March 12, 2006

"Thank You for Insulting Our Sandals."

Birkenstocks! It's so easy to use them as a visual joke, as in the new film "Thank You For Smoking," where we see them on the feet of the antismoking environmentalist played by William H. Macy.
"He's wearing the Vermont costume," Scott Radcliffe, the marketing director at Birkenstock Distribution USA, said of Mr. Macy's character. Mr. Radcliffe said that the "Birkenstock-wearing, granola-crunching, Volvo-driving fill-in-the blank stereotype" emerged in the broader culture without any doing on the company's part. The company finds it entertaining, he said, that the sandals have reached the kind of status that qualifies them for movie close-ups, even disparaging ones.

"To me a Birkenstock fan looks at that, laughs and is not alienated," he said....

"[They] feel like they're part of something bigger than most other shoe choices, frankly."

"After all," Mr. Radcliffe continued, "the brand's strong point is its power to elicit both positive and negative reactions. That speaks to the bigger cultural relevance of the brand. That's something I want to participate in. That's not something I'm trying to shake."
Ha. It's nice that there are products with so much excess meaning. Too bad I can't think of any offhand. Maybe you can come up with some in the comments. Ever just like a product, but then feel funny about using it because you didn't identify with the extra meaning? Ever not really like a product, but use it anyway because you did?

31 comments:

Rick Lee said...

"Ever not really like a product, but use it anyway because you did?"

Hmmm... that sounds like the appeal of hybrid cars.

thefewandtheplenty said...

"Ever just like a product, but then feel funny about using it because you didn't identify with the extra meaning? Ever not really like a product, but use it anyway because you did?"

Wow. I can now finally articulate why I voted for Bush and not Kerry

Jennifer said...

Ever just like a product, but then feel funny about using it because you didn't identify with the extra meaning?

The Baby Bjorn baby carrying thingybob falls under this category for me. I would so rather wear the baby in this than push a darn stroller when we go for a walk. But, I feel like the psycho lady in your last post. To me, they are associated with the obsessive, competitive, wacko mommys of the moment.

Palladian said...

Fascinating! I used to wear Birkenstocks in high school (Proof!) along with plenty of other cultural signification items. I think such things are very important for adolescents. While I don't wear Birkenstocks anymore, I do wear Dansko clogs when I teach and in my studio, because they're great shoes for standing. I learned about them from a Danish friend in grad school, who advocated wearing them in our department's wood shop; I'm not aware of them having an extra meaning, though the picture on the Dansko website of the guy with the unkempt long hair sitting on the floor playing the acoustic guitar certainly suggests one.

I'm glad you brought this issue up, as I'm constantly stuck by how many things accrue meanings beyond their use value. I don't personally usually shy away from things because they carry this extra baggage, but I am sensitive to it. Newspapers (and magazines) are perhaps good example of this. I often make certain assumptions about people by their choice of newspapers- people reading the New York Times fit a broad profile, as do people reading the New York Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Observer, etc.

Another product I think about in these terms is patchouli oil. Since I'm studying perfumery in my spare time, I've learned a lot about patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) and its great importance in perfumery; It's used in varying amounts in many, many fragrances. It's got a wonderful, warm woody-earthy smell, which improves upon aging, it's relatively easy to produce and is cheap (an important consideration in perfumery). It has an interesting history: its leaves were packed along with Eastern textiles that were exported to Europe because of its properties as an insect repellant (bugs hate camphoraceous smells like patchouli and cedar); the Europeans became entranced by the smell it imparted to the fabric, and began importing it for perfume.

Yet it has acquired a huge amount of cultural baggage over the last 40 years, to the point that it is now almost a one-word summation of a character type, coincidentally one of the same characters who would wear Birkenstocks. It's associated with people covering up marijuana odors, with unwashed hippie dreadlocks, with headshops. Yet, quite apart from all of this, it's a beautiful smell if used correctly. I understand the source of the extra meaning, but it pains me that something so wonderful becomes reviled solely by these associations.

Best current perfume exploring patchouli: Serge Lutens "Borneo 1834".

"Ever not really like a product, but use it anyway because you did?"

Yes, another in the shoe category: Dr. Martens boots. Looked cool, made a statement at one time, hurt like hell.

anonlawstudent said...

I love this subject.

I think our consumption patterns in our daily lives fall into this category quite frequently. My favorite example is the tea/coffee divide. I had an anthro prof who decided to switch from coffee to tea, because the image of a quiet cup of tea suited her better than the image of a headlong rush of coffee. Are the qualities of the caffine high really that different?

Wine is another good example.

Personally it's the glass of scotch whisky that I probably prefer the mental image to the actual beverage. Don't get me wrong, I like the flavor of some varieties, and dislike others; but the primary appeal is the cultural baggage that comes with the product. I like to think of myself as "a whisky drinker."

I wonder if this is a function of marketing and has become more prevalent over the past 50-75 years, or if it's a function of something else. The Birkenstock people seem to think the product just fit the buyers already extant personality; but how many people buy Birkenstocks because they visualise themselves as "Vermont granolas?" How many of us are honest with ourselves when we do make purchases based on mental images of ourse;ves and who we think we'd like to be? The Madison buisnessman in the Ford Expedition?

Ann Althouse said...

Palladian: Dansko clogs are one of a handful of products with the official Althouse seal of approval. You're right that they are the best shoes for standing. Teachers love them. So, I think, do doctors. They are also very practical for people like me who take their shoes off at the door. You can step right out of them. They are also good for slipping out of when you're sitting down, which is important for me, since I like to sit in a modified lotus position most of the time. The worst thing about them is walking. They aren't really too great for that. Anyway, as to what they mean, I'm not sure, but the do look like they should mean something.

erictrimmer said...

I don't like clothing with labels on the outside. Embroidered polo players, designers' names, swooshes and other insignia...

Also, there are certain urban brands -- Sean Jean, Ecco for example -- that have some clothes I like the look of but would not wear because I feel too old and suburban to wear them.

Jen Bradford said...

I smoked for years, and finally quit in June. To avoid going mad, I started running and doing yoga. Almost anything I wear to exercise feels like a costume, still.
I own a Nike running top that's great because it's made out of some nice un-synthetic feeling fabric that dries quickly, whereas a cotton jersey would stay soggy and give me a chill in the winter. I feel like an impostor in a swoosh shirt, but wear it anyway.

Troy said...

I'm not sure about the brand awareness, but I have a friend who is in his early 40s, adores his wife and kids, and bought a brand new red sports car.

Ross said...

I was a Birkenstock-wearer for years until I had to quit -- not because of the sandals' cultural baggage but because I couldn't stand the smell of my own feet anymore. (Berkenstinks, they call 'em, though Teva sandal are worse.)

Anyhow, visiting Berlin in 1997, I thought I'd pick up a pair. I was surprised to learn, from an umpeachable source on German fashion, that only Polish maids wore Birkenstocks, usually with white socks.

I bucked the Euro-weenie fashion advice and spent a few hours at a German department store trying to find a pair, only to discover that the latest models didn't have the classic leather or suede uppers, but were made of various multi-colored plastics. I'm still trying to get over the disappointment.

Palladian said...

Ann- You're absolutely right on all points about the Dansko clogs. They're impossible to walk in, but great for all those other tasks. They're my at-home shoes too.

Regarding the Birkenstocks, I also thought of a couple of other groups I associate with them: German tourists and lesbians. German tourists, standing on a Mediterranean beach wearing long tan shorts, their white legs oozing out of them like lines of toothpaste down to a pair of black socks and Birkenstocks. Lesbians, wearing them to organic pot-luck suppers and discussion groups, clad in their flannel tartans. Both of these might be urban legends. A friend used to tease me that I dressed more like a lesbian than a gay man, hence my association of Birkenstocks with my Sapphic friends.

Jen Bradford said...

I associate them with the sort of hippie who aims to resemble a gentle furry woodland creature. There's something gnomelike about them that embarrasses me. I have the same reaction when people use the word "folks" to describe a group of people.

If you've ever waited on tables, you'll also know that far from being the most laid back of customers, the experience is more like an exchange with an autistic child, or an alien. The attitude is, "Gee whiz, what have we got here - I'm an innocent traveler passing through, so go easy! Everything is cool with me - um, but I also expect you to have everything the way I like it at home."

Yes, all that from a pair of sandals. (Yes, I know: says more about me.)

vbspurs said...

Ha. It's nice that there are products with so much excess meaning. Too bad I can't think of any offhand.

Footwear in general, often has these types of "excess meanings".

Like Birkenstocks, which I LOATHE (to see, God forbid I should ever be shod in them), I associated Doc Martens with tough boys and girls*, and Manolo Blahniks with so-called JAPs*.

I dislike seeing Nike NBA shirts on people, of any sex.

They especially look ridiculous on a man who is 40-and-up.

Preppy Handbook love notwithstanding Lacoste polo shirts are boring, and I always connote with pussy-whipped husbands.

But that's just me.

*I own Doc Martens and two pair of Manolos.

Cheers,
Victoria

vbspurs said...

Vermont granolas

This describes to a tee, a female professor I have.

She's an ├╝ber-arch-hyper hippie woman who refers to women as femayles (God help you as a student, if you don't add the y in your reports).

After all this, you'd think a pair of Birkenstocks would be the lesser of her many "evils" for me, right?

No.

I can't stand badly groomed people, and her Birkenstocks shows off her 1 inch, green, filthy toenails to perfection...

Just seeing her in the mornings, when I had her section, was an immediate and constant downer.

She's not from Vermont, however. She's from Oregon.

Cheers,
Victoria

Tom C said...

Whoa. I live in Vermont. It's mostly too cold to wear sandals. This time of year you get mud on your feet as well.

Business life is full of products like that have extra meanings...red ties, rolex watches, french cuff shirts. The list is endless, since as soon as most people figure it out, they'll change the uniform. I guess wingtips are the best example for me (back to shoes) because they're hideous but sometimes required.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream had "extra meaning" and I stopped buying that brand. I know they have since sold to a larger concern, but I can find premium ice cream of a different brand quite readily.

I remember years ago giving up anything Nestle's because their baby formula division was doing questionable things in sub-Saharan Africa that was leading to less breastfeeding and more infant malnourishment.

Squiggler said...

I guess to admit I own 3 pairs of Birks would be, according to all these remarks, really telling. In defense, none of mine are the traditional ones. I have a sandal style pair and two pair that are flip flip thong style in different colors. Same great sole and arch, different uppers. I am the very last person to fit the Vermont Granola pattern even though my Eastern roots still show up in my preferences for a more classic preppy dress look. I bought my first ones on the recommendation of a friend after my original knee injury that caused me to limp and have problems with ankles and feet swelling. And let's face it, they are darn comfortable.

As far as things I wouldn't buy because of the negative branding I have in my own mind ... a Beemer or a Lexus, any kind of organic food, although I use organic methods in my own home gardening and Pepsi. When I was in grade school, the crossing guards used to make us pay our milk money as a fine unless we said we liked Pepsi over Coke, the Yankees over the Dodgers and would vote for (dating myself) Adelai Stephenson over Eisenhower. I'm still a Diet Coke fan, I never root for the Yankees under any circumstances, and I've been a registered Republican since my first election as a voter in 1968.

I do like Pendleton wools and L.L. Bean, which probably have some connotation I'm unaware about, but my Mother always preached "buy quality" it lasts and will always be classic and in style.

chuck b. said...

"Whoa. I live in Vermont. It's mostly too cold to wear sandals. This time of year you get mud on your feet as well."

Lol!

I can think of some products with excess meaning, but I think the meanings are extremely local to my area.

Satchel bags. Woe are you to carry your things around in a backpack when you could be using a satchel. You got your satchel at a bike shop in the Mission called Scuderia.

Nalgene water bottles. They go with Polar-Tec (sp?) fleece vests and Timberland hiking boots. Even if you only "hike" in city parks. If you're a woman, you complete this look with a filmy, silky scarve thing wrapped many times around your neck. (You have a lunch of homemade quinoa salad with roasted vegetables in your satchel.) Oh, and it's likely you went through a Carlos Castandeda phase.

Poofy, black hair scrunchies--still popular with the vulgar rich, especially blonds.

TheCommentsGuy said...

Preppy Handbook love notwithstanding Lacoste polo shirts are boring, and I always connote with pussy-whipped husbands.

Does anybody actually where Lacoste other than frat boy types and young men who used to be frat boys out playing golf in shorts and tennis shoes? Lacoste (nee, Izod), In mens clothing at least, has always just been the poorman's Ralph Lauren (who generally makes great men's casual clothing that I won't wear because I refuse to pay to advertise for a company)


I do like Pendleton wools and L.L. Bean, which probably have some connotation I'm unaware about, but my Mother always preached "buy quality" it lasts and will always be classic and in style.

I will point out that the models in the L.L. Bean catalogue are supposed to look young and energetic and that they are all in their late thirties and early forties. They know their customer base well. Interestingly enough, Bean used to be popular with the frat boy set before they moved on to the Columbia/ The North Face thing. Speaking of which:


Nalgene water bottles. They go with Polar-Tec (sp?) fleece vests and Timberland hiking boots. Even if you only "hike" in city parks. If you're a woman, you complete this look with a filmy, silky scarve thing wrapped many times around your neck. (You have a lunch of homemade quinoa salad with roasted vegetables in your satchel.) Oh, and it's likely you went through a Carlos Castandeda phase.

The fleece, OK (but I don't see polartec as much as I used to) but Timberlands? I don't think they were ever a credible Outdoors company though there was a time in the early ninties where the frat-boy fake outdoors college set would where them in the early ninties. But, um, they've kind of changed cultural significance and are (or used to be) real big with various strains of black American culture (hence the rapper Timbaland). Tommy Hilfiger and K-Swiss are two other brands that have gone suburban uber-preppy to street. I fully expect to see rappers wearing tretorns any day now.

Vasques would be more likely. But here is the thing. The fake outdoors types stopped wearing hiking boots about a decade ago. They realized they were heavy and not practical to wear day to day. The person with the Nalgene water bottles just wearing cross trainers most likely. Or flip flops which are part of another evolution with this crowd beginning, oddly enough, with Birkenstocks bringing sandles back from the virtually sandle free (especially men) wastelands of the eighties. This was quickly followed by Tevas, followed by a briefer period where we didn't have to see other people's feet in public followed by these damned flip flops (You. Are. Not. On. A. Beach). I can so not wait for flipflops to be gone.

J said...

I chuckled at the Volvo reference in the original article. I grew up in the SF area and would regard a Volvo as having far more "excessive meaning" than birkenstocks. Funny thing is, that's not true anywhere else I've lived. My wife is from Pittsburgh and was mystified when I declined to consider buying a Volvo because I wasn't a "Volvo driving wine and cheese type from Marin County". 80% of the Volvo's where we live now have those "W (still) the President" stickers on them.

I wonder which is more common - buying stuff you don't really like to make a statement, or avoiding stuff you don't like because of the statement it makes.

dave said...

my only addition here:

lacoste shirts are now an inescapable part of the hipster wardrobe, so much so that they may already be 'over' (ie sold to the less hip at Urban Outfitters). though my suspicion is that like white belts they'll never really go away.
and let's not forget the world of preppy-styled hiphop (which is to say, the kanye west tour bus)

of course, in hipsterdom those signifiers are generally ironic gestures, like asymmetrical haircuts or men in unicorn t-shirts. hipster fashion (all 'fashion'?) is all about wearing clothes for their extra meanings.

Honey Badger said...

"Gucci loafers" and "Timbs" certainly evoke particular lifestyles and personality types, too.

Wear one where you "should" wear the other, and you'll learn all you need to know about the power of cultural signifiers firsthand.

vbspurs said...

red ties, rolex watches, french cuff shirts.

Let's see:

- Rolex watches: Ostentatiously nouveaux riches, who wish to advertise their newfound wealth?

(Damn good watch though)

- French Cuff Shirts: Fussy and/or natty gentleman who cares about his grooming, but perhaps might be effeminate?

(Note how Charlie Rose wears french cuff shirts, but then makes a fashion statement by not wearing the cufflinks. Ridiculous. Though Gianni Agnelli's wearing his watch outside his cuff was dead smart)

But, what is up with red ties?

I don't get the extra meaning associated with that.

Perhaps something to do with boringness? :)

Cheers,
Victoria

vbspurs said...

"Gucci loafers" and "Timbs" certainly evoke particular lifestyles and personality types, too.

Wear one where you "should" wear the other, and you'll learn all you need to know about the power of cultural signifiers firsthand.


I mentioned Ambassador Paul Bremer III in my blog recently, as being the archtypical American diplomat both by physique and by careful grooming.

But this above reminds me that he made a special exception to his formal two piece suit attire, by wearing Timberlands the better to hide the dust build-up.

Point taken that he wouldn't show up with a pair of Timberlands to meet the Queen, but cultural signifiers in fashion are nothing if not adaptive.

Cheers,
Victoria

Sean E said...

I'm sure SUVs could fall into either category for different people - those who don't need them but think they're cool and those who could use them but wouldn't be caught dead in them (so buy a 4WD Volvo wagon instead).

This is probably a decade or so out of date, but at one time everyone was buying mountain bikes, even if they were never leaving paved streets.

knoxgirl said...

her Birkenstocks shows off her 1 inch, green, filthy toenails to perfection...


thanks for that visual

Karl said...

If you like Dansko, check out Crocs. They are amazingly comfortable, and made entirely from a plastic composite, so you can throw them in the washing machine when they get dirty. Apparently they are also popular with nurses and doctors.

-kd

Barry said...

My wife loves her Birks. She's alittle on the 'earthy' side, but not necessarily "granola-crunching" etc, etc. I think I'd like them too, but I refuse to pay a premium for something I'd only wear a few weekends out of the year.

I think cars are the easiest products for Americans to attach "meaning" too. My mini-van tells everyone that I'm a boring suburban family guy more interested in utility and economy than fun and excess. I guess they'd be mostly right, but I really just _like_ my minivan. I've loved them since they came out, well before I even considered being a dad, a suburbanite, or boring.

I think many people could make a list of assumptions based on any car you drive.

I feel funny about my Tommy Hilfiger jeans. I'm not one to care too muchabout brands or my style, but after going through three pairs of cheap wranglers in about three months, and then being loaned a pair of Tommys when the last Wranglers left me in need... I discovered that some clothes are worth paying for. My Tommys are the most comfortable, best looking, and most durable jenas I've ever had. But I sometimes feel out of place shopping in that section of the store. Like I'm some kind of pretender.

knoxgirl said...

"crocs"

oh lord, I am already tired of seeing those. They look ridiculous, esp. in the dayglo colors everyone wears them in. Sorry Karl :) I know you are recommending them for "function," not "form" reasons....

Barry, I too have quandries with Hilfiger products. I had a "Tommy" blouse I got at TJMaxx: there was a teeny, tiny, barely noticeable little flag at the left hip area. I always felt slightly self-conscious about that stupid flag, because I SO do not identify with the "Tommy" brand. Also, one of my friends would always yell LABEL WHORE! at me when I wore it. That didn't help, even tho he was joking. Anyway, you are right about the quality difference being very real. I always got compliments on that blouse and it was made very well...

Also, Jennifer, I too felt like I was unwittiingly making some kind of "statement" every time I used my Baby Bjorn.

Chuck B: people are still wearing those hair scrunches???? god forbid

"hence the rapper Timbaland" that just sounds absurdly funny

Kev said...

TheComments Guy said:
" I can so not wait for flipflops to be gone."

Ehh, don't be hatin' on the flipflops; they've expanded way beyond the beach now. They tend to come in really handy in warm places like Texas, where I'm from, and you can buy a half-decent pair for three bucks at Old Navy, which works well for impoverished college students.

As for Birks--I have a pair (actually two; the other one is the cloggy "winter" variety) and they're very comfortable, and yes, very ugly. The only "statement" I'm making when I wear them is "my feet hurt from wearing other shoes and I need to be comfortable right now," although I will endure the occasional tree-hugger joke from my friends every now and then.

And re the "Birkenstinks" comment--yeah, they do generate a lot of sweat, don't they? When I first got mine, I tried wearing them with socks, right up until the moment that I got the worst case of athlete's foot of my entire life. Sockless, I've found that they're usually OK if you start out the day with them and don't change into them after wearing something else.

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