From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
Slippers was broadcast on 21st August 2021. You can listen to the audio here.
There’s surely no better icon of comfort than a pair of slippers. And yet the phrase ‘pipe and slippers’ is often used to describe someone who wants only to sit at home and lead a quiet life. The pipe is now long-gone but what of the slipper? Is it, in fact, an icon of dullness and stay-at-home resignation?
For many, slippers are the first thing they put on when they arrive home, especially if they’ve spent the day in less forgiving footwear. Snug and warm, a pair of slippers takes us back to babyhood, when our fat little feet were kept toasty in knitted bootees. And perhaps that’s why slippers are both rejoiced and reviled, reflecting babyfication and a lack of sophistication. Did Audrey Hepburn wear slippers? Did Jean-Paul Sartre?
Slippers are not the glass slippers that Cinderella wore, which are more like the satin shoes a woman might wear at a ball. And they’re not the light, woven shoes popular for centuries across Asia. In 12th century Indo-China, female slaves wore baggy fabric shoes to prevent them from running away. For some, the modern slipper is still like that, a symbol of domestic drudgery, a shackle of sorts.
In North Africa elaborately tooled leather slippers called babouche were soft enough where carpets were laid and sturdy enough for tiled surfaces. They became fashionable for bohemian types in Georgian and Victorian times. For the Japanese, wearing outside shoes inside the home is regarded as disrespectful and soft slippers called uwabuki have long been worn. These are swapped for a different pair when visiting the bathroom and removed altogether if you walk on tatami mats. But it was away from Japan that Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, really brought the slipper into vogue. He favoured a light, indoor shoe with a leather sole and a fabric upper usually made from velvet and sometimes embroidered. Often referred to as smoking shoes, they were worn when the master of the house retired to his study, a hint of where the idea of pipe and slippers comes from. They were also part of dinner attire, more refined than a stout leather shoe worn only outside.
By the middle of the twentieth century the slipper had become commonplace, widely available. In Australia in the 1930s, the ugg boot appeared, a byproduct of sheep shearing, which found great favour with surfers in the 1970s. While these were designed to be used outside, they’ve remained the embodiment of indoor winter cosiness, and even fashionable. So, too, has the velvet slipper favoured by Prince Albert which is seen as more sophisticated than anything more tweedy. The idea of slippers makes sense, too. With toxic pesticides and bacteria-laden dirt on our footpaths, who would want to trudge that into the home? The pipe may be long gone, then, but the slipper remains popular. Whether high fashion from Italy or cheap and cheerful from the supermarket, there’s a slipper for everyone. An icon of comfort, definitely, but of so much else, too.