward, utilitarian design made way for adornments like beads, jewels, and other artistic touches. There’s evidence of fancy sandals among ancient Queens of Egypt, and color became important in Rome when Julius Caesar decreed that only he and his sons were allowed to wear red or purple shoes. Soon, this staple of the Roman wardrobe had become so over-the-top that bejeweled sandals were outlawed altogether.
Hundreds of years later, the fashionable sandal experienced a revival. After the French Revolution in 1789, French fashionistas drew inspiration from Greek and Roman trends. By the early 19th century, the French had come up with a sandal that laced up the calf, ballerina-style. The Spanish Empress Eugénie, too, made a bold step towards bringing sandals back into the mainstream. A photo from the 1850s shows her in sandals, though showing off one’s toes was considered fairly risqué at the time.
In the 1920s, the sandal started making wider appearances, particularly at the beach. Soon, sandals were in vogue on the dance floor, too, and by the 1930s, Americans were wearing sandals day and night for both casual and formal affairs.
An Unexpected Boon
Sandals certainly had their place in American culture by the time World War II entered the global stage, but the war effort had a surprising effect. Because civilians were obliged to ration materials like leather during the war years, sandals—which required far less leather to manufacture than a traditional leather shoe, and could also be made from fibers and other materials that weren’t being rationed—saw a major resurgence.
During this time of supply shortages, the Scott Shoe Company in Hawaii, now known as Scott Hawaii, was forced to adapt by moving away from making heavier shoes and instead, found its niche in making slippers and “Scotties” sandals. This fashion trend never faded, and it was in the hippie-happy 1960s that the ever-popular flip-flops of today became all the rage.
A Shoe with Staying Power
Plenty of 1960s-era trends went by the wayside—bell-bottoms, anyone?—but the sandal stuck around. People loved the comfortable style, and improvements to insoles made sandals good for foot health, too. By the 1990s, when Scott Hawaii outfitted the cast of Baywatch with their now-iconic slippers, the flip-flop had been cemented in the cultural lexicon.
Today, flip flops are everywhere from sandy beaches to major cities across the globe. While the materials to make the shoes have changed over the years, from sagebrush bark to rubber, nylon, leather, and vegan leather, the shoe itself is still simple, useful, and comfortable. For something to remain so popular for so many hundreds of years proves that the uncomplicated design works. Flip flops truly have stood the test of time.
Written by Emma Walker for Matcha in partnership with Scott Hawaii.