What’s the Difference Between Sandals and Flip-Flops?

When the warmer months finally arrive after too many freezing winter days, sandals and flip-flops quickly become a core part of any footwear wardrobe.

After reading that sentence, you may be thinking, Wait, aren’t flip-flops technically sandals in the first place? You’d be right: Flip-flops most certainly are a type of sandal. But flip-flops are more of a sandal exception rather than the rule. With that fact considered, there are some key differences between your average sandal and your typical flip-flop to consider when shopping for your next summer shoe.

Flip-flops technically fit the standard definition of a sandal, featuring a mostly-open upper that uses straps to secure the shoe’s sole. But if you put a flip-flop and a luxury stiletto sandal side-by-side, there’s little else the footwear styles have in common. They may technically both be sandals thanks to foot-bearing uppers, but that’s about where the similarities end.

When rounding out your summer shoe wardrobe, it’s helpful to know the difference between flip-flops and the general features of your average pair of sandals to help you find the right shoe for you. Equipped with this essential footwear knowledge, you’ll know when to scoop up a pair of flip-flops or when to default to a more traditional sandal silhouette. From your overall budget to your personal summer style, there’s a lot to consider when shopping for summer sandals. To help you out along the way, here are the six main need-to-know differences between sandals and flip-flops — even if a flip-flop is technically a sandal. 

While Flip-Flops Are a Type of Sandal, Sandals Include Many Types of Silhouettes.

As the saying goes, not all sandals are flip-flops, but all flip-flops are sandals. Simply put, sandals include a grouping of several silhouettes of summer shoes — including gladiator sandals, open-toe mules, T-strap sandals, pool slides and more — while flip-flops are just one of these many silhouettes.

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Pool slides.
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By definition, sandals are summer shoes featuring a mostly-open upper attached by a single strap or straps to the sole of the shoe. Needless to say, that definition includes flip-flops. A flip-flop, also known as a thong sandal, is a type of sandal silhouette marked by a Y-shaped upper. The base of the “Y” upper rests between the first and second toes, acting as a source of security for the entire front of the shoe while the back remains open. While the two terms are intertwined, they are by no means synonymous.

Flip-Flops Have an Open Back While Many Sandal Styles Often Have Some Sort of Heel Security.

All flip-flops feature an open, unattached back with no heel strap, leading to that classic “flopping” or snapping sound as you walk. Sandals, on the other hand, typically have some sort of heel security, often in the form of an ankle encircling strap, to help keep the shoe’s back flush to the wearer’s heel. This isn’t a requirement for all sandals styles. After all, flip-flops, slides and mule-style sandals all have open backs with no heel strap. Yet, T-strap sandals, gladiators, jelly sandals, stiletto sandals and strappy sandals all feature some sort of heel security, making the feature quite common.

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Flip Flops Typically Don’t Have a Heel, While Sandals May.

Flip-flops are generally considered hyper-casual shoes with thin, flat and flexible soles. While many sandal styles besides flip-flops have flat, thin soles — like slides and jelly sandals — the summer shoe style can also feature a variety of heel styles and heights. Stilletto sandals, platform sandals and sandal wedges are all popular sandal styles that have some height to them. Often, these sandals are created to be worn with more formal looks, leading to this next key difference between sandals and flip-flops…

Sandals Can Be Formal, While Flip-Flops Most Definitely Can’t Be Formal. Ever.

While flip-flops are wholly casual and appropriate for off-duty wear, some sandal styles can be elevated enough to wear with full-on evening gowns. Shoe silhouettes like stiletto sandals and heeled strappy sandals are all elevated styles appropriate for black tie affairs and dressy occasions. Mule sandals and some T-strap sandals can be elevated enough to wear to the office or to an important dinner. Though it’s unlikely to see a celebrity walk the red carpet in flip-flops — you know, outside of the early 2000s — you often see these other types of formal sandals at star-studded events.

Sandals Are Often Sturdier Than Flip-Flops.

Flip-flops are often made of lightweight materials like foam or plastics, adding to the relaxed, off-duty feel of the shoe. This material make-up makes flip-flops highly portable, casual and perfect for slipping on and off without a second thought. Most other sandal styles, on the other hand, are constructed of sturdier materials, like leather, rubber and robust textiles. While this construction makes many sandal styles more durable, it also elevates the look of the shoe, which is part of the reason why other sandal styles read as more work-appropriate or even formal.

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Flip-Flops Are Often the Most Budget-Friendly Type of Sandal.

Given the simple design and inexpensive materials used to create flip-flops, you can get a good-quality pair for less than $5 sometimes at major retailers like Gap and Old Navy (Old Navy famously has an annual $1 flip-flop sale). Other sandal styles, on the other hand, are often more expensive. Given the sturdier construction, elevated materials and more complex design, many other sandal styles start at around $20. As an extreme example of the pricing difference, a pair of simple rubber Gucci flip-flops rings in at $360 while a pair of block-heeled Gucci T-strap sandals are $820. That’s more than double the price, even though both shoes are technically sandals.

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