From sexy to Birkenstock

Ye shall know us by our sandals: The Roman god Mercury sported winged ones. Harsiotef, thought to be the king of Ethiopia way back in the 6th century B.C., wore sandals inscribed with the words, “Ye have trodden the impure peoples under your powerful foot.” The ancient “Ice Man” unearthed in the French Alps wore sandals stuffed with grass to keep his feet warm.

Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, had no fear of the cold: She was often depicted naked but for her sandals.

These days, Birkenstocks and Teva sport sandals support the free souls of many Ashevilleans. We even have our own custom-sandal maker, Paul Taylor, whose wares recall the days of chariot races and gladiators.

“Ben Hur is my hero,” says Taylor, laughing about his chosen profession. In fact, he once knew a guy in Santa Monica who made sandals for all those gladiator movies Hollywood churned out in the 1960s and ’70s (long before Oscar nominee Russell Crowe donned sandals and skirt).

When Taylor mentions this, I get a brief image of a toga-attired Tony Curtis in some B-flick or other, but quickly replace it with the more heroic Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. Crowe made sandals look cool, too.

But the flower children of the ’60s and ’70s probably had more to do with the modern resurgence of sandals: “If you were a hippie wanna be, you absolutely had to have sandals,” says Taylor. And custom-made sandals were the rage. In 1965, Taylor recalls, he was in New York with a friend who was determined to secure a pair of sandals from premier maker Alan Block. Thirty minutes before Block was scheduled to open his shop, Taylor and pal arrived — only to find a line of 100 people waiting for the master sandal-maker’s services.

So they journeyed instead to another sandal crafter, who showed Taylor how the old-fashioned shoes were made. “I thought it was pretty cool, and I learned from him,” says Taylor. He extols the elegant simplicity of sandals, noting, “Sandals probably preceded shoes, because they’re less complex.”

The word “sandals” comes from the Latin term for “board.” And, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, one of the oldest known examples of a sandal (dating from 2,000 B.C.) was made of woven papyrus. Other common, days-of-old materials were leather, wood and grass straw. Some desert-country Aborigines in Australia crafted sandals of tree bark to protect their feet against the burning sands of summer. And the Japanese even developed an iron geta — a platformed sandal (the better to develop those leg muscles for kicking, perhaps).

But over the ages, sandals (like all shoes) became a mark of status: Greek slaves weren’t allowed to wear them at all; whereas wealthy Greek women (and men) adorned theirs with gilded straps and other decorations. Egyptian pharaohs wore sandals with a long, turned-up toepiece that served no practical function other than proclaiming their rank. In Rome, Emperor Aurelius decreed that none but his heirs could wear red sandals. But back to ancient Greece: Salmakides (women of ill repute) wore a type of sandal that clacked seductively when they (ahem) walked a certain way (for more on this note, check out American podiatrist W.A. Rossi’s book, The Sex Life of the Foot and Shoe, reprinted by Krieger Publishing Company in 1993).

Sandals fell out of favor with the advent of such trends as the 30-inch-high platform shoes of the 1500s, early mass production of shoes in the 1700s and the first “sneakers” — so called because the rubber soles made them much quieter than the clackers those salmakides wore! — in the late 19th century.

But there’s no keeping good footwear down (even platform shoes have returned from the disco days).

“Styles come and go, then come and go again,” notes Taylor. Take, for instance, what he calls “the Mexican variant” of sandals that sported old tire treads for soles. “Sometimes you might see the [name-brand] ‘Goodyear’ on the bottom on those shoes,” Taylor remarks of this ’70s trend. The shoes weren’t particularly comfortable — “but they were tough,” he adds.

Another trend was the practical shoes and sandals that started life as orthopedic, corrective footwear: Birkenstock sandals came into vogue as hippie wear in the 1960s and ’70s and still endure today, though there’s a long history to the brand. In 1902, Konrad Birkenstock developed the first flexible arch support, and his company catered to the medical profession. Legend has it that American Margot Fraser tried on a pair of Birkenstocks while on vacation in Germany in 1966 and found them so comfy she started importing them to the U.S.

“And there was a time when Dr. Scholl’s exercise sandals were popular, or those ‘earth’ sandals with their low heels,” Taylor points out.

Those particular styles have now faded a bit — or have they been born again in new forms? When Mark Thatcher lost his job as a geophysicist and started spending his time as a river guide, he turned his attention to sandals. Apparently Thatcher grew weary of the standard waterproof footwear of the day — thong sandals and flip-flops. The dang things were always slipping off and disappearing into the whitewater.

So Thatcher created Teva sandals (Hebrew for nature) in 1982. These “sport” sandals feature sturdy velcroed straps and contoured soles of tough rubber. Thatcher’s creation became so popular that other shoemakers began knocking off copycat sandals faster than Mercury could fly on his winged ones.

But the soul of the shoe remains the same: combining a sporty look with a perfect fit.

“I tend to see a lot of feet,” muses Taylor. “And people do bad things to their feet, when it comes to shoes,” he adds, launching us into a footnote on tight and high-heeled women’s shoes. “Some people won’t wear sandals, because they think their feet are ugly.”

He urges customers to be nicer to their feet when buying shoes: Sandal straps “should lie properly with the bones of your foot, so they don’t rub across the high points where your bones stand out,” he suggests. Next comes proper arch support. “I want customers to come back a year after I’ve made them a sandal and say, ‘This is the most comfortable thing I’ve ever worn.'”

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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2 thoughts on “From sexy to Birkenstock

  1. Anthony Ulmer

    Paul Taylor,

    My name is Anthony Ulmer and I suffer from a disease called Sympathetic Reflex Dystrophy. I have not been able to wear shoes since the onset of this disease. Nothing can touch the top of my left foot as it causes an excruciating burning pain. Also, my foot can just about double in size from swelling.

    I found a rubber flip flop sandal that was made by Quick Silver that has just about the correct cut which allows me to wear them. I purchased all of the sandals like these that I could find. I am now wearing my last pair as a custom shoe maker who was going to try to help me took the last new pair that I had when he left that place of business and needless to say they are gone. I have been in contact with Quick Silver numerous times about finding or making these sandals with no avail. The Quick Silver sandals are on border line as far as me being able to wear them in the first place. I do not believe that I have not found any other sandals that work over the last 7 years of serious searching. None of them seem to have the same cut as the Quick Silver sandals.

    I live in Palm City, Florida and you would think it would be no problem to find them. I cannot even find anyone who makes custom sandals locally. Would you be interested in working with me to make a pair of sandals that I can wear? I am in dire need since the ones I am now wearing are glued together.

    Anthony Ulmer

  2. LaShasta Rees

    Hello, I’m looking for a birkenstock sandal, that was purchased from Dillard’s, in 2005. It is a beautiful style, woven- circle, that wraps 7 ties up the center. I’ve gotten several compliments on them, unfortunately were taken. They would profit birks, if they are no longer a part of your line.

    Thank you!

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