Birkenstocks: For the Soles; For the Souls

A personal essay on a long relationship with an ugly shoe by Polly Dennison

Paleo is to diets, what Birkenstocks are to shoes. Wearing them is like being barefoot, but better. They provide a shaped sole for your foot, as if it were bare and walking across fields of green, organic grass (it’s obviously going to be organic) and the soft, mossy ground is rising to meet every curve in a loving and supportive way. I’ve been a convert for about ten years and I am a committed member of the faithful; I evangelise and have brought several of my kin to the cause. 

Birkenstocks – and their lesser impersonators – saw somewhat of a renaissance on the high street this summer. The 90s minimalist look was not quite complete without a pair of the chunky flatform-esque sandals. The trend has resulted in some accidental converts; people who, without this trend, would have overlooked Birkies, but are now planning on donning a pair each summer. One fashion blogger friend of mine, Roisin Linnie – one of the converts – told me, “I’ll wear them every summer now regardless of whether they're in fashion or not, because they're ... so comfy.” Her YouTube posting on “How to Wear Birkenstocks” is her most popular to date, with over 9000 views at time of writing. When I told my converted friends and family that I was writing this piece, they all volunteered their feelings on the shoes: unanimously positive and borderline obsessive. They, too, will wax lyrical about the shoes, given half a chance and have similarly been spreading the word, quietly. It seems that once converted, there is no return to unsupportive rubbish peddled in most sandal shops. Their comfort and minimalist look wins out. 

There was resistant among some to this trend. Leandra Medine of the Man Repeller referred to them as “birth control” in a recent article. But, are they actually ugly? When I first became acquainted with the German soles of comfort, yes, I thought they were ugly. I couldn't understand why someone would want them and they smacked all too much of an eccentric older woman who buys exclusively from M and S's Per Una collection. Which is grand if you are that eccentric older woman, but it wasn't exactly the look I was going for at fifteen when I first met Birkenstocks. Or now, at twenty-five, for that matter. I had only seen pairs in ugly colours, with strange child-like prints and they were not something I was interested in wearing. The pairs I had seen had the same effect on me as GAA County Colour Crocs; aesthetic reflux, no thanks. A quick addition: theyare ugly with socks. Unless you are one of those grumpy-looking Topshop models, please, do not don a sock with a Birkie. Somehow the Grumpies manage to pull it off. 

When I was fifteen, I went to France as part of a cultural exchange, to bring Irish traditional music to the good people of rural Brittany. I only had a pair of flimsy flip flops with me, which were not up to hacking up and down rough lane ways and through the Breton countryside. The harpist of our group, however, was wearing a pair of Birkenstock Gizeh thong sandals. Off-road flip flops, professional flip flops. The rough roads did nothing to dent the Birkenstocks' soles, nor those of the harpist. Not only that, but they actually looked kind of ... good? Somehow this style had circumnavigated the Per Una-eccentric look which had plagued the others in my mind. Somehow, this pair looked young enough for a fifteen year old. Somehow, I could see myself wearing them. I came home and promptly marched to the Birkenstock shop on Wicklow Street for my own pair. They were silver, but don't judge me, that was the summer when every accessory going was silver and so I was attempting to kill the on-trend bird as well as the practical one with the one, structured-cushioned-soled stone. I loved them. I wore them every day that summer. I wore them around the house in winter. They were minimal and unobtrusive,; they were practical and extremely comfortable without looking as if I were about to go rock climbing. 

Cut to five years later and my silver pair had not only seen better days, but the colour wasn’t quite the trend bullet it had once been. I knew I had to re- invest if I wanted to remain comfy and vaguely presentable. This time, I went for a more subdued dark brown, natural leather. I brought them home and my then-boyfriend took one look and remarked "they're a bit... granola". Which was, apparently, a negative quality. I chose to ignore this veto and persisted with my Granola shoes. Another five years later, I still have them and they have lasted even better than their predecessors. They are wonderfully comfortable, are a less intrusive colour than the silver and are supportive enough for endless summer walks and treks. 

Yes, they appear 90s in some looks; in the way that scrunchies, tartan mini skirts and chokers are 90s and to me, that's a negative thing. But, at the same time, they embrace the minimalist look that was also key in the early 90s. The 90s looks of duster coats, round sunglasses, the colour combination of black, white and beige; the 90s looks of Roz from Frasier and Elaine from Seinfeld. The 90s looks of minimalism, comfort and practicality. These are all good factors to embrace, in my mind, when it comes to trends. 

Aside from the immediate questions which often surround personal style at my age in the popular sphere – Am I on trend? Is Topshop selling something similar? Is this look validated by the Olsen twins? Even one Olsen twin, I'll take validation by one Olsen twin? – there are the other, oft ignored personal questions, ones about the individual. Caitlin Moran said in her book, How to be a Woman, that women, generally speaking, own so many clothes and varieties on themes in their wardrobes because each piece represents a different type of women as whom they wish to put themselves forward. To me, Birkenstocks and the minimalist style with which I choose to match them, represent something which I wish to communicate to the world about myself. Their obvious comfort perhaps tells people that I don’t always mind if I’m not a trend-monkey, that I prefer to do something which is good for me and my physical being, than pander. Perhaps it also communicates that I was a child in the early 90s and that Birkies were imprinted on my brain as A-OK. I just had to realise it myself, slowly, as a teen. 

For me, it just happened that Birkenstocks were "in" this season. And that is not to seem arrogant or annoyingly Hipster, that I liked something before it was cool – far from. I will always like them because they are comfortable and they are well made. They also appeal to my mammy-like appreciation for practicality and thriftiness; I like that fact they don't swindle me out of money for a crap product. For a pair of shoes which are under €100 to last five years, with constant wear is great and rather hard to find from a high street brand. I find myself selling them to friends based on the fact that “you can get a good few summers out of a pair”, among their other wonderful qualities. 

I will concede that they take getting used to; having a shoe that comfortable feels strange after wearing unsupportive shoes with no sole shaping. They wake up muscles in your feet and calves that you didn’t know you had. I dare any reader to buy a pair and not be converted after one season. I was surprised by how much I like them, and it’s never a bad thing to try something a bit new and outside your comfort zone. That said, I will never try GAA County Colour Crocs. I don’t care how comfy they might be.