How Comfortable ‘Ugly’ Shoes Have Defined Women’s Empowerment Since the Days of ‘Working Girl’

In the opening scene of 1988’s Working Girl, Melanie Griffith’s character Tess McGill sits on the Staten Island Ferry wearing a pleather trench coat and a pair of dingy white high-top Reeboks piled up with scrunched tube socks. The movie paints a real portrait of the New York female commuter of the era — blue-collar secretaries or assistants shuffling in from the outer boroughs, New Jersey, Connecticut and Long Island with comfortable footwear that read as both scarlet letter and a badge of honor for a working woman. The scene of Tess frantically pulling off her ugly sneakers, throwing them under her desk and shoving a pair of black high-heeled pumps on her feet in order to meet with her male bosses is all too relatable for many women, and the subsequent scene in which she runs to the men’s bathroom to deliver a message to a senior male colleague while fetching him a roll of toilet paper is a not-so-subtle reminder of sexist workplace pecking orders both past and present. (In fact, the entire movie is worth a re-watch amid the context of the sexual assault epidemic finally coming to light).

Working Girl Melanie Griffith Tess McGill
Melanie Griffith's ambitious Tess McGill in the 1988 film Working Girl.
CREDIT: ©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

But today’s Tess McGill might not change her shoes at all. Though plenty of women still use commuter-friendly footwear (a driving-friendly loafer, a boot for inclement weather, a sneaker or walking sandal for catching the bus), the idea of changing one’s shoes to accommodate an office dress code has shifted substantially since the power-dressed 1980s setting in which the film takes place.

Call it the Zuckerberg effect: The casual wardrobe of gray tees and hoodies on Facebook’s CEO has trickled down to offices of all types, with looser guidelines on both clothing and shoes. Though some industries, like the legal and financial fields, tend to remain more buttoned up, there have been challengers to the pump-wearing status quo: Last year, British temp worker Nicola Thorp petitioned parliament after a receptionist at Price Waterhouse Coopers, a company that had contracted her through the temp agency Portico, turned her away for not wearing high heels. The company soon changed its dress code policy to allow women to wear flat shoes (an allowance that men had always been granted). The work-from-home movement assumes that plenty of workers are wearing slippers, slides or no shoes at all.

Perhaps it’s this lack of a dress shoe requirement that has allowed the flat shoe — in all its shapes and materials — to prevail, both in transit, at the office, and basically everywhere else. A peek into any New York City subway car confirms that almost anything goes—with the exception of an actual heel.

Sex and the City Miranda Cynthia Nixon Sneakers
Cynthia Nixon as Miranda in Sex and the City, wearing the 1980s working woman's uniform of nylons and Reeboks in a flashback scene.
CREDIT: Kristin Callahan/Everett Collection
Chanel Couture Spring 2013 Sneakers Cara Delevingne
Cara Delevingne wears a pair of sneakers with a skirt suit on the Chanel Couture Spring 2013 runway.
CREDIT: Langsdon/Epa/REX/Shutterstock

Over the past few years, the flat, comfortable shoe has mattered as much on the runways as it has in real life (a convergence that, while logical, is actually somewhat rare). The prevalence of the “ugly” shoe has simultaneously confounded editors and provided them with plenty of headlines. “Why Spring 2018 Shoe Will Win the Ugly Shoe Race?” asked Vogue in October, highlighting Christopher Kane’s Crocs and J.W. Anderson’s curled-toe sneakers while extolling the pros and cons of a jolie-laide look. “Is Fall’s Hottest Shoe a Status Symbol—Or a Crime Against Fashion?” asks the New York Post in 2015 of Gucci’s uber-best-selling fur-lined Princetown slipper. Since Phoebe Philo introduced orthopedic-looking, fur-lined shoes in Celine’s Spring 2013 collection, “ugly” shoes have been deemed cool, albeit with a hint of sarcasm.

But as today’s beauty standards continue to shift, especially in the face of gender identities and sexual politics, one might take more caution when using the word “ugly.” Why must a “beautiful” shoe be a sky-high stiletto? And why are many flat slides singled out as “ugly”? It’s a question that Birkenstock CEO David Kahan posed last week at the Footwear News Achievement Awards, when he half-joked that those who called the brand’s sandals “ugly” were sharing fake news.

Celine Spring 2013 Shoes
Phoebe Philo unofficially kicked off the "ugly" comfort shoe trend when she introduced fur-lined orthopedic-style shoes at Celine's Spring 2013 show.
CREDIT: Gi/Penske Media/REX/Shutterstock

For all of the questions of why (or “WHY!?”), not all have found the simple, obvious answer: Because they are comfortable. But more specifically, because their comfort allows women to do what they need to do today. Think of the comfort shoe as footwear for the “Lean In” crowd. While “having it all” may be nearly impossible, can anyone come close to even attempting it all while staggering around in a pair of uncomfortable pumps?

Of course, Crocs and Birkenstocks are not for everyone (or every office). But fashion’s inclusion of these brands has made the idea of wearing comfortable shoes more acceptable to both the fashion crowd and the mainstream alike, and many luxury designers have followed suit in offering more flats in their collections. It’s a step (no pun intended) in the direction of shoes that do have it all. For women, that’s truly a beautiful thing.

Kendall Jenner Marc Jacobs Dr. Scholl's
Kendall Jenner in the Marc Jacobs Spring 2015 runway show, wearing a pair of Dr. Scholl's.
CREDIT: Szenes/Epa/REX/Shutterstock
Christopher Kane Spring 2018 Crocs
Christopher Kane showed embellished Crocs for the second season at his Spring 2018 show.
CREDIT: REX/Shutterstock

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