In the 1990’s I moved to the land of Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging, grunge lovers. If you guessed Oregon you win a reusable grocery bag! Even though I live among them, Birkenstocks were never something I could embrace. Flannel shirts, jean cutoffs and recycling were all 90’s trends to which I succumbed but ugly shoes I just could not do.
How did these former fashion outcasts become so popular during the 1990s? While Birkenstock has been in America since the 1960’s it sold more shoes, according to the New York Times, between 1992 and 1994 than it had in the 20 previous years combined. Birkenstock was able to generate these sales by countering their ‘ugly shoe’ reputation by unveiling a multitude of new styles and expanding its color choices beyond neutrals to neons.
To my surprise, and unheeded objections, Birkenstocks were also showcased in fashion magazines! How could Vogue do this to me? In addition to the betrayal of Vogue, one of my favorite fashionistas of all time – the venerable Madonna – was photographed in a pair of Birkenstocks. Super models, iconic singers and even sorority girls (with painted red toenails, of course) all wearing Birkenstocks… oh, the disillusionment!
Another way in which Birkenstocks ingratiated themselves into everyday fashion was by producing shoes specifically targeted to food servers, clinicians and other professions known to have to be on their feet day in and day out. Birkenstock offered slip and water resistant ‘styles’ – practical but don’t call them stylish. Birkenstock even took advantage of the 1990’s dot-com boom by producing and marketing shoes specifically to computer technicians; their "ESD" line prevents the buildup of static electricity which can harm hardware.
If I had to pick one style of Birks that were a little more stylish than the rest, I’d go with the Boston Birk. These fully enclosed sandals were seen on the hippest of the hip in the 90s and are featured prominently in this Gap commercial, where everyone in the ad is wearing a black pair of Boston style Birks.
However, moving into the 21st century, Birkenstocks sales have declined from their astronomical growth in the 1990s. While this decline is partly due to competition from other brands that have entered the ‘comfort’, i.e. ‘ugly’, shoe segment I like to think that fashionistas everywhere may be coming to their senses. Stilettos may be uncomfortable but at least they make your calves look shapely!
Although Birkenstocks’ sales may have slipped a little from the 1990s, these iconic hippie shoes aren’t going away. Some of the latest news stories demonstrate how ingrained in our society Birkenstocks truly are as ‘Birkenstock’ is used as an adjective to describe a certain segment of our society:
"Birkenstock-wearing, Jon Stewart-watching lefties…"
Maureen Downey, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 10, 2008
A search in Google for the word "Birkenstock" yields many more examples of how this shoe has come to be associated with certain societal groups.
In any event, as an ugly shoe shunner, I am now forced to avert my eyes from feet ensconced in Crocs. I never thought I would say this, but I’d rather see your feet in Birkenstocks!