Sunday, March 22, 2009

A brief history of the plastic thong

After the Second World War there was great need to build economies and create employment in Asia. One of the first industries to boom was the footwear industry and mass-produced plastic sandals became a major export. By the fifties new moulding techniques for rubber and plastic were introduced in Taiwan and elsewhere which allowed cheaper shoes to be turned out in their millions. Wooden sandals had always been worn by ordinary people in Asia and the simple single plugger thong became the shoe of choice. Many countries claim to be the originator but the style dates to the Stone Age and ranks as one of the first shoes to be worn. Wooden sandals were worn in the Middle East and India, rice straw sandals in China and Japan, rawhide sandals in Africa and papyrus sandals dating to 1500 B.C in Egypt. In Persia sandals were crafted from wood and had a toe separator between the first and second toe with no thong. Platform soles were worn in bath houses and harems. Often the wooden sandals were intricately inlaid with pearl and other semi precious stones. By Biblical times sandals were commonly worn throughout much of the known world. Wooden sandals were worn throughout the Middle East and India and are clearly depicted on sculptures, temples and in Sanskrit writing, circa 3000 BCE. Wood presumably was hard wearing, readily available and preferred by some religious sects e.g. Hindus, who would not wear leather. It remains unclear whether these sandals were indigenous to India or taken from Persia (or vice versa). Trade between the Western and Eastern civilization was well established in antiquity e.g. Spice and Silk Routes and it is expected fashion exchange also took place. In Japan there were two styles of traditional sandal i.e. the zori and the geta. Zori are flat bottomed sandals originally made with a straw sole and leather thongs held between the first and second toes. These are also known as Tatami Sandals. These were widely used in Japan from at least the Heian period (794-1185). There is no history to indicate whether these were indigenous or imported to Japan. The Japanese geta is a wooden platform sandal held to the feet by a flexible thong (sometimes rope, sometimes a thong covered in a black velveteen kind of fabric) that goes through the base of the sandal, up between the big toe and the second toe and then the two ends go over the arch back toward the middle or back of the foot. Getas are worn barefoot whereas Zori and Tatami sandals are worn with tabi, which is white cotton foot covering (like socks) with a split toe, between the big toe and the other four toes for the sandal thong. In 1956, the Olympic Games were covered on television for the first time and the eyes of the world fell on Melbourne, Australia. When the Japanese swimming team came to the pool side they wore getas. The ceremonial procession became a camera spectacle which was broadcast all over the world. The fashion for plastic flip flop sandals soon followed thanks to a Hong Kong based shoe manufacturer, John Cowie who had previously seen Getas, Tatami and Zori sandals on a visit to Japan. He took advantage of the new plastic industry and started to mass produce plastic thongs. New Zealander, Maurice Yock took the idea and patented the first pair of rubber thongs which he called Jandals (a combination of Japan and Sandal) in 1957. Plastic sandals were mass produced cheaply in Japan and became a stable post war manufacturing industry especially when they started selling all over the world. New Zealand sales rocketed and soon Australians wanted to wear the casual sandals they had seen on the Melbourne Olympics. Other parts of the far east also had variation on the thong type of sandal i.e. in Singapore the thong attachment was replaced with a strap across the top of the foot which followed the metatarsal heads (the Singapore Slide), and in Philippines the wooden platform thong had ornate carvings. These regional variations are considered unique to these regions. The US troops posted to the Pacific eagerly took home carved platform sandals as souvenirs and many believe this was why sandals became popular in the US after the war. By the mid to late 50s in UK and Western Europe the new plastic flip flops from the east were a must for all package holiday tourists visiting the sun kissed beaches of the Mediterranean. In the 60s cheap shoes found popularity among many low social economical demographics including populations previously used to wearing straw espadrilles. In South America the plastic pluggers were called Havaianas (pronounced ha-vie-yon-ahs) or flip-flops. In recent years the humble flip flop has become staple fair for the elegant fashionista but to the best of my knowledge Australia remains the only place on Earth where the Double Plugger holds sartorial sway.

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