I was a teenager when I got my first pair of flip flops. Up until then, flip flops were contraband material in my household, because according to my parents’ understanding of reflexology, rubbing the spot between your toes was bad for your thyroid, your brain, and also your eyes — a salad of bodily maladies. But as an American teen languishing in the suburbs, I knew that rubbing that part of your foot did wonders for your look.
It wasn’t until I stubbed my big toe during a volleyball tournament that my parents gave into my pleas. My naked big toe — as bulbous and bald as a turnip — couldn’t stand to be touched by anything more solid than a breeze. And so I went to the mall and bought my first pair of flip flops. They were black and made of hard, shiny plastic, with a small kitten heel. To me, they were sophistication, incarnate.
I lasted precisely one week. The blister scars lasted far longer.
I haven’t worn shoes that separate my toes since. But lately, I find myself falling back into a familiar feeling of desire and disgust whenever I encounter what I’ve begun calling “big-toe shoes.” Once a mainstay of the small, insular bubble of eccentric International Fashion Week invitees, this trend is now everywhere. You can find them on Zappos and H&M as well as traditionally tasteful luxury shoe brands like Giuseppi Zanotti. They’re on the feet of women waiting at the subway station, and women at the beach. Even my boss’ mom has a pair.
These shoes don’t just separate your big toe from the rest of the piggies. They single it out, placing it in its own solitary jail — or stage — depending on your feelings about these shoes. But far from suffering, the women who wear these big-toe sandals appear carefree and unruffled, as if they can inoculate themselves against blisters with chill vibes alone.
While versions of toe-strap sandals are traditional in nearly every warm-weather region around the world, including South Asia, the Middle East, South America, and Africa, the grandfather of the fashion-person big-toe shoe is undoubted the closed-toe Margiela Tabi boot. Born in the late '80s, the Tabi boot is an avant-garde riff on the Japanese tabi sock that is traditionally worn with thong sandals like getas or zōris. They give your feet the effect of cloven hooves; they’re shoes to make mischief in, to freak others out.
In 2017, Phoebe Philo’s Céline pirate shoes became a street style staple. Different from Tabis, these (old) Célines cover just the big toe, like a guy who shows up to a group hang at the beach, except he’s wearing a tux. If Tabis’ patron saint is the satyr Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then the Pirate’s saint is Donald Duck, the shirt-wearing, pants-forgoing boob who’s mixed up about what parts need to be cover up.
But it’s that obscenity that draws me to big-toe shoes. They provoke like a rude T-shirt — they’re asking for a double-take, a pointed comment, a question about your sanity. After all, these shoes merely shrug at the basic functions of a shoe. In our post-modern fashion landscape where tiny bags hold nothing except your clout, and fancy swimsuits aren’t meant to get wet, big-toe shoes confront what we think we know about shoes. Are shoes still shoes if it’s just a sole? How come these big-toe sandals make your feet look more naked than if they were just barefoot? Why do we think about toes as some kind of package deal? Come see all five, or none at all! In person, these shoes are as monstrous to witness as seeing someone at the supermarket attempt to pay for a single hot dog bun ripped from its package.
But in my own shoe collection of sensible, practical sneakers, sandals, and lace-ups that are as reliably blister-proof, stare-proof, and — I’ll admit it — compliment-proof as they are, I find myself drawn to big-toe shoes. It’s impossible to disentangle my feelings of horror from hunger. That’s how I know that I’m hooked.
There’s this Italian brand ATP Atelier that’s become a cult-favorite. The brand is known for its flat sandals that are made with an arch-shaped piece of smooth leather that cradles your foot, from big toe to instep, with the familiarity of a handhold. They’ve got a version of a strappy sandal (which routinely sells out) that features just a toe ring. From most angles, your feet look improbably, impossibly naked. It’s an intoxicating trick — and a wonderful feeling — to know exactly how the illusion works but still be dazzled by its effect.
I just bought a pair. (As well as a box of bandaids. Just in case.)