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Within bulging folders documenting an extraordinary collection of shoes – ranging from the beautifully crafted models of brocaded silk and embroidered linen of the early 18th century to the cutting edge designs of the early 21st century – Lindie Ward is looking for something special. 

Triumphantly, the curator of the Powerhouse Museum‘s 1997 exhibition and co-author of the newly revised book Stepping Out: Three Centuries of Shoes pulls out a photograph of a pair of tattered red thongs.

“The bloke who owned this pair wore them all round the world,” she says.

“It took a lot of convincing to get him to donate them to the Powerhouse. If you look closely at the strapping, you can see where he has mended it with wire.”

Once the daggy footwear of choice for dads at the family barbecue, thongs have evolved into a multimillion-dollar industry and are the hot new footwear trend of the 21st century. But the desire to look cool can come at a price and with a new study from the US finding that wearing thongs may be bad for your feet and legs, could the fashion rebirth instead be a swan song for the thong?

It was perhaps only a matter of time before a researcher somewhere came up with a reason to trash that veritable staple of any Aussie wardrobe. Researchers from Auburn University in Alabama recently studied the footwear biomechanics among 39 graduate men and women alternately wearing athletic shoes and thongs.

They found that thong wearers took shorter steps and their heels hit the ground with less vertical force than when the same walkers wore athletic shoes. Lead study author Justin Shroyer said that wearing thongs can alter a person’s gait. With the foot working harder than it should, people may develop overuse injuries such as tendonitis, or lower leg, knee, hip and back problems.

“What we found is that people take shorter strides and that their ankle angle and the angle between their shin and the top of the foot is actually increased,” Mr Shroyer said. “Broken-in” thongs can be the most risky, he said, and the much-loved footwear should not be your “primary choice.”

That directive is a huge ask for a nation that claims a special identity with thongs, as evidenced by Kylie Minogue being hauled towards centre stage on a giant thong during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games closing ceremony. Thongs are even included in the entry on national dress on the Government’s official Australian culture website. The entry reads: “Thongs are seen as essential Australian summer footwear for going to the beach, down to the local shops, to a barbecue or just about anywhere.”

Weighing in on the attack on the ubiquitous footwear, Australian podiatrists say they are not surpised by the new US findings showing that wearing slip-ons can have potentially debilitating effects on ankles, knees and legs. But they argue the humble thong should not be judged too harshly as the damage they cause cannot compare to the dreaded high heel.

“We have heard of thongs causing problems, especially up here in Queensland where people where them year-round,” said Dr Lloyd Reed, a senior lecturer in podiatry at Queensland University of Technology soon after the findings were presented to the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine.

“But it’s the lady’s dress shoe and high heel that has the most to answer for. It causes terrible, often irreversible problems.” Dr Reed said people very rarely thought about the impact of their shoes on anything other than their feet. “They notice when it’s not a good fit on the foot but that’s about it,” he said.

Discounting the study, he said there was little research on the impact of thongs in particular, but they were generally frowned upon by podiatrists because they offer very little foot support. “The biggest problem we see with them is people with excessive dried skin and cracked heels from wearing them day in and day out,” Dr Reed said.

Paul Bours, from the Australian Podiatry Association (NSW), said arch strains, hammer toes, Achilles tendon injuries and split heel pads were the major concerns. Because thongs offered no protection, fractured toes were another danger, he said. “The problem is you have to curl your toes to keep them on when your leg swings, which is the opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing,” Mr Bours said.

Archeologists say sandals ancestral to thongs are the oldest form of crafted shoe, and date back over nine millenia. Talk about classic design. Thongs are so classic that there’s an Egyptian hieroglyph for it, a long oval with an inverted V in just the right place. An Associated Press article first published in Washington in 2006 on the best-selling footwear in the history of the world, says King Tutankhamen’s tomb had prototypic thongs in it.

But that most iconic of Australian footwear reportedly owes its existence to the Japanese zori, a sandal held with a thong between the toes, as worn in Japan from at least the Hein period (794-1185). Originally made with wooden soles or woven bamboo or rice straw, rubber soles made them more durable and thongs spread throughout the Far East wherever there were rubber trees. 

“We don’t know where it originated but we do know that the Egyptians were wearing a kind of thong in 3000 BC and the Japanese have been wearing them forever,” says Ms Ward. She explains that the modern, rubber sole thong was developed in the late ’50s and early ’60s. “But it’s not certain whether it was in New Zealand or Australia,” she says.

Both countries claim to have invented it but Ms Ward believes a strong case exists for today’s thong first appearing on the other side of the Tasman Sea: “All the evidence points towards New Zealand, where Maurice Yock invented the jandal in 1957. There isn’t any evidence of Australians producing anything thong-like before Dunlop in the ’60s.”

Brazil didn’t invent the thong, but it appears to have cornered the market in at least the modern fashion version. Under the brand name Havaianas, the Portuguese word for ‘Hawaiians’, by 1965 the Sao Paulo-based manufacturer Alpargatas was making 1000 pairs a day. Today Alpargatas claims to produce five pairs a second, 125 million pairs a year and says it has sold 2.2 billion since 1962. That’s a lot of thongs.

Whatever its origins and irrespective of its fashionable renaissance, the thong’s value as an Australian icon remained undiminished and unthreatened, until now. With warmer weather on the way, proof of this continuing status will be in the wearers.

Thong devotee Candice Todd, 27, says she won’t be swapping her footwear of choice for anything, despite the potential risks. Ms Todd, a film location scout from Newtown, has 10 pairs of thongs and wears them every day in summer.

Despite the extensive use she gets from her thongs, Ms Todd says she has never experienced any foot problems as a result, apart from the odd blister from wearing in a new pair. “I did have a lady come up to me one time and tell me I’d get hammer toes if I kept wearing thongs”, she said. “But I told her my toes have always looked this.”

Given the formidable historical lineage of thongs it is not likely they have suddenly become more injurious, as a shoe historian reader pointed out in a comment posted in response to a news report of the US study.

On the other hand, what is likely is the continued resounding slap of plenty of Aussie sole mates.

Linda Daniele

* This feature story was submitted as Assessment Item 1 in 57014 Feature Writing.

  

Assessment Item 1: A 1,000-word feature story

Objective(s): Prepare a follow-up feature story based on recent events.
Weighting: 25%
Assessment criteria: Includes: 

  • quality of the idea
  • quality of the introduction and the degree to which it demands attention, demonstrates newsworthiness and narrative value
  • the breadth of source material
  • a demonstrated understanding of the subject matter and the issues involved
  • the imaginative shaping of the content
  • the quality of structure, clear writing and correct English expression.

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