Have Crocs become the ‘ironic shoe du jour’?

Why we always end up loving ugly stuff

POPSCI: A scientific slant on popular culture

The world is filled with ugly things; that sculpture in London’s Olympic Park, Ugg boots, the emojis in the iOS 10 update. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and most things don’t stay ugly forever. Which is probably why crocs are beginning to find their footing in more fashionable circles. Christopher Kane sent his models walking down the runway earlier this month wearing bejewelled crocs, while lesser-known designer Collina Strada similarly showed at NYFW with the shoes finishing off every look. Even Rihanna’s rocking the crocs.

Twitter was particularly enraged by Kane’s showcase. “If Christopher Kane just ordained Crocs as the new ironic shoe du jour I’m gonna lose it,” tweeted one contrarian — and that’s exactly the point. Birkenstocks, flatforms, those weird Nikes with the split toes — plenty of shoes have been elevated from ugliness to ‘shoe du jour’ status.

Because ‘ugly’ isn’t static. Looking back at the history of art, fashion, architecture or advertising, it’s clear that what’s considered beautiful and what isn’t changes with every decade. Although brain scans show that things people consider beautiful light up certain parts of the brain more profoundly, what lights up each participant’s brain is unique. Beauty is a social and cultural construct, and — in turn — so is ugliness.

Besides, beauty is often boring. “Ugliness, no matter how difficult to define, always fascinates,” writes Stephen Bayley, author of Ugly: the Aesthetics of Everything. “If everything were beautiful, nothing would be. Our word ugly derives from the Old Norse ugga, which means aggressive. We need a measure of visual aggression to make beauty comprehensible, even tolerable.” Which is potentially why early adopters in the fashion world are required to make ugly things go full circle in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. As Victorian novelist Marie Louise Ramé says, “familiarity is a magician that’s cruel to beauty, but kind to ugliness.”

And often, ‘ugly’ things are hiding in plain sight. “I always work with unexpected items and combinations, transforming the everyday into desirable luxury,” says Kane. “I wanted to bring my own stamp and DNA to Crocs’ classic clog shoe and achieve something really special.” Kane’s not the only one, either. At a time when information has been completely democratised, and fashion has become something that any culture vulture can peck from the global stage, things that are ‘fashionable’ are ‘out’ before they’ve even made it ‘in’.

Instead, what’s stylish is the unexpected; the everyman that wasn’t even trying. It’s why Vetements managed to shift a t-shirt that’s an exact replica of the uniform worn by employees of DHL for £185; why Birkenstocks continue to go in and out of fashion. Crocs are, in a way, the uniform of the everyman; ‘normcore’ at its finest. While they may be universally condemned as ugly, they’re hugely popular among those who just want a shoe to get shit done in — 30 million pairs were sold in 2014 alone. “Since the shoes aren’t expensive and serve many purposes,” writes journalist Kim Bhasin, “people wear them regardless of aesthetics.” But by this time next year, could people be wearing them because of their aesthetics?

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Lore Oxford is Canvas8's deputy editor. She previously ran her own science and technology publication and was a columnist for Dazed and Confused. When she’s not busy analysing human behaviour, she can be found defending anything from selfie culture to the Kardashians from contemporary culture snobs.

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