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What Does Belgium Have to Do With Us?

[whitespace] shoes The true sole of San Francisco style

By Heidi Pollock

Years ago on the East Coast someone I barely knew told me I was from San Francisco. She said she could tell by the way I dressed that we San Franciscans are partial to well-tailored classics. I was 16 at the time and going through what I believed was an avant- garde stage. Needless to say, I was mortified.

Older now, I know what she meant. And I know she was right. There are many ways to prove her point. It is all too easy to cite Levi's jeans: well-tailored, classic, San Franciscan--it's an open-and-shut case. If that doesn't convince, there's always Exhibit B: The Gap. The store whose 'classic' style is almost singlehandedly to blame for the casual day-khaki plague currently cloaking this nation.

But nothing exhibits this classicism like the waffle-soled boot. No other single item cuts across so many style lines. I'd be willing to bet a shah-tush* that after the requisite pair of Levi's, a waffle-soled boot is the second most common clothing item in a San Francisco closet. Be it a Timberland or a Fluevog, the boot is there. Why? Because it makes sense.

We have hills. We have rain. We have an atrocious public transportation system and pathetic excuses for cab companies. For all of these reasons, we require shoes with soles which will safely carry us across our unique terrain. We require a sole with grooves, a sole with grip, a sole with endurance. We require the waffle sole. We require the Vibram sole. According to the literature, "the patterns of the Vibram soles first provide grip, then help propel you forward." That could almost be San Francisco's mission statement: Get a grip and move on.

The beautiful, ironic, embarrassing thing about this whole waffle-sole phenomenon is that everybody seems to own a pair no matter what weird subculture or microclimate or neighborhood they belong to. Gender, race, sexual orientation, economic category--nothing seems to matter. It is truly ridiculous how omnipresent the waffle-soled shoe is. What's worse is that the shoes are too esthetically and functionally satisfying for us to walk away from. Is this insult to injury or utopia on Earth?

While the traditional Vibram sole can be found on the old classic shoes, the newest comer to the San Francisco boot scene is John Fluevog and his luscious "angel souls." Imprinted with angels instead of waffles, these soles are eco-friendly, biodegradable and, according to the countless personal testimonies of ex-Hush Puppie wearers, "exactly like walking on clouds." And a real San Franciscan should know what that feels like, if you know what I mean.

Red Wings, Doc Martens, Vasques, Fluevogs--steel-toe work boots, lightweight hiking boots, fashion-conscious hipster boots--the soles are all the same. Aye, and there's the rub. Can a city which prides itself on its diversity own up to such a street-level communality as shared footwear? Should it? Of course not. Practicality may rest in San Francisco's secret heart, but admission thereof? Never. Honestly? How dull.

No matter how hard San Franciscans try to rebel, covering themselves with tattoos and piercings or even opting for dye jobs and conventionality, we can't seem to cut our ties to common sense. This is a town founded by pioneers, by people who ran away from the status quo. But it was simultaneously a town founded by the very same individualists who had enough common sense not to veer into Donner Pass or Death Valley. The paradoxical practical pioneer-- that's San Francisco's defining stylistic personality.

The waffle-soled shoe, innately weird in that it obviously owes some allegiance to a Belgian breakfast food, is the perfect emblem of San Francisco's style: absurdly practical, conveniently hidden underneath layers of superficial decoration, easily denied or defended depending on whim or conviction and, above all, impervious to the groundless dictates of fashion.

* An illegal-to-import scarf made out of the wool of the almost extinct Tibetan antelope costing upward of $10,000--all the rage in Manhattan.

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From the January 1998 issue of the Metropolitan.

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