A good, palpable humbling is one of the ingredients to celebrity redemption in the face of public scandal. So it wasn’t surprising when, last week, Mel Gibson was photographed by TMZ for the first time since the release of his brutal tapes, looking less like a public enemy than a character in Passion of the Christ. There he was, hoofing it down a dusty road on his way to a local church. Of course, his rumpled appearance made Gibson no more sympathetic, but the fashion set saw in the pictures of Gibson something quite different: mandals.
Click here to view our Gallery of Men in Sandals
The question of men’s sandals is an eternal one. It dates, depending on your opinion of Creationism, back to the beginning of time. But this year, the debate reached fever pitch, when several designers, from Dolce & Gabbana to Vivienne Westwood featured men’s sandals on their summer 2011 runways. Though mandals have permeated celebrity culture and high fashion, men’s style editors and bloggers insist they aren’t acceptable for the Everyman. They stress that average men require functionality in their wardrobes—and sandals, if not worn on the beach, represent a step away from utility and into flamboyance.
“There needs to be sand beneath your feet, or your name needs to be Matthew McConaughey,” says Matt Halfhill, Founder and Editor of the popular sneaker blog Nice Kicks. “Mandals are really only appropriate if you’re at a keg party,” says Bradley Carbone, Lifestyle Editor at Complex Magazine. “Or if your dad is God.”
Though a quick Google search of “Barack Obama + flip flops” yields results on his opinions about the surge in Iraq and NAFTA, we eventually uncovered a picture of our president in leather mandals. Not only did he wear them with swim trunks in Hawaii, but he paired them with jeans on a visit to a museum in D.C. as recently as last week. Obama may have been committing a cardinal sin of street fashion, but according to GQ’s Senior Associate Editor Will Welch: “If you want to wear those instead of flip flops, and you’re the leader of the free world—well, then that’s okay.”
The debate has even infiltrated the rap world. Rapper DMX once boasted in a song: “Thugs don’t wear flip flops … Yo, no matter how much vacation I’m on—we’ve been St. Thomas, Bahamas, all the little islands—I don’t wear no flip-flops. I’m never that comfortable, not even in my own house.” In 2006, the rapper Cam’ron released a song accusing Jay-Z of wearing sandals with jeans. “How’s the king of New York rockin’ sandals with jeans?” he rapped, incredulously. “Open-toed sandals, chancletas, with jeans on.” (Jay-Z clarified in his song “Hustlin’” that they were really “Louis boat shoes.”)
Barbara Shaum, who designs and produces sandals at her boutique in New York, has watched footwear trends change since she opened shop in 1964. She now makes over 50 different styles of sandals, and says her clientele now roughly consists of half men and half women. Shaum says she’s seen street style grow more casual since she opened, with the 1990s representing a turning point when “everything began to loosen up and people began to wear looser clothing and sandals.” Shaum cites the institution of Casual Fridays as an impetus for the change. (Casual Fridays originated from a Hawaiian custom in the late 1960s, but caught on in the relaxed workplace culture of the dot-com era.) “They’re made for use,” says Shaum, of her sandals. “They’re not fashion.”
Because the utility of a slip-on beckons, Welch suggests that men should try boat shoes, Vans, or Plimsolls. But he offers a word of advice to men considering taking the mandal plunge: “If you’re wondering whether or not you’re a sandal guy,” he says, “Then you can answer your own question.”
Correction: Matt Halfhill's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.
Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.