Ah, flip-flops. Those beloved shoes people have come to wear year-round. This sandal obsession has even sprouted a day of recognition: “National Flip Flop Day” on June 21st. These shoes are worn for every occasion; from hiking to weddings, to the office and even public speaking events (Combat Flip Flops CEO speaks at TEDx). Shoe designers have added heels, blinged them out, and dessert enthusiasts are making them out of Rice Krispies Treats. Yum!
There’s no hard evidence proving exactly where the flip-flop originated, but the general consensus is that they were made famous by the ancient Egyptians. The term “flip-flop” was popularized in late 20th-century western culture, named for the sound the sandal when it slaps the bottom of the heel while walking. The Egyptian sandal dates as far back as 4,000 years (Middle Kingdom), but it’s possible thong footwear originated earlier during the Unification Period, i.e. Early Dynastic Period, c.a. 3,100 BC, when Upper and Lower Egypt merged.
The ancient Egyptians were astonishing craftspeople who perfected flip-flop design. Some were plainly practical, while others were totally glam; it all depended upon one’s social class. The average sandal was perhaps constructed of Halfa grass (Desmostachya bipinnata), papyrus or palm leaves, weaved similar to how baskets were coiled, far from the modern rubber, foam and plastic flip-flops.
Contrary to mainstream media and Hollywood movies, or Katy Perry’s Dark Horse video, the average Egyptian walked barefoot, including royal officials. Sandals weren’t worn indoors, at least, until the Late Dynasty. But when the pharaohs did step out, they left quite an impression.
An ah-mazing pair of flip-flops was discovered in the tomb of King Tutankhamun; pictured here is a purplish, marquetry veneer sandal from the tomb of Tutankhamun.” Egyptologist and American University in Cairo (AUC) Professor Salima Ikram says, “With some of Tutankhamun’s shoes, they used bits of gold, birch bark, bone and maybe even glass inlays to decorate and create luxurious and glamorous footwear.” Today, we’d see this kind of haute couture sandal in high-end department stores like Bergdorf Goodman or Harrod’s. Yes, King Tut had some pretty cool stuff, even a dagger made from a meteorite.
Historians and archaeologists analyze flip-flops to learn about ancient social life. For example, they've found religious symbolism on footwear. How one used a flip-flop might express deference to authority, that is, if it was removed in the presence of royalty or an official. It’s humbling to realize that aside from adding rubberized material, modern society really hasn’t improved much upon the flip-flop. Retailers are still capitalizing on this ancient innovation, and we’re still enjoying them! [Photo: Sewn sandals from “Tutankhamun's Footwear: Studies of Ancient Egyptian Footwear,” Veldmeijer, A. J., (Havertown: Sidestone Press, 2012), 48.
For more information about ancient Egyptian thong footwear:
- Click here to see the online photo exhibit of “Shoes of Ancient Egypt” presented by The American University in Cairo. You can also watch this video of the ancient Egyptian footwear exhibit on YouTube.
- Read or listen to audio files provided by JHU Sheridan Libraries:
- ”Sandals” in Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, Ed. Valerie Steele. Vol. 3. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2005. p135-137. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Jonathan Walford
- King Tut's Sandals Featured at Ancient Egyptian Footwear Exhibition, News at The American University in Cairo, October 11, 2015.
- King Tutankhamun’s Footwear: Studies in Ancient Egyptian Footwear, André J. Veldmeijer, Havertown : Sidestone Press, 2012.
- Studies of ancient Egyptian footwear. Technological aspects. Part VII. Coiled sewn sandals. André J. Veldmeijer. British Museum Studies in Ancient Egypt and Sudan 14 (2009): 85–96.
- “The Meteoritic Origin of Tutankhamun’s Iron Dagger Blade,” Meteoritic and Planetary Science, May 2016.