HEAD TO TOE: Finding Comfort in a Bed Made for Feet

A pair of Birkenstock sandals worn with thick wool socks. Image courtesy freepeople.com

If there is anything that makes me cringe, it’s the sight of a woman, smartly (or tartly) dressed, trying desperately to make herself invisible as she slips out of a pair of ridiculously high heels into a pair of sneakers or plastic flip-flops. In public. There is something incredibly undignified about having to find a potted plant to crouch behind while you use all your core strength to keep your bare foot from touching the filthy New York City sidewalk. But that indignity is nothing compared to voluntarily choosing shoes that are so incredibly uncomfortable you can’t even wait to get to the privacy of your own home to take them off. If you ask me, if you can’t walk in them, then they’re not shoes. Although no doubt many of my colleagues in the fashion world would vehemently disagree. You have to suffer for fashion, or so the saying goes.

In the design world, things that look good but fail to serve their basic function are generally scorned. I believe the proper term for those is “design art.” Has anyone actually napped on Marc Newson’s Lockheed Lounge? Or relaxed with a nice book and a glass of wine in Ron Arad’s Well and Bad Tempered chairs? Granted, I’m not proposing that everyone run out and furnish their homes with ergonomically correct task chairs à la Peter Opsvik, or worse even, the much-dreaded La-Z-Boy recliner with built-in massage function. And even on the more tasteful side, there is such a thing as making your surroundings too comfortable. When flipping through design magazines, I often wonder at the preponderance of raft-like overstuffed sofas in otherwise relatively chic homes. “I am often told that the furniture is not comfortable, and in that not functional,” wrote the artist Donald Judd in his 1993 essay, It’s Hard to Find a Good Lamp. “The source of the question is in the overstuffed bourgeois Victorian furniture, which as I said, never ceased. The furniture is comfortable to me. Rather than making a chair to sleep in or a machine to live in, it is better to make a bed. A straight chair is best for eating or writing. The third position is standing.”

Ron Arad, Well Tempered Chair, 1986.

Luckily for Judd, he never had to stand around in 4-inch spikes. A little bit of shoe history if you will: in 1954, the French designer Roger Vivier, who was working for Christian Dior at the time, increased the height of his exceedingly slim heels from 2.4 to 3.1 inches, all the better to elongate the leg and compliment the curvy silhouette so pleasing to men who had spent the greater part of the Second World War pining after pin-up photos. Some credit Vivier for creating the modern-day stiletto, while others point to the Italian designer Salvatore Ferragamo. Regardless which side of history you stand on, the pointy-heeled shoe, which was aptly named for a dagger-like knife, was (and is) considered the very height of fashion. My personal hero, on the other hand (or foot as it were), is neither Vivier nor Ferragamo but Konrad Birkenstock, a descendant of the German shoemaker Johann Adam Birkenstock, who in 1896 created a shoe with insoles that were contoured to support the foot — a comfortable fussbett, or foot-bed, made from several layers of jute fibers, cork, and suede. His son Carl would go on to become an authority on foot health, authoring several books on the subject. And in 1963, Carl’s son Karl was responsible for creating the dorky but oh so comfortable cork-and-leather sandal we know today.

Fortunately, the fashion world of late has embraced comfortable shoes — whether out of a sense of irony or just plain common sense is anyone’s guess. Saint Laurent clogs, Gucci fur-lined slippers, Prada Tevas, or Céline Birkenstocks — the list goes on. (When it comes to comfort, Signora Prada is guilty of some of the more egregious shoe infractions, yet the vision of the designer herself that endures is in man sandals with socks.) These are shoes that literally broadcast their comfort with their unattractiveness. So what do they say about the woman who wears them? That she doesn’t shave her armpits? That she voted for Hillary Clinton? That she appreciates being able to walk the 35 blocks from the office to her home on a warm summer evening without first having to make a public spectacle of herself on the sidewalk? I am totally comfortable with all of the above.

Text by Alix Browne.
Taken from PIN–UP 23, Fall/Winter 2017/18.