In those parts of the world where temperatures vary greatly over the year, flip-flops are to summer what boots are to winter: a quintessential symbol of seasonal changes.
But whereas boots are largely uncontroversial, flip-flops spark discussion to a degree that perhaps only Crocs can match in the footwear world. Do flip-flops belong on a red carpet? (Yes.) Do they have a place in the office? (Why not?) Do astronauts wear them in space? (More on that later.) Their onomatopoeic name has even become a synonym for U-turning on an issue.
The modern design of flip-flops came from Japan, but their origins are found in Ancient Egypt. Now they’re a staple of life in countries as far apart as Brazil and New Zealand.
Let’s trace the global footprint of the world’s most ubiquitous shoe.
By the digits
111.22 feet (33.9 m): The Guinness World Record distance covered by a flip-flop thrown using the foot; Phillip Conroy has held the record since June 10, 2012
~90 tons (82 metric tons): Total weight of flip-flops that wash up on East African beaches every year
$18,000: Cost of the self-proclaimed most expensive flip-flops in the world, as of 2011, a collaboration between sandals brand Chipkos and LA artist David Palmer. Chipkos promised the deal would include the protection of 100,000 sq ft (9,290 sq m) of endangered rainforest land. Apparently that was enough to “save the planet.”
What’s in a name?
How we say sandal
How a word like “flip-flop” translates across the various languages shows a demarcation between those who prefer to go the onomatopoeic route, focusing on the noise the shoes make, or their particular design. The English language has both—and more. “Thong sandals” focus on the shape, while “toe post sandals” refers to the anatomical impact of the footwear. Here’s how to say “flip-flops” in other languages. Feel free to let us know what the shoes are called in your language if it’s not mentioned in this list.
🇫🇷 France: Tongs (no relation to the underwear, which is called lanière or “string”)
🇪🇸 Spain: Chancletas or chanclas (they have developed a sinister reputation as parents’ footwear of choice to impart corporal punishment on kids)
🇮🇹 Italy: Infradito literally translates as “in between fingers”
🇵🇹 Portugal: Chinelo de dedo, or “finger sandals”
🇩🇪 Germany: Zehentrenner, which is made up of the words for “toe” and “separator” (or sometimes Germans will say the English “flip-flops”)
“I put on the flip-flops, and then everybody’s like, ‘What a statement! Wow!’”
—Hollywood star Jennifer Lawrence expressing surprise at how a picture of her wearing flip-flops on the red carpet at Cannes in May 2023 went viral. In an interview with ET!, Lawrence clarified the footwear choice was accidental rather than intentional as she had to change from her heels, which were a size too big, to avoid falling while going down the staircase.
Which sci-fi movie sparked a debate over whether flip-flops can be worn in space?
B. The Martian
Flip-flop your way to the bottom of this email for the answer.
6000 BCE: Egyptian murals from around 4000 years ago show people wearing sandals with a strip between their toes. The British Museum holds several pairs in its collection, including one that is 3,000 years old.
18th century: Zori, thonged sandals made of materials such as rice straw, cloth, lacquered wood, leather, and rubber, become commonplace in Japan. They’re not to be confused with the geta, which are also thonged sandals but with two “teeth” in the middle of the sole that serve as a platform, to avoid getting mud on your feet or, for sushi chefs, to wade through fish scraps on the pavement. Neither geta nor zori distinguish between left or right foot—each can be worn on either side.
1950s: Hiroshima Rubber Company makes zori sandals for export.
1962: Brazilian company Alpargatas launches Havaianas, rubber flip-flops inspired by the zori, and currently one of the world’s most recognizable shoewear brands. The design was patented in 1966. In 1980, the footwear becomes part of Brazil’s consumer price index basket.
1983: German footwear brand Birkenstock develops its own flip-flop design, calling it Gizeh—an echo to Ancient Egypt.
2000: A giant rubber flip-flop carries pop star Kylie Minogue to the stage at the Sydney Olympics’ closing ceremony.
2005: Northwestern University’s national championship women’s lacrosse team sparks controversy when some players wear flip-flops at a White House reception.
According to LinkedIn user Deb Brown, you can mail flip-flops in the US (though we can’t confirm this isn’t the case in other countries) with no need for further packaging, just by writing the address on the shoe and tying them together. It’s a great way to, shall we say, sweep someone off their feet.
Take me down this 🐰 hole!
Two families in New Zealand disagree over who came up with the term “jandals,” which is the way most Kiwis refer to flip-flops. Morris Yock laid claim to the term when he filed a trademark for it in 1957. Yock, an importer, was inspired to bring the flip-flop to New Zealand after witnessing American soldiers wearing the rubber footwear in Japan. As trade rules at the time prevented him from simply importing the sandals, he began making them himself. But in 2007, the daughter of John Cowie claimed that her dad had begun producing rubber versions of Japanese sandals in Hong Kong in the 1940s, coining the term as a mix of “Japanese” and “sandals”. Perhaps there’s a touch of truth in both versions, but the trademark is often the ultimate authority on deciding who gets credits for inventions. Just ask Antonio Meucci, who invented the phone before Alexander Graham Bell, but could not afford to patent it.
How do you wear your flip-flops?
- Bare foot in sandal, like nature intended
- With specially made flip-flop socks, unapologetically
- I simply don’t
In last week’s poll about invented holidays, 73% of you were into Nothing Day. It’s Jan. 16, for all who celebrate.
Today’s email was written by Sofia Lotto Persio (an all-weather flip-flopper thanks to her grandma, RIP) and edited and produced by Annaliese Griffin (super-flopper—owns Reefs and Gizehs, and still mourns a rainbow-strapped pair she bought on a beach in Costa Rica in 1998).
The answer to the quiz is A. Prometheus Ridley Scott’s 2012 film, a prequel of sorts to Alien. It attracted mixed reviews and some baffled reactions regarding the choice of having the space crew wear flip-flops while on the spaceship.