Many years back, towards the end of the Tang dynasty in fact, a court dancer named Yao Niang bound her feet into the shape of a new moon (whatever that would have looked like) and danced on her toes before China’s Emperor Li Yu.
The practice grew in popularity, and for best part of a thousand years, Chinese women, mainly with peasant upbringings, would similarly bind, and basically deform their feet. It was not always a voluntary action, and mothers would bandage their daughters’ feet this way because tiny, ‘lotus’ feet were considered very alluring and enhanced the poor girls’ ‘marriageability.’
Here in the West, we were of course horrified to hear such tales. We could never inflict such pain and discomfort upon our own children. Oh no, no, no!
And yet we did. At least our parents did. Yes, that’s your parents, dear reader. And mine. They tortured us not through some misplaced social belief or controlling instincts. They did so for reasons of thrift; because they were tight!
They bought us, and forced us to wear ….. plastic sandals!
Most likely sourced in Woolworths, our gullible parents fell for the claim that products from the store’s own Winfield brand were ‘the mark of quality.’
They did leave a mark though, I’ll give them that. Both physical and mental.
First up, even if you were an uncool ten-year-old and made to wear wee ankle socks, the tops of your feet would still be left with a lattice shaped impression when you removed the sandals. The shape of the buckle strap could remain for hours!
On returning indoors to watch Hector’s House, you’d change into your cozy little Thunderbirds or Sindy slippers. The bliss was not long lasting however – you’d experience a sharp, burning sensation as you padded about the house and the skin around your ankle creased into the indentation left by the collar of the sandal.
This was because, and it’s not exactly rocket science, sandals being summer wear, were worn when the weather was generally warm. Feet swell in the heat, and at a damned sight faster rate than plastic does. Duh!
Somebody, not least our parents, should have realised that perspiration and a plastic inner sole are not a clever mix: that little feet would randomly slide around the albeit restricted confines of the sandal while the ankle was already set in following another, more conventional and safe direction.
Remember the excruciating pain of your toes sliding up into the sandal’s toe cap as you stopped walking at pace? It was times like that you regretted locking yourself in the bedroom when your mum said she was going to cut your toenails with the kitchen scissors. Lesser of two evils and all that.
I say ‘walking at pace’ because the external sole of this footwear offered possibly even less traction, rendering attempts to run almost impossible – certainly foolhardy.
You know that Jon Bon Jovi chap? The rock star. Well, his band’s best-selling album was written and recorded based on the true-life trauma of being forced to wear plastic sandals as a kid.*
Too chuffin’ right these things were slippery when wet. We were suburban kids. We played in burns and streams. Possibly, our parents had too, but plastic sandals weren’t a ‘thing’ when they were young.
They had never experienced the excruciating pain of scraping the skin from your shin bone as you slipped, trying to make the jump onto the big sharp stepping stone in the middle of the of the stream. Neither had they been subjected to the ridicule of friends as you played out the rest of the afternoon with a bloody lower leg and a wet back side!
I should also add that I grew up in the West of Scotland. It rains frequently, even in summer. Pavements and paths are never dry for very long. And our parents wondered why we’d go through a box of Elastoplast every week?
Here’s another thing: perhaps you were lucky enough to go on a family holiday in the summer. Perhaps though, you were unfortunate enough to end up in a place with a pebble / shingle beach. Rustington in Sussex springs to mind – about two miles east of Littlehampton. On the face of it, the idea of plastic sandals is actually quite sound, when your folks would dig in the windbreaker and set up ‘camp’ for the day at the point on the beach furthest from the sea.
“In case the tide comes in, dear. It’s ok though, you can walk to the water in your plastic sandals. Heck! You can even wear them in the water. That’s the beauty of plastic – you can’t do them any damage. Aren’t Winfield such clever people? Aren’t you so lucky to have your own natty brown pair? Off you go, dear. Have fun.”
‘Have fun?!’ I think it was about this age that I developed a cynical sense of irony.
Neither was it true that plastic sandals couldn’t be damaged – the strap would always be the first bit to go. So now, instead of just tentatively tottering across the beach like somebody seventy years older, you’d walk with a pronounced limp, trying your best to keep the now flapping sandal on your foot.
After endless minutes of playing in the cold sea, you’d opt for the surely more pleasant option of something to eat (the ‘chittery bite,’ we called it.) Further anguish would inevitably follow when it was discovered to your horror that the day’s ‘chittery bite,’ was actually just a pilchard sandwich. With lettuce.
On exiting the sea though, the weight of water in your little size five sandals was extraordinary, though this soon dissipated as you watched water gush from the sandal slats like that produced by the bilge pump on the QE2.
And so began the quest of traversing the pebbles back to ‘camp,’ your feet slip sliding inside the sandals, one of which would be just hanging together in no more, while the sandals themselves would be slithering in every direction on the stones.
You’ve seen the films of newly hatched turtles heading for the sea? This was it in reverse.
Neither were these abominations that passed as appropriate footwear of any earthly use in the unlikely event of prolonged dry weather. Each grain of sand, dry soil, dust, whatever, reacted like a mini ball-bearing when stuck to the soles of plastic sandals.
It meant relying on a speedy getaway from any situation, like, just say, stealing apples, which some bad boys and girls did, was somewhat injudicious. Precious seconds could be lost as your feet sought solid grip with the ground in kind of Wile E. Coyote style.
What the Chinese did to millions of young girls was dreadful; abhorrent. But even though it took almost a millennium, they did officially ban the practice in 1912.
However, although Woolworths and their ‘quality brand’ Winfield disappeared from our High Streets back in 2015, others have stepped (limped) up and now produce, market and sell this dangerous footwear, camouflaging the discomfort and pain by calling them ‘jelly shoes.’
And that, my friend, is nothing short of a plastic scandal.
(* This may not be completely accurate. Or at all.)