What do Winston Churchill, Ryan Gosling, Kanye West and Steve McQueen have in common? Unexpectedly, it’s their embrace of the classic slipper — the ultimate stealth style statement.
They say you can tell a lot about a man by looking at his feet. Take David Niven, one of the first great British matinee idols; his public image was a masterclass in impeccably-groomed style, from his tailored smoking jackets to his velvet-shod feet. Or David Bowie, dressed up like a glam rock Hugh Hefner for a Steven Klein photoshoot. Or David Hockney, Bradford’s greatest export, whose career is the subject of the Tate’s new retrospective; when Herb Ritts went to photograph the artist at his L.A. home in 1989, the shot he came away with didn’t feature Hockney’s face at all; instead, with his upper body obscured by a canvas, the natty, checkerboard-print slippers in the bottom of the frame tell you everything you need to know about their wearer.
Author and style arbiter Nick Foulkes put it best, writing in Country Life back in 1995; ‘The slipper is one of the few respectable means of colourful self-expression left for men in a grey world.’ Foulkes was writing at a particularly dull moment in footwear history, at the end of a century when mens’ choices were confined to minuscule variations on the standard lace-up shoe. Since then, the decline in dress codes and the rise of streetwear have combined to push the sneaker to the fore to answer our need for casual comfort. But for the man who wants to see a little more elegance when he glances down at his feet, there’s really only ever been one option.
The word ‘slipper’ first slid into the English language at some point in the Middle Ages, as a And from Georgian times onwards, gentlemen had taken to wearing slippers when entertaining at home – an alternative to the heavy boots which were often their only outdoor option. But it took Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s elegant consort, and one of the first great modern menswear icons) to truly popularise the slipper as we know now it – a slim, sleek form, lined in satin and covered in leather or velvet.
And although they’ve rarely made fashion headlines, slippers have remained a byword for refined opulence ever since. The V&A has stacks of them in its collection, from early Chinese and Indian varieties right through to Cecil Beaton’s sleek leather opera pumps and Kenneth Tyne’s mod-striped Sixties versions. Winston Churchill and the Duke of Windsor may have been on opposite sides of the abdication crisis, but both were avowed slipper aficionados; in cinema’s golden age, everyone from the super-suave Douglas Fairbanks to the all-American Steve McQueen made the slipper a Hollywood wardrobe staple. Pick any profession, in fact, and you’ll find that some of its most renowned practitioners preferred their footwear to come with a softer side; photography (Robert Mapplethorpe, Norman Parkinson), literature (Truman Capote, Somerset Maugham, Lytton Strachey) and of course fashion (everyone from Hardy Amies to Manolo Blahnik to Halston — who partied the Eighties away in a white dinner jacket and silver slippers). The dawn of the hip-hope era saw new style icons like Kanye West,Tinie Tempah and Pharrell Williams incorporate slippers into their distinctive personal styles.
That was then, though: so where do slippers fit now? Quite simply, everywhere. Lightweight and travel-friendly, they’re no-brainers for world travellers; streamlined and elegant, they’re increasingly seen as a cooler alternative to the standard shoe. They’ve popped up all over the runways, everywhere from Gucci to Richard James — and they’ve become practically ubiquitous at Pitti Uomo, the biggest showcase in the menswear industry. And these days, a new wave of style icons (Pharrell Williams, Lapo Elkann and Idris Elba amongst them) are championing them as versatile multitaskers, adaptable to any situation — whether it’s a Riviera pool party, a laid-back a star-studded red carpet.
In fact, slippers are probably one of menswear’s best-kept secrets. Modern but timeless, easy but luxuriously elegant. Are they for everyone? Perhaps not. But then, that was never the point with slippers. Regular shoes have laces (and little else). But slippers, like the men who wear them, have character.