Though the trend has truly risen to fame in recent years, one could argue that ugly shoes have always been around, inhabiting a special place in the hearts of many fashion enthusiasts around the world. From eccentric bread shoes, mullet shoes and the downright atrocities that are toe shoes or Cruggs, to the few lucky ones that have made it into the mainstream such as UGGs, Crocs and the Puddle (Bottega Veneta’s luxurious reinterpretation of its ancestors), join us as we fall down the rabbit hole of the unsightly shoe trend.
Let’s get one thing straight from the start so as to avoid confusing any of you who might have ended up here through a curiosity-induced Google search. The term ‘ugly shoes’—in this specific case as well as any time it is used by a person who’s somewhat clued in on everything fashion—is not used to define any type of covering for the foot that one might deem unpleasant or repulsive in appearance.
‘Why is that?’ I hear you ask. Well, while there may be a consensus that clunky, rubbery and flashy footwear such as Crocs is ‘hideous’, your personal opinion might be that black boots with big soles—fun fact: they’re called ‘écrase-merdes’ in French, which literally translates to ‘shit crushers’—are just as awful. I would strongly disagree with you, but that’s exactly why we’ll be using the more advanced (and trend-focused) definition of ‘ugly shoes’ in this case. So we can avoid confusion, yeah?
Nowadays, there’s a general agreement on what type of footwear can be categorised under the ‘ugly shoe’ trend. Oh yes, because as hideous as a pair of lime green Crocs might be, it’s also so inherently ugly that it has become cool. At least for now.
So what are ugly shoes then? Think about everything that goes against the adjectives ‘charming’ and ‘dainty’. Delicate strappy heels are out and substantial, almost bulky, strange-looking footwear is in—and more often than not, it will come in a clog version too, because it’s almost common knowledge that ugly shoes were born from the fashion industry’s insanely late realisation that comfort is luxury. In other words, clogs are well snug, you should give them a go. They’re also big players in the ugly shoe trend.
Old school (and heavy) clogs, perforated rubber gardening shoes and uber-comfy lambskin boots put aside, ugly shoes also come in ‘sport mode’. These athletic options consist of what many call ‘dad shoes’, ‘dad sneakers’, ‘dad trainers’ or even ‘grandpa sneakers’—any style of popular footwear that used to be commonly worn by dads and middle-aged men, only now they’re super trendy among grandpacore enthusiasts and gen Zers alike. Start with two classics: New Balance 624s and Nike Air Monarch IV trainers and the only way is up…
Now onto the elephant in the room. Why would someone purposefully spend money on a pair of shoes they know are not nice-looking? Even worse: why would they spend money on a pair of shoes they know everyone else would also describe as ugly in the first place? Make it make sense, am I right? Well, it’s a bit more profound than you may think.
While most people dress simply to not be naked, cold or vulnerable, when it comes to fashion enthusiasts, putting an outfit together means more than what meets the eye. And although it would be simplifying things to say that everyone who’s interested in la mode uses clothes to create a specific persona they want to project to the rest of the world, it should be noted that such an approach to fashion is common nowadays.
But let’s take a closer look at those who not only wear certain clothes to play with their self-image but instead make a point of picking specific items in order to draw others’ attention to them—the ones who ‘dress to impress’.
Let’s be honest, if you wanted to be the centre of attention for a day, don’t you think ugly shoes would play an important part in winning you some of those stares? “Ugly fashion attracts attention because it is different,” explained Carolyn Mair, PhD, a cognitive psychologist who specialises in fashion, when speaking to Refinery29. In other words, ‘average looking’ objects often get ignored since we know how to process them, but we always pay more attention to unusual ones, ugly shoes included.
“It may be considered aesthetically unpleasing,” she continued, “but it’s this exact feature that appeals to others… Wearing something different that draws attention could be interpreted as risk-taking, which may be perceived as exciting, adventurous, and fun.”
Now that you’re aware of the few benefits that come with being bold enough to rock the ugly shoe trend, you might feel more inclined to try it yourself. But where do you start when faced with such a variety of ill-favoured footwear? Fear not, because we’ve compiled the ultimate beginner’s guide to wearing ugly shoes:
Vogue once called these now-iconic German sandals the “original ugly shoes.” Introducing the oh-so-faithful pair of Birkenstocks, which comes with a foot bed sole that allows it to mould to your foot’s shape. Real sexy. They might not sound like much at first, but once you’ve broken them in, they’ll become more and more comfortable over time—making them the go-to footwear for, well, people with orthopaedic problems. At least, until fairly recently.
As confirmed by the publication, back in 2016, Birkenstocks were adopted by the Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley. Then in 2018, the one and only “dark lord of fashion” Rick Owens came out with his first collaboration with the brand, giving us a hirsute-goth take on the kitsch footwear. Valentino later churned out a logo-fied pair, Jil Sander reshaped them into a suede slip-on, Manolo Blahnik turned them into luxurious sandals and more recently, even Dior jumped on the bandwagon.
All this to say that since 2016, Birkenstocks are still all the rage, whether worn with bare toes or paired with socks.
It’s now February and your Birkenstock sandals are long gone—even with socks. What do you do? Easy peasy, you switch them for the noughties icon turned basic bitch staple turned gen Z-optimised footwear: the UGG boot. “Slipping into that cushy lambskin feels like your toes are being coddled by rice pudding,” Vogue wrote and honestly, we couldn’t agree more.
First adorned by celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, Vanessa Hudgens and even Leonardo DiCaprio in the early 2000s, though they never truly disappeared, UGGs recently came back stronger than ever before with the help of a clever multi-channel marketing strategy, collaborations with big names in the fashion industry as well as the development of new models which went viral on TikTok and Instagram.
If you were one of the (un)lucky ones who already rocked the shearling boots during the noughties, it’s understandable why you may not want to do the same nowadays. But the brand’s new highly popular designs might convince you otherwise. Just check the Tasman slipper in chestnut or go bolder with the Tasman X in taffy pink. Loves it!
Okay, we went easy on you for the first two steps—now it’s time to really level up your ugly shoe game, and we’re sorry to say, that starts with a pair of Crocs. First barging into our lives (most definitely against our will) as a closet staple for nurses and cooks due to their unanimously-proclaimed cosiness, Crocs have since been adopted by high fashion brands, including the likes of Balenciaga and Christopher Kane.
Other brands have shamelessly embraced the foam-like clog trend, reimagining the style according to their own trademarks. As mentioned previously, Bottega Veneta graced the world with its Puddle boots, while Gucci gave us £380 perforated rubber platforms and even Prada joined them with its £450 pair of mules.
Depending on how dedicated to the ugly shoe trend you’re planning on being—as well as on your budget—it’s up to you to choose between Crocs or its more upscale alternatives.
Bringing back previously ‘blacklisted’ items is a favourite trick among the fashion scene since the move adds an unexpected twist and indicates that one has true personal style. This approach is more evident when it comes to anything athleisure. This brings us to Balenciaga’s groundbreaking Triple S sneakers and the chokehold it had most fashionistas in when it first launched in 2017. Since then, the chunky, gym-inspired trend hasn’t waned one bit.
Can’t relate? We’ve got another iconic shoe you’ll recognise. Once reserved for dads grilling at the barbecue, New Balance’s go-to silhouettes such as the 990v5 and 992 have now become must-haves for sneakerheads across the globe. So much so that the brand is now responsible for some of the most significant trainer collaborations of the past several years, with the likes of Aimé Leon Dore, Casablanca, Joe Freshgoods and JJJJound bringing the heat consistently.
If you’ve made it to the fifth and last step of this journey into ugly footwear, congratulations—you’re now fully prepared to sport the most unsightly shoes known to mankind. Though the world is truly your oyster by now, below are a few classics your professionally-trained fashion tastebuds might be ready for:
Introducing Cruggs, the hybrid between a pair of Crocs and UGGs that once made the internet go: “Gee thanks, I hate it.” Though originally created as yet another meme back in 2012, Cruggs were eventually turned into reality after DIY videos explaining how to create a pair of the hybrid footwear started appearing online.
As previously stated by Jack Ramage for SCREENSHOT in an article titled Toe shoes: they’re not just ugly, they’re also bad for your health, the minimalist footwear often refers to Vibram FiveFingers, “a type of shoe with individual toe pockets.”
Fivefingers was first developed in 2005 and marketed as a more natural alternative for shoes used during outdoor activities. They’re supposed to replicate being barefoot, having thin and flexible soles designed to contour the shape of our feet. Then again, you might want to stay clear of these since they’re actually not as good as promoted…
Though it can be debated whether this unconventional footwear fits into the ‘ugly shoes’ definition you’ve read at the beginning of this article, we simply couldn’t list all of these without mentioning their weirdo artsy sibling, bread shoes. To put it simply, if we had to explain what bread shoes consist of, we’d say they’re the fashion embodiment of turning around to look at a dog that is so ugly that it’s incredibly cute. And that’s as much as we can tell you without ruining the surprise.
Last but not least, let me present the mullet shoes, which are exactly what their name indicates—a pair of high-tops with long luscious locks attached to their heels. Yes, you read that right. It’s a mullet, but for your feet. I’ll let you drown in that mental image for a while now.