Caroline Knowles, the author of Flip-Flop: A Journey Through Globalisation’s Backroads, discusses the footwear choices of the wealthy and powerful.
When President Barack Obama was photographed wearing a pair of flip-flops on his Hawaiian vacation (New York Post January 5th 2011), the political commentators reached for their laptops in earnest. ‘Historian agreed it was the first time they could remember seeing the leader of the free world snapped in a public setting, wearing nothing more than a flimsy strip of rubber on his feet.’ Important and serious people, like the presidential historian Jane Hampton Cook, were moved to reveal that they had never seen the president’s feet before. But it was all a matter of context – ‘your footwear belongs to the occasion’ Cooke continued. Flip-flops are fine on the beach, ‘Now if he’s wearing flip-flops to the State of the Union, that’s be different.’ Quite so – Obama and most of us in wealthy countries can afford the luxury of shoe-context. A riff on powerful men and shoes ensued in the New York Post. John F Kennedy who liked sailing had a predilection for deck shoes. Ronald Reagan would strut Camp David in cowboy boots. So why not flip-flops? As the flip-flop season is upon us these again become relevant questions.
Hawaii has an important place in flip-flop provenance and genealogy. American mass manufacture of them dates back to 1930s Hawaiian plantations where they became a substitute for rubber boots which were in short supply. Flip-flops, such a simple design, are a copy of ninth-century Japanese sandals made in rush and bamboo, and brought to the Hawaiian plantations by nineteenth-century Japanese migrants who worked in watery agriculture. Later, flip-flops were popular in the US navy with sailors traveling to Pacific theaters of war, and the period after the Second World War was crucial in developing their mass appeal. In the 1950s they appeared in Californian beach and surfer culture and then made their way down the coast to Mexico and into South America, inspiring the term ‘slipper foot’ applied to the poor. It was at this point in their developing ubiquity that flip-flops became leisure footwear available to the growing leisure classes and a pair of shoes cheap enough to enter the favela and the uncomfortable circumstances of the poor in South America and elsewhere. Flip-flops perfectly express Obama’s Hawaiian origins and the growing global and domestic social inequalities over which he presides.
Flip-flops are made of plastic, a thoroughly twentieth century material, not rubber as the New York Post article suggests. And, while they are made all over the world, in a shifting matrix of flexible production, Eastern China is the epicenter of flip-flop manufacture. Obama is closer to China in his flip-flops than he realises. Rural migrants, who have moved to upgrade their circumstances and those of their country-relatives by participating in twenty-first century urban life, make billions of them in small factories clustered around the outskirts of cities like Fuzhou. Flip-flops are a Chinese story. And plastic is the fabric of aspiration. It is the fabric of displacement too, as rural migrants lack the residence permits – tied to their place of origins in the state’s management of its people – necessary to become fully urban citizens. Rural migrants make flip-flops while they are wearing flip-flops. Flip-flops are the people’s shoe.
It is the world’s highest selling shoe, massively outselling the second most popular – trainers. Billions of them touch more feet than any other shoe. No shoe has been to more places on more feet. In them people tackle the epic and mundane journeys of their lives: flip-flops are worn to the bathroom, to the beach, to work, to school, to market, to a new country. They tread all manner of journeys, social scenes and landscapes. Although there are expensive designer flip-flops, their popularity lies in their cheapness. They retail for as little as 40c. Thus they have social reach: millionaires and paupers wear them. In the twenty-first century, a billion people walk barefoot. Flip-flops are the first step into the world of shoes. Flip-flops are demographically sensitive: when world population rises so do flip-flop sales. Flip-flops are a shoe with critical mass and mass appeal across social spectrums and continents. They potentially reveal the mobile social worlds of the twenty-first century on a global scale.
While flip-flops are shipped all over the world from their production center in Eastern China, their biggest emerging markets are in the places where people struggle to afford shoes. African countries provide important customers for flip-flops and Chinese plastics in other forms too like buckets, bowls and household objects. The close relationships China is forming with African countries is not just about infrastructural projects like roads and railways, but it is also about the mundane plastic objects of everyday life. Obama must worry about this axis: the African borderlands strengthened by new forms of Chinese support ground growing fears about global security as Boko Haram and Al Shabaab operate in Northern Nigeria and Somalia.
While are, no doubt, an innocent choice of footwear for a Hawaiian family holiday, Obama’s flip-flops have far more significance than the historians and political commentators accord them. They resonate with the growing power of the empire in east and its global influence. They resonate with the widening social inequalities, at home and world wide, with which Obama and his successors must contend. They resonate with a factory driven and uncontainable urbanism. And they resonate with contemporary insecurities on the borders of parts of the world that take security for granted.
Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. She is the co-author of Hong Kong: Migrant Lives, Landscapes and Journeys (2009).
Her new book, Flip-Flop: A Journey Through Globalisation’s Backroads, is available now on the Pluto Press website.