Happy feet: Why slippers are the ultimate wardrobe essential

By Kim Knight

Kim Knight on why slippers need not be the enemy of style.
Dave Baxter revealed his winter-time love with a sheepskin-slippered selfie.
Dave Baxter revealed his winter-time love with a sheepskin-slippered selfie.

Slippers are the comfort food of the shoe world. Rice pudding for your feet. Chicken soup for your soles.

When you wear slippers you are saying, without needing to speak, that it is after 5pm, and now would be good for the chardonnay.

When you wear slippers you are (softly, oh-so-softly) kicking work to touch. At work, your feet are perpetually plantar-flexed, your arches ache and your toes are pinched. You are hostage to that time when they burned bras but not heels. Feet are what feminists forgot. Slippers help us ease that pain.

Next month, July, is traditionally New Zealand's coldest month. You will need slippers. Or, as local folk pop singer Dave Baxter from Avalanche City might say: "The outside world is cold and harsh, but with slippers you're somehow winning against winter."

Remarkably, that line is not (yet) an Avalanche City lyric. Watch this space.

Baxter is a touring hipster who loves his slippers. He responded to Canvas' questions after Hamilton and before Tauranga and he signed off with a sheepskin-slippered selfie from his Instagram feed.

"I'm vegetarian and using products an animal has to die for isn't something I usually do. But in winter, my feet become blocks of ice and I tried loads of different polyester options but they did nothing."

He plans to wear his current pair "into the ground ... lessen the cost to the sheep".

"We've been joking about setting up my slippers on the side of the stage, so when the show ends, I walk straight off into them. Honestly, I'd do it."

And why not? Three weeks ago, American comedian and Girls creator Lena Dunham went to an awards ceremony for the Council of Fashion Designers of America wearing furry pink bunny slippers. At least that's what the fashion writers said. Canvas went undercover as an online tabloid newspaper reader to find an auxiliary side-profile shot of said "slippers" and can now exclusively reveal that those bunnies had height. (There is precedence here, Cinderella's "slippers" almost certainly had a heel.)

What is a good slipper? Auckland shoe designer Kathryn Wilson says it should carry the wearer from a sneaky errand to a trip to the garden "to pick winter fruit and vegetables". Exhibit A: her Hansen slipper, with its leather upper, sheep lining and hard-wearing sole.

"You can still have eye candy on your feet. But of course, they have to be toasty-warm and soft."

Fashion historian Angela Lassig says local slipper history is sketchy. "There was a fashion for making and wearing Berlin woolwork (a type of Victorian embroidery) slippers in the second half of the 19th century. Women's magazines sometimes included patterns for them.

Lassig was responding, via email, from Japan, where slippers, she said, were culturally very significant. "One never wears shoes inside and house slippers are used inside, with a separate pair devoted to only the toilet area."

New Zealand doesn't have a strong indoor shoe culture. Canvas rang Rob Stokes, the Federated Farmers high-country vice-chairman for the North Canterbury and the Chatham Islands, and asked him what he wore inside when he took his gumboots off: "Socks."

This year, for the first time, New Zealand-made shoe company Minnie Cooper went into serious commercial slipper production.

"Slippers say 'I'm at home, in my nest and I feel good'," says company founder, Sandy Cooper.

"The thought of going into a house with your shoes on feels really wrong. It just feels unhygienic. Which sounds really uptight, but it just feels a little bit grubby, actually."

Her perfect slipper has a sheepskin lining that only the wearer should know about; from the outside, they look like "a nice little leather shoe" that you can leave on when guests come for dinner. A change, she says, from the previous hideousness of modern slippers.

"They either make you look like a hobbit or a person with no taste."

Good slippers are collectable. Auckland Museum currently lists 42 objects titled "slipper".

Jane Groufsky, associate curator of applied arts and design, says the ornately beaded and embroidered examples hail from New Zealand, France, Turkey, China and England. One pair dates back to 1810.

"In particular, with things like silk slippers, because they're made of textile we have to be mindful of how long they can be on display. Because they're made of light sensitive material, they can degrade within a year or so."

Hard-wearing carpet wool is the medium of choice for the women (and one man) of Whanganui's Gonville Library Knitting Group.

The group was formed by librarian Kelly Scarrow who got talking to craft book borrowers.

"I'm a prolific knitter myself. I'd get talking to them, and they all said they had no-one to knit for anymore."

Now, around 30 people meet every Wednesday morning. This year, they're knitting for Women's Refuge and the Women's Network and their garment list includes slippers.

They're very warm," says Scarrow. "They mould to your feet and they breathe better than the ones you buy. They're easy to pack and take somewhere. You just roll them up into a little ball and they're good to go ..."

- Canvas

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