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The Homely Birkenstock Gets a Fashion Makeover

In 1936, Meret Oppenheim, the Swiss Surrealist artist, had tea with Pablo Picasso at the Café de Flore, in Paris. Oppenheim was wearing a bracelet, of her own design, that was clad in ocelot fur. Picasso admired it, noting that one could cover anything with fur. Soon afterward, Oppenheim produced her most famous work: a teacup, saucer, and spoon covered with the creamy-tan fur of a Chinese gazelle. The piece is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, and is celebrated for its suggestive conjunction of the domestic and the erotic. Oppenheim’s teacup came to mind last fall, while I was browsing in a shoe store and noticed that Birkenstock had created a peculiar version of its Arizona sandal—the classic, two-strap style long favored by hippies and German tourists. The sandal had the familiar chunky cork base and thick, buckled straps in dull brown-gray suède, but the insole and the straps were lined with fluffy white shearling. The shoe looked alluringly comfortable, like a Teddy bear that cuddled back. It also looked perplexingly impractical: if it’s cold enough for fur, it’s too cold—and likely too wet—for open-toed shoes. The sandal was witty, provocative, and slightly silly. Like an iPad, or an eight-dollar bottle of cold-pressed juice, it seemed the covetable answer to a need that hadn’t existed before it came along.

In recent years, the homely Birkenstock has become a curiously fashionable object. The company’s classic sandals have been omnipresent in my Brooklyn neighborhood. It seems to be the rare woman who doesn’t own a pair or two of sturdy Birkenstock thongs, called Gizehs, particularly if she spends a lot of time pushing a stroller or doing the elementary-school run. Women like me who, in our twenties and early thirties, blithely shifted between the ease of flip-flops and the constraint of high heels, were relieved to find some kindly support for our increasingly middle-aged feet. Women are so accustomed to the expectation that shoes will be uncomfortable—they will chafe our heels, or squash our toes, or make our insteps ache—that slipping on Birkenstocks felt revelatory.

Some of my peers found Birkenstocks irredeemably ugly, or too vivid a reminder of their shambolic college days; or they disliked the way that Birkenstocks can look alarmingly boatlike on larger feet. But others, like me, loved the fact that they supplied comfort without completely capitulating on style. Recently, the sandals had become available not just in mud brown or mud beige but also in contemporary hues like silver and patent white. Even if Birkenstocks were best kept out of the playground sprinkler, the worst thing about them was that, come colder weather, you had to take them off.

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