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
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
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.
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
"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 ?