- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Footwear considered fashion flops by some have become a symbol of sartorial cool. Silly as they are, flip-flops have attained a place in American culture unlike any other upstart article of clothing, save, perhaps, the soiled baseball cap.

But are flip-flops appropriate for the office? A black-tie wedding? Is asking these questions another sure sign of the end of formality in society?

“Flip-flops belong at the beach or a backyard barbecue,” said John Kiser, advertising and visual director for the upscale Rizik’s, on Connecticut Avenue in Washington.

Tongues in Washington were wagging yesterday over the sandal scandal, as news spread that flip-flops had invaded the White House.

“Good lord,” said Washington doyenne and former ambassador Esther Coopersmith. “That’s terrible. You need respect.”

She was referring, of course, to Northwestern University’s championship women’s lacrosse team, four of whose members showed up for a White House meeting with President Bush wearing flip-flops.

The flip-flop faux pas evoked horror from several of the Wildcats’ parents and the rest of the civilized world. One mother was quoted as being “mortified.”

“Every mother’s nightmare,” said Washington philanthropist Jane Sloat, who has experience in sartorial struggles with her grandchildren.

But fashionistas say flip-flops have become a staple in every teenage girl’s wardrobe. They are worn in the snow and in the sand. They are adorned with beads, glitter, ribbons and jewels.

They are hot. Very hot.

“I wouldn’t wear flip-flops to the White House,” said Sarah Cannova, co-owner of Sassanova shoe store in Georgetown. “I would be upset if it were my daughter.

“I went to a wedding recently, and a guy wore flip-flops with his tuxedo,” Mrs. Cannova said.

On Capitol Hill, the dress code for interns has become so casual — tolerating bare midriffs, sandals, toe rings and halter tops — that congressional staffers have begun referring to them as “skinterns.”

Flip-flops clearly send a message.

“It says, ‘I’m able to go out being me,’” said Sydney Truong, 33-year-old owner of the Flip-Flop Company in Westminster, Calif. But sporting them to the White House, he said, “is a stretch.”

Mr. Truong said the sandal business in the United States is booming, with $228 million in annual sales.

“No one’s wearing shoes. Flip-flops are not your $1 rubber thongs you take to the beach anymore,” he said. “And these girls probably have six or seven more pairs in their closets. Casual is the new ‘in.’”

Indeed, designers like Gucci and Pucci now sell $500 rhinestone-studded models for the sandal-starved.

Mrs. Cannova said: “Standards have changed so much, especially with the younger girls. Just to get them in a covered shoe is a battle.”

First daughters Jenna and Barbara Bush often shop at her Georgetown store, Miss Cannova said.

The Bush twins “shop in their flip-flops, but they wouldn’t wear them to a dinner at the White House,” she said.

But others have no such compunction.

“The sight of dirty feet with dirty toenails is not that appetizing,” said former White House social secretary Letitia Baldridge, saying she used to be “scandalized” by what some people thought was appropriate attire for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest. “Frankly, people wear any old thing, jeans and dirty sneakers.”

Aside from the appalling sight of bare toes, Mrs. Baldridge decried the accompanying cacophony of slapping heels and rubber.

“Flip-flops make a lot of noise,” she said. “You can’t think when there’s a symphony of flipping and flopping going on.”

Northwestern’s champion Wildcats spent the morning of July 12 flip-flopping down the halls of the East Wing of the White House and later convened on the South Lawn for a flip-flop photo op.

Mrs. Sloat, looking at the photo on the Internet, said she had a good laugh when she saw the picture, knowing teenage girls and the trend away from dressing up for special occasions — even at the White House.

“At least, they had shoes on,” she said.

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