Issue 14.3: June / July 2011

Rubbah Soul

Hawai‘i does not wear flip-flops. This might be news to you if you’re from the Mainland, but it’s true. Hawai‘i does not wear thongs, either, at least not on its feet. It does not wear jandals, as they do in New Zealand, and it does not wear slipslops, as they do in South Africa. It does not wear go-aheads, pluggers, toesies or scuffs, as they’re sometimes called. Nor does it wear flip-flaps, flips, slaps or anything like that.

 

What Hawai‘i wears, and what the rest of the world calls by so many other names, is the rubber slipper—or even more correctly, the rubbah slippah. The name is important because the slipper is important. It is ubiquitous in Hawai‘i, and Hawai‘i identifies with it deeply. It’s the principal mediator between Hawai‘i’s feet and very ‘aina itself, the layer between flesh and earth—as well as asphalt, linoleum, escalator or what have you. It’s as iconic as shave ice and far more long-lasting. It is the unofficial state footwear. The only reason it’s not the official state footwear is because Hawai‘i doesn’t have official state footwear. Should the Legislature ever decide that the state bird, the state marine mammal and all of the other designated state symbols ought to be joined by something official for the feet, the rubber slipper will be—it has to be said—a shoo-in.

 

The slipper epitomizes some of the fundamental values of Hawai‘i’s multicultural history, things like practicality, thriftiness, humility and the unqualified acceptance of each other’s toes. As a cultural icon the slipper can turn up in funny places, like dangling from women’s necks or stuck in their ears. Every jewelry counter in Hawai‘i seems to have slipper pendants and earrings in sterling silver and 14-karat gold. For Island artists the colors and curves of the famous slipper pile-ups outside the front doors of Hawai‘i homes scream “still life!” One Island sculptor, experimenting with materials, created a pair of life-size slippers from fresh, pink bubblegum. It sold in a show at the Honolulu Academy of Arts for $500.  

 


 

 

If the shoe doesn’t fit ... surf with it. Among the many applications for the rubber slipper (swatting cockroaches, stabilizing tables, knocking down mangoes), you can win bodysurfing competitions. Kai Santos (pictured) took first prize in last year’s Da Hui Waimea Bay Shorebreak Slam using his daughter’s slipper as a handboard.

As part of the everyday material world, slippers have taken on functions beyond the feet. No greater or more convenient cock-a-roach whapper exists, and when neighborhood kids put together cul-de-sac kickball games, they’ve always got more than enough bases. Long before the proliferation of boogie boards on Hawai‘i’s beaches, rubber slippers were tearing up the shorebreak; bodysurfers would hold a slipper in their extended hand to help them plane along the face of a wave. That old fad was revived in 2010 during Da Hui Waimea Bay Shorebreak Slam, a bodysurfing contest that included a Kanaka Style Rubbah Slippah Handboard Division. “We thought, ‘They’ve got all these high-tech handboards now, let’s see what we can do with the rubbah slippah,’” says the event coordinator, Mahina Chillingsworth. “Some work better than others. One guy wore, like, size 14s, which went from his wrist to his elbow. The guy who won used a small size that fit right into his hand. I think he took them off his daughter’s feet right before his heat.”

 

Over the last sixty years or so, the slipper has been a force that has literally changed the shape of Hawai‘i, at least below the ankle. Footwear is fate. A foot raised in an enclosed shoe grows scrunched, like the root ball of a plant raised a pot. A foot raised in a slipper grows wider, stronger and more dexterous. A local girl raised in slippers might never find a pair of high heels to fit her big lü‘au feet, but she can probably pick up her car keys with her toes. Sure, the American Podiatric Medical Association issues dire warnings of the trauma and pathologic abnormalities associated with flip-flops (their word!), but for so many of the slipper-loving people of Hawai‘i, the specter of twisted ankles, stubbed toes, fallen arches and plantar fasciitis are no match for the freedom of the foot the slipper offers. The slipper promises happy feet, and, let’s face it, if your feet aren’t happy, you’re not happy.

 

Of course, happiness has a flip side. As far as footwear goes, the slipper is unusually good at evoking contempt. Brian Moylan, etiquette maven for the Manhattan-based website Gawker, puts it bluntly. “I hate flip-flops,” he writes. “I think they are disgusting, uncouth and unattractive.” Amanda Fortini, a writer for the online magazine Slate, in an article headlined “Why We Scorn the Lowly Thong,” says flip-flops seem lazy both on the part of the wearer, “who can’t be bothered with buckles or laces,” and on the part of the shoe: “We’d like our shoes to be the product of more ambition.” The rapper DMX once declared: “Thugs don’t do flip-flops. Yo, no matter how much vacation I’m on … I don’t wear no flip-flops. I’m never that comfortable, ever, not even in my own house!” Hip-hop ain’t down with the flip-flop.

 

There will probably always be slipper haters, but the march of the slipper toward equality with other footwear has advanced in the last few decades as dress codes have grown more casual and the slipper has found greater acceptance as everyday footwear. What has long been the norm in Hawai‘i—where nobody thinks twice about a slipper in a restaurant, at a wedding, in the workplace—is spreading through the greater society. But even in Hawai‘i there are limits. Take doctors. According to a Hawai‘i Medical Journal survey of patient attitudes toward physician attire, a small majority (57 percent) prefers that their doctor not be in slippers when seeing them. The patients also preferred their doctor not wear a white lab coat, either, so they want a little formality, just not too much.  

 


 

 

Geta your slippah on: The ancestry of the modern slipper can be traced back to zori and geta worn by Japanese contract laborers arriving to Hawai‘i in the 1880s. Geta, the wooden clogs pictured here, date to sixth century, when leather footwear fell out of favor because of Buddhist teachings against the slaughter of animals. While geta make walking a bit of a challenge, they keep the hemlines of yukata, like this one worn by Mito Velazquez at Honolulu’s Japanese Cultural Center, high and dry. Zori have a flat sole but the same V-strap.

If you are new to Hawai‘i and simply cannot bring yourself to say “slipper” without thinking fuzzy house shoe and smirking, you might find “zori” helpful. The term borders on the archaic, but there are still enough old-timers using it interchangeably with “slipper” to keep “zori” tottering along for now. The US Customs Service uses “zori,” too, but only to describe the most inexpensive make of slipper, the kind that has molded rubber straps with plugs punched through the sole. Zori can be imported with no duty, unlike slippers with woven or leather straps anchored within the sole. Those have duties ranging from 10 to 37 percent, and the Customs Service calls them “thong sandals.” Nobody else should use that term.

 

“Zori” is also the name for a traditional Japanese form of woven footwear, which along with the cloglike wooden geta are the ancestors of today’s mass-produced slipper. The first waves of Japanese contract plantation laborers literally walked off the boat in their zori and geta, which they can be seen wearing in the earliest photographs of Japanese in Hawai‘i. While the ancient Hawaiians had a ti leaf sandal that helped with crossing the lava, they mostly went barefoot, and in any case their sandal had a heel strap. The Hawaiians established footwear minimalism as the norm in the Islands, and the Japanese added the V-strap.

 

The Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i has various pairs of zori and geta on display, but apparently visitors don’t usually get on their hands and knees to study them. The technique opens doors, though. When Christy Takamune, the manager of the gallery and the gift shop, sees my interest in the footwear she asks, “Want to see the whole collection?” With a ring of jangling keys, she leads me into the archives and to a shelf piled with zori and geta. “People donate these all the time,” she says, “but we don’t have room to put them all on display.”

 

That so many people would consign their old shoes to a museum is curious but not as curious as the old shoes themselves. Unlike Western footwear, neither zori nor geta have a left and right foot. There’s no difference at all between the two, even in the strap placement. They’re clones. Among the zori are several handmade specimens woven from various types of straw or cloth or a combination of the two, as well as a few factory-made pairs with stiff rubber outsoles and tatami mat insoles. The most extraordinary zori are stored in a plastic bag with a note explaining they were made by one Saka Orikawa Suenaga, “who arrived on the 1st boat load of Japanese contract laborers, Feb. 8, 1885.” This discovery was like finding a pair of buckled shoes made by a passenger of the Mayflower.

 

If you think of the geta as the weird-looking, high-heeled auntie to Hawai‘i’s modern slipper culture, then the zori is the flat-bottomed mother. But the fundamental V-strap design that the slipper inherited is hardly unique to Japan. Footwear looking much like today’s slipper has shown up in different civilizations throughout the ages, including ancient Egypt, where it appears in murals dating to 4,000 BC. In fact, when King Tut was removed from his tomb and unwrapped, his mummified feet were clad in a stunning pair of ancient golden funerary slippers, complete with V-strap, thongs and pointy front ends curled up like elf shoes. Nonetheless, in Hawai‘i at least, a direct line of descent can be traced from the Japanese zori to the modern slipper. And that line runs right through the circa-1940s Honolulu cobbler shop of Elmer Scott.

 

A sixth-generation shoemaker from Marblehead, Massachusetts, Scott settled in Hawai‘i in 1932 and began making steel-toed rubber boots for plantation workers. During World War II, with boot-making material in short supply, he switched to producing sandals for submariners and casual open-toed footwear for sale on military bases. Following the war he reconfigured the casual footwear into zori for the local market—only Elmer’s zori weren’t like traditional zori. “Left and right was his tradition, so that’s how he made them—with a left and a right,” says his son, Steve Scott, who now with his own two sons runs Scott Hawai‘i, which makes nothing but slippers today. Was Elmer Scott possibly the first shoemaker to put a Western spin on the Eastern zori? “He might have been,” Steve says, “but I don’t think we’ll ever know.”

 

Whatever the circumstances of the birth, whether Elmer was the father or one of the midwives, the first generation of modern slippers hit the ground running in the postwar era, and Hawai‘i greeted the little baby boomers with welcoming feet. In the 1950s all of the many Honolulu shoe companies seem to have been making their own lines of slipper, and specialty shops began to appear. Among them was the Slipper House, which was selling so many slippers by 1959 that it moved from an actual house to the brand-new Ala Moana Center, where it’s still selling slippers today. “Seventy-five to eighty percent of the slippers back then were made in Hawai‘i,” says second-generation Slipper House owner Glenn Uejio, who worked the stockroom in 1959, when he was 12. “Now most of them are made in China. The Hawai‘i ones were better. They never broke. We never had any returns back then.”

 

Meanwhile, Japan started exporting cheap, mass-produced rubber slippers to the West, partly rebuilding its war-torn economy on the back of the bastardized zori. California surfers and beatniks took to them like dogs to a rawhide bone, and they made inevitable inroads into the American heartland, where they were marketed as exotic, twenty-nine-cent disposables, perfect for patio or pool.

 

Today every athletic shoe company in business seems to have its own line of slippers in the spring and summer, adding to the profusion of styles produced by multiple year-round slipper makers. There are blinged-out hoochie-mama slippers, no-frills frumpy old man slippers, red-yellow-green Rastafari- themed slippers and tiny little baby slippers for wearers too young to walk. There are slippers with high heels, heel wells, metatarsal support, arch support and antibacterial foot beds. There are slippers that purport to tone your legs or perform reflexology on your feet; slippers made from yoga mats or beer koozies; slippers that biodegrade. There are slippers with Astroturf insoles and slippers with strange things in the soles, like air cushions, bottle openers, money compartments, whisky flasks. There are name-brand slippers, no-name slippers and a Bethany Hamilton signature line of slippers. But in the whole mind-boggling field, there is only one slipper actually made in Hawai‘i—and no, it’s not made by Scott Hawai‘i, which took to manufacturing in China a few years back.  

 


 

These days most rubber slippers are produced outside Hawai‘i, and the Island Slipper Co. in Pearl City is the only slipper maker keeping it local. Kevin Catalan sands a sole.

The Pearl City factory of the Island Slipper Co. is a kind of arts-and-crafts paradise heaped with bolts of fabric and stacks of high-quality leather, buzzing with workers cutting, stitching and gluing as radios blare and industrialsize fans whirr. Lanky, good-humored and clad in a pair of madras strap slippers of his own design, John Carpenter tells me the company was founded in 1946 by the Motonaga family, who sold it to him in the 1980s. Island Slipper produces about 150,000 pairs of slippers a year, concentrating on a few dozen dependable designs. But Carpenter loves to experiment, and his factory periodically turns into a giant petri dish of one-offs and limited editions. He shows me a box filled with oddball slippers he’s made with materials like glossy tie-dyed leather, faux crocodile skin, hair-on cowhide and camo-pattern suede. He’ll take them to his factory outlet store at Ward Warehouse, where sooner or later they all sell. “You’d be surprised at what people will buy,” he says, “but there are always people looking for something nobody else has.” Once, he acquired the eight-foot-long skin of an Asian spitting cobra, which was just enough material to get a pair of slippers from. A few days after he put them in his shop, they sold for $250.

 

But most of his slippers sell overseas, with the Japanese being particularly fond of the brand. “If these were made in China, they wouldn’t be interested, but they love that they’re made in Hawai‘i,” he says, bouncing a men’s tan full-grain leather slipper in his hand. He flips through a scrapbook of Japanese news clips, photo spreads and advertisements featuring Island Slipper and points out a young model wearing skinny jeans, a hipster haircut and the same tan leather style of slipper. “These are fashion in Japan.”

 

Japanese aren’t the only fashionistas who’ve embraced the slipper. In 2002 French designer Jean Paul Gaultier sent fifty models down a Paris runway in Havianas, a Brazilian brand of slipper. After that, Havianas (which means “Hawaiians” in Portuguese, by the way) began turning up on the feet of Hollywood celebrities and in the boutiques of Beverly Hills, sometimes bejeweled with Swarovski crystals. The door to the world of high fashion had opened, and the slipper marched right in.

 

There has always been a difference between good-quality slippers and the cheapos, but the twenty-first century has seen the price gap become a chasm. On the low end you can still find brands like Locals or Surfahs on sale at Longs for a few bucks. At the other end of the spectrum, a premium pair of OluKais, made with hand-stitched, laser-etched Italian leather, will set you back about $175. Someone walks away from the slipper pile-up with your Locals, you get over it. Someone walks off in your OluKais, you file a police report.  

 


 

The City & County of Honolulu lifeguards’ official uniform is red shorts and yellow shirt, but they can wear anything they want on their feet. “Most of them wear slippers,” says Ralph Goto, head of the county’s Ocean Safety Division. “Although a lot of the local guys just go barefoot all the time.” Premium slipper manufacturer OluKai, founded by a Punahou grad who worked for years at Nike, has donated hundreds of pairs of slippers to Hawai‘i lifeguards. They aren’t required to wear them, but most, like Mike Jutt, pictured here in his OluKais at Ala Moana Beach Park, do.

“The cheap, $2 kind you get at Longs” is how Uncle Barney describes the slippers he wears. He figures he must own six pairs, which isn’t so unusual. What’s unusual is that they’re his running shoes. I met Uncle Barney in Kapi‘olani Park when I saw a bare-chested old man in cotton shorts, aviator sunglasses and slippers jog by. It wasn’t hard to catch up with him, since he’s almost 80 and not that fast. He’s an amiable Portuguese-Hawaiian guy, and he seemed happy to talk to me as he ran. He grew up barefoot in Lahaina and Waikiki and didn’t start wearing shoes until he joined the Army. As soon as he got out, he gave up shoes and took up slippers. He’s run two miles a day, five days a week for the last twenty years and says he’s never even tried jogging shoes. He’s got gout, arthritis and glaucoma, but he’s never had any problems with his feet.

 

There’s a raging debate in the running world over the minimalist footwear movement. A growing number of minimalists say the bare or lightly shod foot is best suited to running, even for distance. They say that modern running shoes, with all their padding and corrective features, might not actually do much, if anything, to improve performance or reduce injury—and might even contribute to injury. Many experts disagree, and some say the trend is dangerous. Fueling the debate is Daniel Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard whose research has found that runners with heavily padded shoes strike the ground with their heels, landing with more force than barefoot runners, who strike the ground with the forefoot or midfoot.

 

Uncle Barney is clearly a forefoot striker. He lands much more gingerly on the sidewalk than the many heel strikers who pass us in their heavily padded shoes. I tell him about Lieberman’s research and ask him how it feels to be at the forefront of the minimalist footwear movement. “I don’t know,” he says. “I just don’t like shoes.” Then he nods toward his feet and, speaking for all Hawai‘i, I’m sure, says, “I like these.”