Is the ugly shoe trend making us dress better?

Have we reached peak ugly shoes yet? If so, it's been quite a journey: from Christopher Kane's bedazzled Crocs, to Balenciaga's chunky dad sneakers, and now Gucci's hybrid hiking shoe/sandal.

The Gucci shoes are, to be sure, gloriously ugly. They're something your dad might have worn to his science teacher convention in Hawaii in the '90s, causing you to burn with an embarrassment so acute you thought you might die of it.

At around $952 they are also a fashion statement of the highest order. On par, it must be said, with the New Yorker's claim that wearing Prada's flame print bowling shirt, sported by style icon Jeff Goldblum, was an act of “performance art”.

But is there not something so jubilant about ugly shoes? And, what's more: could wearing them actually make us dress better?

Think about the first time you reconsidered the Birkenstock sandal.

Perhaps you once saw it as hopelessly daggy, the preferred shoe of practical tourists (see also: the rise and rise of the fashion bumbag). But then Phoebe Philo did her fur-lined orthopedic Birkenstock-esque sandal for Céline’s spring 2013 runway.

The most stylish women you knew started wearing white Arizona Birkenstocks with tailoring and a new silhouette was created: chunky shoes with silky slips and slides with sharp tailoring.

The balance was off in an appealing way. There  was a loosening, and new "rules" about what "good" and "taste" is were made. There was, and remains, a prioritising of comfort and a defiance, too, in eschewing trappings of traditional glamour.

Besides, is ugliness not in the eye of the beholder anyway? As Demna Gvasalia, creative director of Balenciaga, told fashion critic Robin Givhan, “I cannot feel the ownership or responsibility, for example, for ugly sneakers or whatever they call it. I cannot feel that responsibility because I truly do not consider Triple S as an ugly sneaker."

“I don’t like ugly things. Like, I don’t know who came up with that. I actually love beautiful things; but I maybe try to see beauty in other things that are not conventionally considered as beautiful today,” he said.

In any case, as the Business of Fashion noted last year, ugly fashion is big business. Particularly, it must be said, when it comes to comfy shoes.

"Ugg, Birkenstocks and Crocs, have built entire businesses on comfort-driven, ugly products," wrote BoF's Grace Cook, adding that revenues at Ugg surpassed $US400 million ($571 million) in the second quarter of 2017 and the Colorado-based Crocs business has hovered around the $US1 billion to $US1.2 billion ($1.47 billion to $1.71 billion) mark since 2011.

"Fashion trends are cyclical, so fashion don'ts will always return — but they're far more likely to have longevity if they're easy to wear," Cook added.

Ugly chic is nothing new, of course. Elsa Schiaparelli, with her daring, surrealist designs, pushed the boundaries of good taste and style in the 1920s and '30s.

Famed fashion editor Diana Vreeland, a woman of exceptional and also very interesting taste, once said a favourite Schiaparelli dress "had fake ba-zooms – these funny little things that stuck out here… all I can say is that it was terribly chic. Don’t ask me why, but it was."

Miuccia Prada made ugly chic cool too, with clunky shoes and challenging colour combinations, and prints like the now iconic banana print from 2011. So much so that, in these ugly/chic times, Prada has re-issued some of its famous earlier products including nylon bum bags, blocky loafers and, yes, the banana.

Perhaps the best thing about the ugly shoe trend is that it's become harder to tell who's actually 'fashion' anymore.

The downside to deliberate ugliness is of course the element of showing off, or the danger of buying into a trend simply because it's cool and not because the piece draws you in, or challenges you, or for some funny reason you just love it.

But we do need what Cassie Smart, head of womenswear buying at Matches Fashion, calls “fashion pioneers”: those who will wear Tevas before the rest of us can even contemplate the thought.

Yes, it might, as Elle fashion editor Justine Carreon puts it, be a five-step process from denial to acceptance to get there, but the enduring appeal of ugliness is worth celebrating because it makes us think and dress differently.

Though, perhaps the best thing about the ugly shoe trend is that it's become harder to tell who's actually "fashion" anymore. Though, through it all, it remains that the true marker of real style is actually just confidence. Your high school science teacher probably had it in spades. Way ahead of his time.

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