What is it about fashion and ugly shoes? This year, everywhere you turn there are loafers, boots and even heels that seem designed to shock your grandmother with their bulkiness, their pointiness and their sheer weirdness.
Case in point: these new Balenciaga limited-edition collection of five-toed shoes made in partnership with outdoor footwear brand Vibram FiveFingers. Selling for £845, they have a robot-like heel and each and every toe is encased in its own oversized, rubber-padded sleeve.
Just released in the UK, they look like a far weirder version of a cold water shoe my ex-boyfriend used to go swimming in, but mostly they remind me of the kind of footwear the fish from The Shape of Water might put on for a night out on the town.
So not your classic fashion references then. But accolades for them have been pouring in since their recent release, with more than one pair causing a bidding war on eBay. A Vogue editor said she had never felt hotter than when she was wearing a pair, describing putting one on as being like slipping her “hand into a silk opera glove”.
“And when I walk,” she added, “it’s like Big Foot splaying his toes on the ground, marking his territory by making an imprint on the earth.”
I’m not denying that these shoes and their all ugly sisters aren’t wonderfully comfortable - the less attractive the shoe, the happier the foot in my experience. And as someone who hasn’t put on a pair of high heels all year, I am the first person to argue that the number one factor in choosing footwear should be walkability factor.
But when ugly shoes first burst onto the scene a few years ago, I was convinced (read: hopeful) that they would be a flash-in-the-pan trend - and yet in 2020 they are back in all their thick-soled, ultra-weird beauty. It makes me feel a bit fuddy-duddy to admit it, but I still don’t fully get the appeal of wearing a shoe that 90 percent of the population would rear back in horror at the sight of. (Although part of me also knows that’s the entire point.)
The trend was started years ago by Crocs (Lyndon Hanson, one of the three creators of the brand, famously said that when he first saw the round-toe, plastic design he said, without hesitation, “Those are ugly”). But this summer – nearly 20 years after the Crocs' 2002 launch – customers around the world are finding beauty in their unsightliness: Justin Bieber collaborated with the brand this spring, causing searches for Crocs to jump by almost 50 percent on Lyst. Then a few months later, thousands of people joined an online queue for a rainbow-coloured pair by Chinatown Market, which sold out almost instantly. Both, it goes without saying, were gloriously, proudly, flag-wavingly ugly.
But Crocs was far from alone. On the less clumpy, more pointy end of the scale, this year also welcomed Balenciaga’s white corset lace-up shoe (£1,275) that had one Twitter user reminiscing about Roald Dahl’s The Witches. Correctly in my opinion, because while even fashion editors should know better than to anthropomorphise footwear, there is something slightly evil about that defiantly elongated toe and dramatic lacing.
Stompy boots, meanwhile, are everywhere. Prada’s multi-coloured wellies have thick tractor-like soles, Givenchy’s thick soled black boots are the exact opposite of dainty and Bottega Veneta has a range of heavy-clad pieces in loafer or boot form.
I may not be a fan of Crocs or toe-flaunting rubber shoes, I have also fallen prey to my own version of the ugly shoe. I stopped wearing heels regularly years ago, and in 2020 even my bow-adorned, crushed velvet, pointy-toe flats have been indefinitely relegated to the back of my wardrobe. I know I’m not alone in having spent the summer either in Birkenstocks – a shoe that has been fashion-popular for a few years but which only became ubiquitous across the UK this spring – or trainers.
And autumn has been even uglier. Since the weather turned, I have bought a bulky pair of black Chelsea boots, some thick-soled Sloane Ranger era loafers, a pair of trainers that definitely aren’t for exercising in and square-toe black flats with a chain around the ankle. If I could afford them, I would love a pair of JW Anderson's slip-on mules with a hefty gold buckle and a thick cork sole.
And while none of them are actively ugly, they are the aesthetic opposite of anything Ivanka or Melania Trump would wear. As well as the comfort factor (hello thick socks, goodbye blisters and pinched toes), the great thing about these shoes is that you can opt for shorter hemlines, lower necklines and brighter colours, and never look overdressed.
How to wear this new trend for ugly footwear is entirely up to you. I personally find that the greatest adherents to the look tend to be the under-30s – for anyone older, simply opt for a chunkier sole and a rounder, wider toe when you’re buying your ankle boots, like these ones from Anthropologie or this pair from & Other Stories. When it comes to loafers, this style from Russell & Bromley is a nod to the trend without going full ugly, while these ones from Urban Outfitters are a little heftier.
It was Coco Chanel who famously said, ‘A woman with good shoes is never ugly.’ I’m not sure what the doyenne of French fashion would make of a five-toed rubber shoe, let alone the concept of Crocs, but hopefully she'd agree that a woman can always look good – even if her shoes are very ugly.