(Photo by spaceamoeba /flickr)
Seattleites have never shied away from the aesthetic misfits of the shoe department. From foot-splaying Birkenstocks to sock-hugging Tevas, from Crocs for all occasions to orthopedic clogs for those not scheduled on a nursing shift, Northwesterners seem to think a little ugly is probably good for us.
So it wasn’t too surprising to see our city highlighted in a New York Times article last spring about the rise in popularity of the “simian”-looking Vibram FiveFingers (VFF) shoes. Made by the same Italian company that brought us the banal but rugged dun-colored soles on most hiking boots, VFFs are flexible and thin-soled with individually articulated toe pockets. Some say the toes give them the look of monkey feet, while my 7-year-old daughter thinks they resemble bear paws. Either way, this product takes the company in what I might call a “feral yet festive” direction.
When VFFs hit the market several years ago, most consumers wanted them for sports—sailors seeking a grip on deck, parkour enthusiasts leaping off walls. Runners jogged into the act, encouraged by Christopher McDougall’s 2009 bestseller, Born to Run, which asserts that running barefoot is actually good for your joints. The shoes do offer a kind of protective barefootedness, but now they’re an option for every day.
To emphasize his point that these awkward-looking athletic shoes are crossing over into streetwear, New York Times writer Rob Walker quoted a Seattle reader who had seen a woman wearing them on the bus with a business suit. That reader is not alone—they've been spotted at a boot camp class in Volunteer Park, on the light rail downtown and dueling for attention below a Utilikilt on Capitol Hill.
As a Seattle native (and occasional fashion victim), I decided I’d better try on the trend myself. I donned an aquamarine sample pair and wore them out my door in Ballard. “Looks like you just bought yourself a pair of calluses,” announced a neighbor, inspecting the soles.
One rainy day, I squelched my way up the street (the tops are fabric, which is clammy when wet) to my daughter’s end-of-year choir party, and endured a scathing once-over by the school’s most fashionable mom. From the vertiginous height of her gladiator heels, the style maven scanned my turquoise toes and grimaced. I decided I needed some help.
If anyone can make a silk purse from a (synthetic) sow’s ear, it’s Anna Lange, owner of Capitol Hill’s Pretty Parlor vintage boutique, festive with ’50s bowling shirts and ’70s maxi dresses. She was also less likely to eject me than the staff at Barney’s or Nordstrom.
But when she peered over the shop counter to see my “fashion problem,” her pout—and pronouncement—were witheringly Anna Wintour. “We are not a fan,” she said. Then she squatted near my feet, wiggling the toes gingerly as if she was inspecting a particularly bad case of fungus. A clump of dirt and grass, primal toe jam, sullied her painted floor. “They’re like little frog feet,” she said.
Anna was wearing a pair of custom-made Sven boots. I coveted them because they were actual shoes. “The color’s not bad,” she said. “I’ll give you that.”
But could I successfully wear these in public? She shook her head. “Embrace them,” she said. She clattered through a rack of ’60s swimsuits. “I’m seeing sporty. I’m seeing matching swimwear.”
When I emerged from the changing room, I was flaunting a turquoise-checked bikini top and skirted bottom that did, in fact, complement the VFFs. But it is the very fact that they worked together that sealed the FiveFingers’ fate. I won’t be wearing the Beach Blanket Bingo bikini down the street. So I probably shouldn’t be wearing the VFFs there, either.
Originally published in September 2010