From the ancient Greek hoplite and the rishis of the Sapt Sindhu to the beach bum with the ripped abs of today, the open sandal has never gone out of style
Words Aninda Sardar
Take a minute and think about this. Can you ever pack for a beach holiday (any holiday for me) without packing a pair of flip flops? Call me overly philosophical about trivial things but I seriously think that life would not be the same without flip flops. In fact, I’d happily extend that to all kinds of open toe footwear – sandals, chappals, et al. After all, humans have been wearing such open footwear for the last 10,000 years according to historical finds!
There’s a certain charm to a pair of open toed footwear that’s hard to replicate. Team up a pair of rubber flip flops with a comfortable tee and a pair of linen shorts and you’re ready to shake a leg at the beach shack, cradling your favourite tap. At the other end of the spectrum, turn up at your bestie’s wedding in a perfectly tailored kurta and churidar with your feet encased in a well crafted pair of Kolhapuri chappals and you’ll be exuding class that others will struggle to keep up with. They can be worn, indoors, outdoors and pretty much everywhere. In fact there are few forms of footwear as versatile and flexible as open toes. The only thing you can’t wear them with (yet) is western formals, especially a suit.
The history of footwear in fact starts with the open toe shoe. In Oregon, USA, archaeologists found a pair of sandals woven from sagebrush and bark. Curious to find out how old these were, they radiocarbon dated the pair, establishing this humble pair as possibly the world’s oldest pair of shoes at 10,000 years. All the ancients wore sandals in one form or another. From the ancient Greek sandalon to the Roman caligae to the palm leaf and papyrus sandals of Egypt to our very own paduka, the sandal ruled the world. Wherever people went, the ground beneath was trampled by the sole of a sandal. Doesn’t matter whether it was Darius’ army at Thermopylae or Alexander’s in India or Ashoka’s in Kalinga. Although the sandal, and I now use this word to denote almost the entire gamut of open toe footwear, is no longer what you would wear to a particularly formal gathering, once upon a time it was a mark of rank. In ancient Roman society for instance, a man wearing sandals was clearly a symbol of social status since slaves and peasants did not wear them. In the ancient world, the type of shoes you wore also told people what you did for a living. For instance, ancient Egyptian priests were obliged to wear papyrus sandals. Shoes could have other significance also. For instance when the crown prince Ram was exiled into the forest, his half brother Bharat installed Ram’s paduka on the throne of Ayodhya and swore to protect the kingdom as regent and not king. Ram’s shoes would be a symbol that though in exile, the king of Ayodhya would be Ram.
IN THE ANCIENT WORLD, THE TYPE OF SHOES YOU WORE
ALSO TOLD PEOPLE WHAT YOU DID FOR A LIVING
With time, practicality also made way for fashion and we see the gradual emergence of heels and platform soles. India has always had a magnificent footwear legacy that has often been ignored in favour of western styles. Take the Kolhapuri chappal that became popular when King Bijjala and his vizier gave a huge boost to this industry in the 12th century AD to bolster the region’s cobbling trade. Or the Mojari (also called Saleem Shahi) that the mughals made popular or the jutti of Punjab or the Khussa of Multan.
Back to the humble flip flop, well, that’s so much a part of our lives that when President Barack Obama went on holiday in Hawaii while he was still POTUS, he became the first ever US prez to be photographed wearing a pair. I could go on for a while but I have two final words to give you guys before ending this shoe story. First, flip flops and sandals are cool and your shoe cabinet ain’t complete if you don’t own a pair. Or two. Or three. Second, in case you’re a fan of sandals then be sure to take care of your feet as well. Nothing uglier than a badly maintained pair of feet peeking out from inside a magnificent pair of sandals.