Working-Class Weirdos: The Strange Appeal of Clogs

Collection of painted wooden clogs
Image credit: Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

Did you know that the collective noun for a group of cobblers is a drunkship? If that sounds at all strange to you, allow me to present the case of the clog.

To the modern eye, few things that you can put on your body seem more absurd than a pair of wooden shoes. Yet zoom out to consider the whole history of clothing and it begins to feel like a perfectly natural fit. Wood is, after all, readily available, comparatively easy to shape and process, as well as being durable, absorbent, protective, and water-resistant. All told, in a pre-industrial society where access to wealth and resources is scarce, wearing a shoe made of wood appears infinitely preferable to having no shoes at all. 

Pieter Pietersz Old Man with a Niddy Noddy
Image credit: Sotheby’s / Public domain

It’s no wonder then that there’s a rich and varied history of wooden shoes around the globe, particularly across Europe and Asia. Since wood is biodegradable, and particularly because worn out clogs are often used as firewood, their precise history and origins are hard to trace. The oldest known pair dates from 1230 AD in the Netherlands, the country whose wooden ‘klompen’ are a national symbol and have become the world’s best-known clogs. 

There are, of course, some downsides to consider. Splinters, for one, mean that non-splintering woods that are easy to work and don’t split are generally favoured. While just about any type of wood will have been used at one time or another, popular choices include sycamore, alder, ash, birch, beech, willow and poplar. Each wood has unique properties, which mean that alder, for instance, absorbs moisture and is easy to shape, but isn’t very strong and will split easily. Beech, by contrast, is hard and heavy, but not well-suited to being worked by hand. Ash is a popular choice for dancing clogs since it’s quite springy, while sycamore is perhaps the best all-around choice for being light, white, and hardy. You can even shape it while the wood is still wet, meaning you can chop down a tree and have a fresh pair of clogs by the end of the day.

Japanese 'geta' wooden shoes with teeth
Image credit: mrhayata / CC BY-SA 2.0

The other obvious problem is flexibility. Clogs, unlike other footwear, do not allow the ball of the foot to flex in motion. To get around this, wooden shoes from around the world have come in a variety of shapes to allow wearers to, you know, walk. The two principal solves are ‘teeth’ and ‘casts’. The former are essentially little stilts under the shoe that allow for an easier walking motion than a flat sole would. These are most popularly associated with Japanese geta. ‘Casts’, meanwhile, are the curved fronts typically associated with European clogs.

Their inflexibility can also be an advantage, though. Because clogs offer a hard, protective outer shell to the foot, they have long been considered a working shoe for farmers, miners, and factory workers (Even today, clogs are certified as a safety shoe in the EU). This, combined with their low cost and ease of production, has meant that throughout history clogs have typically been associated with poorer communities. For these same reasons, material scarcity made for a brief post-industrial resurgence of wooden footwear during the World Wars of the early twentieth century.

Today wooden clogs continue to be worn in a few rural communities, though generally traditional clogs, particularly ones featuring colourful and elaborate designs, survive mostly through the preservation of folk arts and the demand of tourist trades. Which is not to say that a few modern breeds of clog have not made their way into contemporary closets. Remarkably, clogs have had some serious staying power in the fashions of the last five decades. Swedish clogs (those featuring leather uppers and thick wooden soles) first became popular for men and women in the 1970s and ’80s and have returned to women’s fashion regularly since. In 2021 alone, Swedish-style clogs have appeared in the spring/summer collections of Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Celine, and Hermès (no doubt thanks to the advent of ‘cottagecore’). 

The new millennium brought the advent of the non-wooden clog. Crocs, the love-it-or-hate-it foam shoe brand, first arrived on the scene in 2001 and continue to enjoy niche popularity and widespread notoriety. Among others, Justin Bieber, Jack Nicholson, Post Malone, Questlove, and Nicky Minaj are fans. Much more popular with menswear crowds is the Birkenstock Boston, which has gotten a lot of love over the last few years, in no small part thanks to the likes of Kanye West, Kristen Stewart, and a slew of Instagram fit pics. 

Birkenstock Boston clogs on a carpet
Birkenstock Boston clogs
Image is my own / All rights reserved

I’ve worn my own Bostons every day of the pandemic while pottering around my house and garden. They have accrued so many domestic miles at this point that I recently bought another less shabby-looking pair. (That’s right, I now own a second, fancier pair of ‘Birkenclogs’ for special occasions, like actually leaving my house, for instance).

So, while I’m a far cry from a medieval peasant and my own clogs aren’t made of wood, if it weren’t that I would drive any cohabitants batty wearing wooden-soled shoes, you can bet I’d pick up some OG sycamore kicks in a hot second. 

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