Comfort shoes have been a mainstay of the Oi Polloi shoe wall for the last fifteen years, but for some reason, we’ve never really explained why. We’ve always sort of expected people to understand the reason we stock loads of very European-looking brown shoes with funny names like Finn Comfort, Arcus and Mephisto, but thinking about it, maybe we take these things for granted a bit.
So, in a bid to ‘share the knowledge’, here’s an article devoted strictly to the comfortable world of comfort shoes…
Shoes have been around for ages, but the idea of actually making ones that fit nicely around the human foot is a fair bit more modern then you’d maybe think (it wasn’t until the 1850s that shoemakers started making left and right shoes, instead of just straight shoes that could be worn on either foot).
Some really old shoes - not very comfortable.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century there were a few developments that helped pave the way for comfort (such as Konrad Birkenstock’s invention of the contoured insole and Nathan Clarks’ use of crepe and suede rather than stiff leather for his Desert Boots), but it was in the 1960s where things really came together and 'got comfy'.
As anyone who’s watched documentary on BBC4 will know, a lot of stuff happened in the 60s. People released weird albums, they made strange films and they constructed mad concrete buildings. This modernist outlook also seeped over into footwear design, and all across Europe young designers were bringing fresh, ergonomic ideas to the table (or at least the shoe rack).
In 1963 Karl Toosbuy founded Ecco in a remote Danish town, in 1964 Carl Birkenstock had the brainwave to place his grandfather’s contoured insole into a sports sandal called the Madrid, and in 1965 Martin Michaeli made the first Mephisto Rainbow in his kitchen. Euro-comfort behemoths Finn Comfort and Jacoform also both started around this time.
The elusive Ecco Joke and some lesser spotted Mephistos.
Although all these cunning creations looked completely different, the logic behind them was the same—shoes should follow the shape of the human foot.
Not ones to miss a trick, the Quaker footwear wonder-workers at Clarks also got involved with the Wallabee, a roomy, two-eyelet moccasin based on a seldom-seen shoe from Germany called the Grasshopper.
An old Wallabee ad. Gordon Munro is a fan.
The Wallabee wasn’t the only Clarks classic to be based on a European shape… the trademark Cornish pasty shape of the Trek actually came from a pair of shoes worn by a Dutch potter. Talent borrows, genius steals... or something.
Footwear heir Lance Clark explains more; “She was teaching me to draw, and she had this funny shoe with this thick seam down the front. So I borrowed it, adapted it and took it to America with a great name… the Six Toe. They said they thought it was a great shoe, but they weren’t sure about the name. I thought it described the shoe perfectly, but eventually we changed the name to Trek and drew that drawing on the back.”
Meanwhile, in a German health spa, a young American with sore feet by the name of Margaret Fraser had discovered the Birkenstock sandal. Shocked by their mystical comfort prowess, she shoved a few extra pairs into her haversack, headed back home to San Francisco and started a distribution company.
This might sound insignificant, but this minor moment planted a seed for Euro footwear across the Atlantic, realigning the posture of millions in the process (those Kalsø Earth Shoe things probably also deserve a mention on this front).
An advert for Earth Shoes. Designed by a Danish yoga teacher, these were sold by the boatload from their shop in New York.
Comfort had engulfed the planet, but these shoes were still only really worn by a certain sorts of person — people like Dutch potters, long-haired Californians or free-thinking teachers who smoked funny cigarettes, as Eik Braun-Ottosen, the man behind Danish footwear company Nature, explains.
“I grew up in a collective in the 80's - so the rule was, either you go barefoot or you wear comfort shoes, there was no alternative. I also remember very clearly, my biology teacher wearing comfort shoes. They were real teacher shoes. Teachers stand up all day, it’s the same with nurses—they walk a lot, so they need it! But it was also a statement that you were choosing the left wing in politics.
They weren’t just thinking about how they looked, they also wanted to do the right thing. You wouldn’t see any yuppies wearing comfort shoes and driving a Porsche.”
A young Eik Braun-Ottosen with some unknown Danish gems.
Like the M-65 jacket or the humble handball trainer… these hyper-normal, sensible shoes were ripe for re-appropriation. In the North West of England in the 80s, a contrary culture of one-upmanship was brewing — gateway drugs like Kickers and Pod had been accepted by the masses, leading people down shoe-shop-shaped rabbit holes in search of deadstock delights no-one had heard of.
Founder of Finders Keepers records, long-time friend of Oi Polloi and all-round overflowing reservoir of knowledge Andy Votel has been cited by some as one of the region’s earliest appropriators of obscure comfort shoes outside of the natural yogurt realm. We pressed him politely for a comment.
“My choice of footwear as a teenager was about going against the grain as much as a sussed economic choice. It’s probably important to mention that I come from a long line of cobblers and shoe salesmen and my dad used to buy and sell Norvic, Clark's and K shoes from our shoe shop in Marple until I was about 8 years old.
Andy's dad's shoe-shop.
At school my generation saw the exit of great youth-culture groups such as goths, mods, rockabillies and metallers which all collapsed in the wake of acid house. As a devout hip-hop fan I was naturally desperate to avoid the white-shirt and gelled hair scene, but was also aware that as a middle-class white kid I couldn't walk round in leather tracksuits, red Kangols and gold chains every day.
I was fascinated with the comfort shoes that I heard about on rap records such as British Walkers and Bally but these were unobtainable in the UK so you were faced with a task of finding a unique direction, which led you to brands like Mephisto and Clarks.”
Bally shoes and full Dapper Dan tracksuits. Maybe a strong look for Marple.
This unique direction eventually led our intrepid voyager to what’s often regarded as the peak of orthapaedia… the Birkenstock shoe (not to be confused with the slightly more accepted Birkenstock sandal).
“I'll never forget Dan Dwayre introducing me to Birkenstocks. I immediately rang my dad to ask him where I could get hold of them and he couldn't believe what I was saying. These were not even comfort shoes, they were very much orthopaedic shoes with a medical connotation but they looked amazing.
There were still Birkenstock stockists with dead-stock in the Lake District and the North of Ireland but they were mostly in kids sizes due to their intended corrective nature. Birkenstocks are still a great example of the Marmite nature of comfort shoes, you either love them or you seriously detest them.”
This potent Marmite-esque flavour is maybe half the appeal of these misunderstood shoes. In a world where apparently edgy accoutrements like tattoos or piercings have become the norm, sheer normality and function is a bold move.
“The kind of people who don't ‘understand’ comfort shoes always seem to use the phrase ‘geography teacher’. I hear that phrase all the time and I think I've begun to take it as a compliment. It’s recontextualization, adventurous normalism… post-mod-post-modernism - if you like.”
Post-mod-post-modernism? We couldn’t have put it better ourselves. And if that wasn’t enough, it probably goes without saying that these things are very, very comfortable.