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Vagaries of fashion from the dustbin of history

A few days ago there was a news item about a growing footwear fashion trend in Vietnam for decorative wooden slippers which had been popular some decades ago.

This took my memory back to the WW II years in Sri Lanka when our homes resounded to the clip-clop of the wooden slippers we called 'clogs'. How did they appear and why did they disappear? I am pretty sure that no historian or sociologist of folk costumes will ever deign to study this strange item that, for a few noisy years, graced the feet of the town dwellers of 'Ceylon'. I have, therefore, decided to dredge my fading memory to "rush in where angels fear to tread"!

The 'proles, peasants and plebs' of Colonial Ceylon never wore footwear. They pounded the asphalt streets or muddy paths barefoot on their own leathery soles. Footwear was an accepted mark of social distinction reserved for clergy, village worthies and the town dwelling middle class.

Almost the sole exception to this tradition were those ubiquitous gentlemen who, in that primitive era devoid of indoor plumbing, carried buckets of smelly human waste. They wore rough slippers stoutly soled with rubber carved from car tires by their compatriot street-corner cobblers, and guaranteed never to slip in slimy toilets.

Rice displaced by bread

Although we children went barefoot indoors I seem to recall that our parents wore soft leather slippers into which, in their absence, we thrust our childish feet and flopped about acting grown up.

'Ayah' and 'kussi amma' were barefoot, and we were intrigued by the widely splayed toes and cracked soles of their village life.

The War changed many other things we had come to accept as the norm, rice and curry for dinner was displaced by bread and corned beef, text books from India replaced those from Britain, Rockfist Rogan ousted Robin Hood, Kiwi shoe polish disappeared as did the Dolcis and K Shoes it once shone and, finally, when leather slippers were worn out wooden clogs clattered into our homes - and all over the land. WW II was raging and rubber was a vital strategic need. The 'war effort' was paramount.

Rubber estates were"slaughter tapped" towards this end,and even the miniscule needs of local shoe and slipper makers could no longer be met.The little leather (another strategic commodity) rationed to shoemakers was reserved for hand-made shoes for the elite - and could never be spared for the humdrum slipper.

Local entrepreneurs saw this window of opportunity for rubber-less footwear and jumped in with both feet. Their modest entry into the domestic scene was "bathroom slippers' whose flat wooden soles guaranteed no slipping on soap-slick floors. They were originally rather utilitarian in design - square-toed with a single straight strap nailed on.

Before long, one savvy manufacturer realised that this basic item lacked the style and elegance that both affluent, and not-so-affluent, ladies required of their footwear. This entrepreneur transformed the humble wooden slipper and became the Henry Ford of the slipper-makers.

He did not invent the item, but made it as excellent and desired as the Model T Ford . I have no 'hard' information in this regard but my candidate for this accolade is a Mr. Issadeen of Pettah. His modestly trademarked "Issato" wooden clogs swept most competitors into the waste-bin and dominated this, rather large, niche market till the demand for clogs tailed off.

'Issato' clogs were streets ahead and revolutionary in design. Their soles were carved with a shaped arch and a slight heel, a nod towards shoe design, and their insteps were gently moulded to give the wearer a better grip. Most significantly, the strap was now transformed into a broad and comfortable design embellished with punctured patterns.

These stylish clogs now became a fashion tornado. There were larger, more masculine, designs for men, slimmer more stylish models for ladies and dinky little versions for kids who could now clatter away, though not so noisily, as their parents.

Taboo

Above all, they were cheap. This meant that clogs were easily within the meagre resources of the working classes. Pavements now rang with the clatter of clogs worn by basket-women, washermen, street sweepers and workmen of all types.

This was, perhaps, the first "shot across the bows" heralding the social revolution to come and its erasure of sartorial class distinctions. But class distinction was alive and well in middle class homes where footwear yet remained taboo for servants.

Clogs also slipped into school, on rainy days. In my "On Horseshoe Street" I have written of their brief life in Kandy's Dharmaraja College.

"Our boarders set the trend of wearing them to school. [Their] massed entry into the corridors thundered like the Charge of the Light Brigade, drowning all other sounds. Before long the Principal announced at Assembly a ban on all clogs."

With the end of the War the glory days of clogs gradually drew to a close. Rubber became freely available. Shoemakers and importers were quick to grasp the demand for quieter, springy and more stylish footwear, whether to work, school or at home. The day of the clogs was done. It only lasted a mere decade or so.

When did you last see, or hear, clogs ?

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Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
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