What are you wearing on your feet these days? Bespoke embroidered velvet slippers? Shearling-lined Birkenstocks? Terry-towelling Versaces in zingy orange? Tube socks? Last week I messaged a friend, fellow journalist Alfred Tong, asking this very question. He pinged back immediately: “Hotel slippers! I try to recreate the luxury of a five-star boutique hotel in the home wherever possible.” He was being fashionably flamboyant but also deadly serious, recommending Soho Farmhouse’s slippers for their furriness and rubber grip. “Are you saying you steal them?” I asked. There was a slight delay before he wrote back: “Aren’t they complimentary?”
Perhaps you have pooh-poohed slippers until now, like a woman I once worked with who derided another colleague for buying herself a sheepskin pair. “What’s wrong with a good pedicure and some lovely rugs?” she sniffed. Each to their own, of course, but arguably in a time of quarantine and self-isolation, a pedi doesn’t take away the chills and a rug is just a rug. You might find yourself pining for a soft house shoe or slipper, not only to provide cushioning between your sole and the reclaimed parquet or hard, polished concrete you now regret, but also for the psychological sense of ease it can offer. Sliding on a slipper is a gesture, a symbolic adieu to the outside world; a sign that you are embracing the domestic to nest, to retreat, to hide.
We have been leaving our workaday cares behind us and putting on our slippers for almost as long as we’ve been civilised. Dr Lucy Moyse Ferreira, a lecturer in fashion history at the London College of Fashion, tells me that indoor shoes were worn in both Ancient Greece and Rome, and some museums have leather pairs dating as far back as the first century. “The Anglo-Saxons called them slypescoh [“slype-shoe”] in Old English,” says Moyse Ferreira. “The French court, including Marie Antoinette, used pantoufle, and a pair of what are supposedly her slippers are in the Met Museum.” More soberly, slippers have been used as a tool of oppression, such as the shoe chosen for women in the 12th-century Vietnamese court or women who were members of a sultan’s harem. “They were comfortable on the sumptuous palace carpets but wouldn’t be practical outside, making escape difficult.”
It was the Victorians, of course, with their fervent domestic ideology, who popularised the slipper as a shoe for the home, separate to those worn outside. The “Albert” slipper refers to the same shape of shoe that the Prince Consort wore. In the second half of the 19th century, hand-embroidered slippers were a popular gift for men from mothers, wives and daughters.
This is the kind of slipper that, in 2011, inspired British shoemaker Penelope Chilvers to launch the Dandy – a leather-soled style for men and women with an upper in velvet, bound in grosgrain, with an embroidered motif on the front. Recently, Chilvers has been finding her Dandys useful as she isolates in Gloucestershire. “I wear my slippers every evening after taking off my boots,” she tells me. “Our palm-tree embroidery is a lovely reminder of sunnier days, and it takes you away even during times when you’re unable to travel.” This season she’s made a lightweight version – the striped Nonno espadrille with a jute sole, inspired by a past trip to Argentina.
Another British shoe designer, Olivia Morris, who had her own label in the 2000s and until last year was design director at Lulu Guinness, is moving into women’s slippers with a new brand, Olivia Morris At Home (oliviamorrisathome.com). “Even before the recent situation, I felt like people were hibernating more,” she says. “The more time I spent working from home in my studio or having friends round for supper, I found myself really lacking a chic, comfortable something to wear at home.” Her first design, set to launch this summer, will be a flat slip-on with a hidden wedge made from cork and an insole of memory foam. “It’s a very simple style but with a variety of trims and amazing satin and velvet colours,” she says. “I also looked back at the best historical slippers of the 19th century and I’ve taken the element of fabric or a pom pom and put it onto a contemporary silhouette, so it has that modern balance.”
The fashion industry has been making slippers cool in its own stealth-luxury way for a while. In 2012, then Céline creative director Phoebe Philo introduced what became known as the “furkenstock” – an open-toed, chunky flat sandal lined in fur. It kickstarted a trend for loungey footwear to be worn everywhere, not just at home. Three years later, Gucci’s kangaroo-fur-lined horse-bit slipper, designed by Alessandro Michele, appeared on the catwalks and proved an instant hit, becoming one of the most influential shoes of the decade for both men and women.
Now almost every fashion and shoe brand has its own take on the slide-on shoe, from Manolo Blahnik’s Rabat – similar to the custom-design Blahnik himself wears at home – to JW Anderson’s fun, fuzzy felt loafers for spring/summer 2020 and Lauren Manoogian’s alpaca-blend clogs. “Since Phoebe showed the furry Birkenstock, the viewpoint hasn’t really changed,” says Natalie Kingham, buying director of MatchesFashion. “It has become the modern, practical and chic footwear choice for different occasions and multiple purposes. It’s the one footwear choice I am happy to keep investing in!”
The result is an almost dizzying choice of luxury footwear to take us between the dining table and the sofa, whether it be Brunello Cuccinelli’s navy suede espadrilles, Connolly’s unisex cashmere-lined styles or Chanel’s star-embroidered velvet slippers. The day after the UK government ordered the closing down of restaurants and pubs, London-based designer Rejina Pyo posted an image to Instagram of a pair of shearling square-toed mules she had designed for this season – many months before words such as “self-isolation” and “quarantine” made regular headlines. The furry Leo slippers went down well with the designer’s social-media following. “Reasons to stay in,” said one commentator.