Although flip flops have been around since ancient times and were used around the world in Asia, Africa Europe, and North America, the classic, rubber slippah so popular in Hawaii today was not introduced until the 1950s when American soldiers were bringing the Japanese style shoes home from the war. The typical y-shaped strap over a flat sole that is so recognizable today was not something Americans had ever seen prior to WWII. It was, however, popular in Japan. These shoes were called zori, and while they looked very much like flip flops today, were generally made out of straw, cloth, or even wood.
However, after World War II in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the rubber economy was in full swing, and a company called the Hiroshima Rubber Company began to mass-produce rubber versions of zori to export to western countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. They really took off in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and a New York Times article sites that a reporter in 1960 lamented that every stylish vacationer at Lake Tahoe that summer was wearing “floppy hunks of rubber” (not the most flattering depiction of the popular shoes).
However, Hawaiians got in on this craze a decade earlier than the rest of the country because of the high number of Japanese immigrants who descended on the islands from Japan after the war. And of course it makes sense that the simple, inexpensive, modest show would take off in Hawaii, because it has many practical uses in an island setting, and because in many ways, the rubber slipper (pronounced rubbah slippah) is reminiscent of Hawaiian culture itself.
Before we go into the reasons that Hawaiians love flip flops, there’s one rule of thumb: they don’t call them “flip flops.” That’s right. As soon as your plane touches down at LIH, HNL or any other Hawaiian airport, those comfy things on your feet are now and forevermore “slippahs.” If you call them “flip flops,” or worse, “thongs,” you could very well be the subject of islanders’ mirth.
Now that we’ve got that settled and out of the way, let’s look at some of the reasons that Hawaiians are so drawn to slippahs.
First of all, slippahs are thrifty. A cheap pair will cost you all of two dollars, and a quality pair might run you twenty bucks. Not bad for a shoe that’ll last you years and can be used so many different ways.
That’s right. In Hawaii, these shoes aren’t just made for walking. They’re also used for swatting at insects, for fanning oneself in the brutal summer heat, and for poor man’s body surfing. Why lug a boogie board around when you can wear a rubbah slippah on each hand and hydroplane along Waikiki like a true Hawaiian?
Besides all this, rubbah slippahs indicate the true humility and humanity of the Hawaiian people. They are not a materialistic people. They have the islands, ohana, and a sturdy pair of slippahs---what else could someone ask for?
Slippahs are also popular among some native Hawaiians because they are the closest thing to barefoot you can be while still wearing shoes. In ancient Hawaii, Hawaiians spent most of their time sans shoes. By going barefoot, they were more connected to the world around them. There were also no paved surfaces hundreds of years ago. While walking around on grass or dirt is fine for the health of your feet, it’s walking on hard, paved surfaces that can bruise or otherwise injure your feet. Ancient Hawaiians didn’t have those concerns, but modern Hawaiians can wear slippahs and still have their feet in the open air and close to the ground.
It wasn’t even until recently (within the last twenty years) that Hawaiian children have been wearing shoes all day, even though they are slippers. For example, according to an article in the Honolulu Advertiser, all the way up to the early 1980s it was common for children to go barefoot everywhere in Hawaii, all the way up until high school.
“That’s just how it was,” said Robert Rose, one of the men interviewed for the article. While going barefoot is more looked down upon that it used to be, there are still Hawaiian people who opt to go barefoot whenever possible, and the rest wear slippahs.
There are a few local slippah brands that are well-known in Hawaii. One of these is the aptly-named Locals brand. The company was founded in 1982 on Honolulu with the vision of forming a classic, quality, and locally-made rubbah slippah that could cater to native Hawaiians and Hawaii residents.
The idea worked, and Locals has been a popular Hawaiian shoe company ever since. The company now offers more than just slippahs, like rainboots and tee shirts, and the Locals slippahs come in tons of colors and designs. You can buy Locals slippahs with arch support, slippahs “with da bumps” (massage slippers) and gift cards. Despite the changes, you’ll always be able to purchase their most popular slippahs: the classic slippahs. Locals have stayed true to the original blueprint; the original slippahs are composed of a thick rubber sole with a tough, sturdy strap emblazoned with the Local’s logo.
Locals is also known for its unique sizing. In order to get slippahs with the best fit for your foot, you are supposed to measure your foot from toe to heel in inches. Then, add an inch to get the correct slipper size. This may seem odd, but really it makes sense---why not get a fit that tailors to the exact size of your foot? If the “in inches” sizing still weirds you out, you can order your Locals on the company’s site either in inches or in your U.S. shoe size. There’s even a nifty conversion chart from inches to conventional shoe size on the company’s website.
Slippahs have been a staple of modern Hawaiian life for decades now, and they will probably be a highlight of island life for decades to come.