Everyone's stepping into ugly


This is the season of Ugly Footwear. If we remember anything about the Summer of '94 -- aside from the O. J. Simpson affair emerging as the biggest story since the dawn of man -- it'll be that every other person was clomping around in those god-awful water shoes or those clunky black sandals that make the wearer look like Spartacus on beta-blockers.

The history of footwear is dotted with unfortunate examples of good taste gone awry: Earth shoes, Superfly platform heels with tiny goldfish swimming in them and combat boots for women are vivid examples that come immediately to mind. But rarely have there been two such monumental fashion eyesores foisted on the American public at once. And many in the American public (especially moi) are reeling.

It's gotten so bad that when you greet a person, you're afraid to look down at his or her feet, for fear of encountering a pair of cheesy hot-pink "aqua slippers" or two black slabs of polyurethane that look as if they were fashioned from some 18-wheeler retread found on the side of the Beltway.

Let's start with the water shoes, which are made of mesh and rubber and all but announce (at least for adults): I was dropped on my head as a child.

Everyone at the pool or beach seems to be wearing these things: little brats with Power Ranger towels, sullen teen-agers with nose rings, smug boomers somehow able to ignore the large, frightening dabs of zinc oxide on their noses as they converse with each other, old geezers sweeping the sand with metal detectors.

The fact that so many people would wear shoes this ugly leads to the logical conclusion that either: a) lots of us don't bother to look at ourselves in the mirror anymore or b) lots of us are dimwits.

A recent stroll through the cavernous Towson Town Center -- we found a nice space on the 82nd level of the parking garage and took a mere 45 minutes to rappel down and actually reach the mall itself -- confirmed that water shoes are selling like, oh, Snapple. Except that a pair of Snapple bottles probably look jazzier on your feet.

At Water, Water Everywhere, there was an impressive (if that's the word) selection of Speedo "Surfwalkers" that retail for $26.95. They come in ugly basic black, ugly black and white, ugly aquamarine and hot pink, ugly aquamarine and black, ugly black, white and navy, ugly electric blue and black and ugly aqua, navy and black.

Did we mention they're all ugly? We should probably mention that.

"Oh, they are ugly," says store manager Melissa Clark, 25. "But we sell tons of them. A lot of people hate what they look like, but they buy them anyway. They're comfortable. And they're good for [walking on] rocky beaches, water sports, things like that."

Then Ms. Clark imparts this addendum: she now sells more water shoes to adults than she does to the Barney-worshipers, whose tender little soles were responsible for this whole trend in the first place.

"A lot of elderly people who use walkers wear them because they don't want to slip," Ms. Clark says. "Some older people also use them for water aerobics."

Well. One would think that, if asked to wear aqua and hot pink water shoes, many of the elderly would consider giving up exercise altogether. The elderly, after all, have more common sense than the rest of us.

But apparently that hasn't been the case. Sales of water shoes, steady last summer, have taken off this season. Not only is this shocking to anyone with a sense of fashion, but it has surprised industry analysts, who never dreamed they'd reap such profits from a plain, rubberized shoe that makes the Hush Puppy look racy.

"We got in 50 pairs a few weeks ago and we've sold 37 of them," said Jerome Brown, 34, assistant manager of the Athlete's Foot.

In fact, sales have been so good that the only model of water shoe left at the Athlete's Foot is an extremely homely Ocean Pacific, which comes in ugly basic black.

"I don't like them," Mr. Brown adds, showing a great deal of common sense. "I'm a basic shoe man myself."

Steve Land, 37, the running center manager at Hess Shoes, doesn't like them either ("I have a pair and I think they're ugly as sin.") But they sell like crazy for Mr. Land, too. Which begs the question: If everyone hates these shoes, how come they're flying off the shelves? Is this nothing more than emotional self-flagellation at work here?

Then again, if you really want to see ugly -- ugly squared, in fact -- check out the new black sandals that every other young person seems to be wearing.

According to the encyclopedia, the ancient Egyptians wore crude sandals as early as 3700 B.C. And apparently the sandal business hasn't evolved a great deal, because these new sandals are just as ugly as the ones used in Tutankhamen's day to work the gold mines or take in chariot races or pillage neighboring kingdoms.

Water, Water Everywhere carries the popular Reef sandals (with arch and toe supports) for $34.95. Ms. Clark says they sell mostly to those in the 14-to-30 age range, folks too young to use as an excuse: "Well, I didn't realize how ugly they were, on account of these cataracts that've been bothering me . . ."

"I think they're hideous," says Ms. Clark. "I call them Jesus sandals."

Still, they make the cash registers ring, not that cash registers actually ring anymore (they hum), but you get the point.

The Athletic Attic offers four Nike models of sandals, a few Reebok models, an Asics model with a silicone gel implanted in the heel (it's official, the world is coming to an end), a Teva model that retails for 60 bucks and a Timberland model that goes for $64.99, among others.

They're all ugly.

:. Uglier than a mule, if you want the truth.

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