A California symbol, these iconic, clunky sandals are soles with soul

Birkenstocks are the product (and namesake) of a German shoe company.
Birkenstocks are the product (and namesake) of a German shoe company.

People sure get attached to their Birkenstocks. Seattle ginger beer maker Rachel Marshall found her culinary calling after she got fired from a job for wearing the sandals to work. She wasn’t giving up her Birks. Even tossing out an old, blackened, peeling pair can be tough. L.A. musician and motorcycle enthusiast John Zainer repairs his Birkenstocks’ soles by pulverizing wine corks, mixing the powder with glue and filling the cracks.

Birkenstocks are the product (and namesake) of a German shoe company that has been producing orthopedically correct shoes since 1774. Entrepreneur Margot Fraser brought the clunky, flat, brown suede sandals to the U.S. in the mid-1960s, hoping to spread the relief she found for her aching feet while visiting a German spa.

Shoe sellers were horrified. The shoes were UGLY. Americans, they insisted, would never buy them. Then along came the new health food stores and co-ops, flower children, hippies and back-to-the-land communes. Voila, Jesus sandals were a hit. Birkenstocks so strongly tapped into the non-conformist, back-to-nature simplicity trend that they still carry that image — and still evoke strong opinions and love ‘em or hate ‘em responses.

Birks embody people’s identity. Gina Mama, who writes the I Love Birkenstocks blog, hates the shoes’ hippie stereotype. “I love Birkenstocks and I am not a hippie!” she writes. She’s so enamored with the shoes that she can tell you how to identify fake Birks, how to restore your decades-old faves or how to customize them for a one-of-a-kind look.

Birkenstocks’ popularity has risen and fallen over the years, ebbing and flowing like any fashion trend. Birkenstock lovers from the ’60s will recognize the shoe’s

footbed, but they now come in vivid colors, metallics, stripes, polka dots, glitter, slides and thongs, wedges and platforms, and in limited editions and seasonal styles.

With such variety, you can create your own unique style. You might see an executive wearing Birks with a business suit, or a millennial in a breezy white dress, black “Stocks” and red ankle socks. Unexpected, contrasting combinations are in. Bedeck them with gold, jewels and fur and pair them with the latest clothing styles, and they can hold their own on high-fashion Paris runways.

But even prettying up Birks hasn’t eased some fashion writers’ revulsion. “A man of style would avoid these like the plague,” says the online men’s magazine Bespoke Unit: Guide to the Dapper Life. The publication will cut you some slack if you have a health condition that’s eased by wearing Birkenstocks, but, “Just please, for the love of God, don’t wear them with socks.” ’Stocks and socks, or not, is an ongoing controversy.

Die-hard Birkenstock wearers couldn’t care less if people think their sandals are ugly. For some, that attitude even enhances Birks’ appeal. Relaxed, simple, earthy, comfortable, go your own way. In fact, the company itself is drawing on the shoes’ healthy and natural image to expand its product line into beds, sleep systems and cosmetics.

You can’t be sure anymore why someone’s wearing Birkenstocks. But if you’re looking for a conversation starter, ask about their shoes. You’re sure to get a story.

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