Birkenstock sandals are specially designed casual shoes with flexible cork and latex (type of rubber) insoles that are shaped like the bottom of a person's foot. Designed in Germany, Birkenstocks were first introduced in the United States in the late 1960s, and they immediately became identified with a youthful generation who preferred natural and comfortable clothing to the more restrictive fashions of their parents. Birkenstocks introduced the concept of "comfort shoes" that has been continued by many other manufacturers.
Karl Birkenstock came from a family of German shoemakers. His grandfather Konrad had first come up with the idea that shoes would be more comfortable if the soles were contoured or shaped like the bottom of a foot. In 1897 he invented a flexible insole that fit inside a shoe to increase its comfort, and he sold his insoles successfully all over Germany and Europe. In 1964 his grandson Karl invented a shoe that used Konrad's idea by making a cork sole that was shaped like a footprint.
In 1966 Margot Fraser, a German woman who had moved to the United States, visited her native country where she tried Birkenstock's sandals. She found them to be the most comfortable shoes she had ever worn, ending the foot pain she had experienced for years. She brought them back to the United States and began to sell them from her home. She tried to sell them to shoe stores, but the managers of the stores took one look at the boxy, plain Birkenstocks and laughed at her. They told her that American women would never buy shoes that looked like that.
Fraser then decided to approach people who might have less conventional ideas. As a result, she began to sell her shoes at health food stores, which were popular among a small, but growing, number of people at the time. Birkenstocks became so popular during the late 1960s and 1970s that specialty shoe stores began to sell them, too. During the conservative 1980s the shoes went out of fashion somewhat, but by the 1990s they had come back more successfully than ever. By the early twenty-first century many styles of Birkenstocks had been designed, including hiking boots and men's and women's formal shoes. Birkenstock sandals were even seen on the runways at designer fashion shows. The basic footprint design has remained unchanged throughout the years, as has the company's commitment to comfort over fashion.
Though thousands of people buy and wear Birkenstocks, they are still very much seen as the shoes of social rebels or political radicals, and people often assume they know the political beliefs of those who wear them. In fact "Birkenstock-wearing" is an adjective regularly used to describe environmental activists or those who support other social causes, usually by those who disagree with them. In reality, however, all types of people have found comfort in the Birkenstock sandal. Margot Fraser's company, Birkenstock Footprint Sandal, Inc., lives up to the shoe's liberal, open-minded image, supporting recycling, Earth Day, and other environmental causes. Refusing many offers to sell out, the California-based company is moving toward becoming totally worker owned.
Birkenstock. http://www.birkenstock.com (accessed on August 27, 2003).
Brokaw, Leslie. "Feet Don't Fail Me Now." Inc (May 1994): 70–76.