Ipanema beach on hot summer day is a sensory feast. The neutral taupe tones of the sand are broken up by joyful pops of colorful beach umbrella — barraca — clusters. The water is filled with people. Maybe there are some surfers there or maybe there are just some kids diving under each wave, a.k.a. “fishing for alligators” (one of our sayings — pegar jacaré). All of it is trimmed with the iconic black and white tortoiseshell pattern of the sidewalk. The two mountain brothers — Dois Irmãos — keep watch over everything, holding up the sky for little propeller planes to fly by, trailing commerce along the clouds. And, there are the numbered guideposts — Posto 8, 9, 10 — a numerical wayfinding system that are laden with an unspoken code, where different communities flock together. Modern bohemians, wealthy socialites, chilled out surfer babes, tourists, LGBT, visitors from local suburbs — everyone gravitates towards their specific guidepost. They tell you where you are on the beach, but also where you belong on the beach. There’s really nothing like that sweet moment where you slip your foot out of your bright rubber sandal and place it in the sand. Your foot burns a little bit, making you walk with an extra bounce in your step. You are at the best beach in the world. Maybe it isn’t the most beautiful, the biggest, or the emptiest, but it’s unequivocally, undeniably the one with the best memories and stories. I no longer spend every summer and holiday with my family in Brazil. The pull of work and adult life prevents me from visiting as often as I once could, but whenever I see flip-flopped feet carrying people around the city, it brings me back to my place on Ipanema beach. I am here to tell you the story about flip-flops. It’s their special day today. I can’t think about flip-flops without picturing, smelling, feeling that Rio de Janeiro beach scene I grew up with. It’s in my skin and between my toes. Other things ignite those memories, too. Really cold coconuts — bem geladinho. String bikinis — curtininha. Biscoito Globo cookies made of yucca flour — a staple long before gluten-free was a thing. Frescobol. Guys in speedos, endlessly kicking a blue-green-yellow soccer ball in a circle. The popsicle guy. The maté guy. The grilled cheese guy with the portable little oven — queijo na braza. But, there is a reason only flip-flops get their own day. They are a global phenomenon, a feat of marketing, and now, a closet essential the world over. They are also symbolic of Brazil, their story woven with unresolved socio-economic commentary that’s still relevant to the country today.
The rubber flip-flop was a simple bright idea, and a solution to Brazil's state in the ‘60s. As one of the most socially and economically stratified societies (that endures to modern day), Brazil needed a basic and inexpensive shoe that suited its tropical climate. Alpargatas S.A., a Brazilian shoe manufacturing company founded in 1907, recognized the need. Inspired by the tatami “zori” slippers worn in Japan, the first Havaianas were created as an affordable shoe to outfit an overwhelmingly vast impoverished population. The shoes were widely distributed across favelas and low-income communities. They were even deemed a basic necessity provided by the government. In the beginning, there was nothing glamorous about flip-flops at all. They were created for the poorest strata of Brazilian society and became known as a symbol of poverty and indicator of status. My grandmother would still disapprove of me wanting to wear my flip-flops out in public. For her, those shoes were for maids cleaning house and for crossing the street to the beach. That’s it. But, the convenience and practicality of the shoe proved universal. Soon, young, style-conscious Brazilians — like my mother and her sister, teenagers at the time — found the practicality of the flip-flop appealing, but wanted something different than the ubiquitous style everyone now had (at the time, the sandal came in just five colors, all with the same white footbed). Havaianas are made of two, separate pieces that nimble fingers can easily take apart. It only took a little creativity to see that those five colors offer a range of opportunities for customization. People started to personalize their rubber sandals by flipping the soles around to reveal the color on the bottom and switching around the straps.
Eventually, the market picked up on these street style cues and by the ‘90s, the marketing around the shoe transformed to create an object of desire. My grandmother may never agree, but there it is. We all have at least one pair now. And, even if we never wear it anywhere else, it’s certainly the go-to everyday shoe for most beach-going Brazilians. For those who wouldn’t wear a rubber shoe outside of that context, fashion houses quickly came to offer leather and bedazzled versions. Flip-flops may not be the most fashionable shoe — and I can admit that, even though I have fond associations wrapped up in them. I cringe when I see them worn in the wrong context. But, stories are more important than style, and the flip-flop documents an historic progression in Brazilian culture. Some look at this story and say the flip-flop is a great equalizer: a democratic shoe for all. That paints a beautiful picture. Really, the great equalizer is the beach itself. That is the place where people from all walks of life wear this shoe. We still have guideposts telling us where we fit in, but we are free to choose our place on the sand. For me, style is about self-expression, authenticity, and sometimes wandering outside of a designated comfort zone to find new inspiration or friends. I like the flip-flop as a symbol, because while it is a shoe that everyone has, we can also now all wear it in our own way.