I’ve lived in L.A. for five years, but embracing Birkenstock is what made me a California girl
Full disclosure: I used to not like Birkenstocks. They aren’t a very New York thing (in fact, you might say that seeing someone in a pair of Birkenstocks in New York means they’re either Eva Chen or a transplant looking for apartments in Brooklyn neighborhoods they’ve seen geotagged on Instagram). I didn’t like their bulkiness, their buckles, their flat brownness, their privilege. I didn’t like that, when I moved to Florida for college, the girls who didn’t take out debilitating student loans for our resort-ish private school wore them. More simply, I just didn’t like them.
The New York shoes I knew growing up were monochrome before monochrome was a thing. They were all-white adidas Stan Smiths and all-black military boots. For a brief period in high school, Uggs were the only shoes a suburban New York foot needed. Sandals were always grecian or floppy and plastic to a fault. My grandmother called sandals “thongs.” These are the shoes I knew and felt most comfortable wearing.
And then I moved to California. For the uninitiated: calibrating yourself when you move from New York to Los Angeles requires learning its spatial orientation (each neighborhood has its own burning social, cultural, and political significance), its food (memories of my first year are a tonkotsu ramen blur), its writing (just all the Didion—all of it), and its style (the unwritten dress code is breezy as the Santa Ana winds or “to kill”).
Birkenstocks seemed lighter here. I saw women wearing them with oversized cutoff shorts, with loose tank dresses, with boyfriend jeans that belonged to a boyfriend, with dressier skirts and dresses. They seemed right for all weather (to be fair, “all weather” in Los Angeles is a less broad term than “all weather” anywhere else). Somewhere in the temporal space adjacent to my own narrative, Birkenstock became fashion. The New York Times has written about the phenomenon and its origins, and designers have used the simple structure of the sandal to craft much more expensive runway counterparts. Chen, who I mentioned before, has been sporting a furry pair from the Birkenstock collaboration with Barneys New York.
But three years into living in California, I still didn’t want to be a New York-born woman wearing Birkenstocks. So I bought a cheap copy (a cheap, cheap copy) on Missguided’s website for $10. (Note to self after an international delivery tax debacle: don’t shop on Missguided’s website.) They were gold with a cork bottom, and I let them grow dusty in my closet until last year, when a move to a new apartment in the same apartment building prompted their surprise appearance in my weekly shoe rotation.
And by fuck, they felt comfortable. And went with everything. And gave every good outfit a charming and ambiguous level of did-she or didn’t-she care about this. I think they call that effortless. I think that’s California style. I loved them, and wore them to the cork-bone. My footprint is so black and embedded in them that my toes have their own grooves to slide into when I slip them on. Suddenly, like that (if you snap), I felt it in the back of my throat. When the words at last bubbled to the surface, I didn’t recognize them:
“I want a pair of Birkenstocks,” I said to my boyfriend, who doesn’t like Birkenstocks (“They’re chunky,” he says), and I said it to myself often, in my head, as I online window-shopped for them to virtually stave the impulse to buy a pair.
But when you’re a full-time working gal, $100 for a pair of sandals that last forever (or a long-ass time) is actually kind of steal-ish. Four wears justify their retail price. For me, maybe eight wears, because after all was taxed and done, I paid about $180 for the pair of Birkenstock sandals I bought on Nordstrom Rack’s website. And let’s get this out of the way: They’re sold out. Sorry (actually sorry). Not to fear, more niche styles exist.
It wasn’t an easy decision because I’m someone who sees $180 as a purchase of wallet consequence. But this was more whimsical than any pair of Birkenstock sandals I’d ever seen, featuring tweed, cork, and metallic at once. They were silly. I laughed at them (but as $180 sandals, they got the last laugh). I bookmarked this wildly quixotic pair and another one: the classic Arizona sandals in a muted “stone” color, which were sensible and could go with everything and wouldn’t draw attention to my feet in the pedicure off-season.
The tweed won out, of course. They are an over-the-top proclamation of my newfound love for Birkenstock and (cue subtext coming undone) my acceptance of my California identity. I want to live in Los Angeles for the rest of my life (and I want Birkenstock on my feet for at least part of that time). Don’t tell the New Yorkers that this city is tabula rasa, that it is the most complex, infuriating, invigorating, deep, and beautiful place I’ve ever lived in. These shoes speak to what Los Angeles and California offer to east coast expats: room to breathe and freedom to wander.