Flip flop flak: Local fashion experts weigh in on formal footwear.

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 6/10/10.] Wedding season is upon us. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to expect it. The “save the dates” arrive in late winter, and with each one, I watch my summer concert budget slowly evaporate as I’m forced to pass up Phish tickets for fondue sets.

It’s cool, though. I’m willing to endure marathon church services in sweltering heat and exotic (read: expensive) destinations for the right friends. With the exception of the music (which can often be disastrous), weddings share a lot with the typical concert or festival experience – friends, food, copious cocktails. And, hey, if you live in Burlington, there’s a good chance Phish will show up to play a few songs so you’ll have the music covered, too.

In fact, the only real difference is the attire. Faded tie-dyes and ratty cargo shorts do not fall under the “creative black tie” category. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mind dressing up. I enjoy a nice tie. I like wearing a suit. However, if it’s warm outside, my feet will be in sandals.

It started out back in high school as an act of youthful rebellion. When I attended Mount St. Joseph Academy, sandals were not in the dress code – expressly forbidden, in fact. Ironic, I might point out, since Jesus appeared to be a fan of open-toed footwear. Nonetheless, the fact that I couldn’t wear sandals during school compelled me wear them any and everywhere else, including at all formal events.

Eventually, it became part of the routine. When getting dressed for a wedding or other formal affair, sandals went on my feet without a second thought.

Fast-forward to my late 20s. I’ve begun to wonder if I’ve outgrown this practice. Questions that I hadn’t considered previously began to give me pause: Am I being rude? Does my rebellious fashion statement just make me look sloppy or immature? Might the sight of my exposed feet offend?

At a wedding last summer, I solicited my friend Laura, a wedding planner (Better Together Events in Rochester, N.Y.)) and inveterate know-it-all, for her opinion on my preferred choice of footwear. She rolled her eyes, and gave me a response that she apparently had been holding back since high school.

“It looks ridiculous,” she said.

On further reflection, she conceded that there are worse fashion offenses, and that people who knew me understood that it was my thing. However, to the outside observer, she assured me that I looked foolish.

So I had a dilemma: Conform to the conventions of fashion or continue to celebrate this harmless eccentricity? My gut was telling me to go with the latter. I set out to prove Laura wrong. I refused to allow the opinion of one snarky wedding planner to drive me to abandon my unique suit and sandals combo.

I decided to seek out some advice from a couple of local fashion experts. First up was Traci Pena, the “Fab Finds Diva” behind Reincarnation boutique on River Street. I posed the question: Are sandals appropriate for weddings?

“I think shoes make or break the outfit,” said Pena. “It’s usually one of the first places I look when looking at both men and women. It’s like the icing on the cake, for me, when it comes to fashion.”

In Pena’s opinion, man sandal, or “mandals,” are for mostly casual wear. She noted that fancier fashion mandals – ones made of suede or leather that cover most of the foot – go well with dressier men’s clothing such as a linen button-down shirt, jeans or casual slacks.

So far so good. It looked like my brown suede Birkenstocks were going to pass the test.

“But never wear sandals to a formal event where a suit or tux is required,” Pena advised.

I’ve definitely done both. A lot. In fact, a couple years back when I was in my buddy’s wedding, his bride-to-be actually threatened me with bodily harm if I showed up at the ceremony in sandals.

In the end, however, Pena took a more moderate position. “This is Vermont, and it is way more relaxed fashion-wise than many places. It has an artsy liberal hippie vibe, and I can get with that too. So I say, to each his own. Own it, and wear it like no-one is watching.”
I’ll take that.

Wanting a second opinion, I headed over to Merchants Row to consult the experts at McNeil & Reedy’s. For decades, the McNeil brothers have been outfitting the dapper gentlemen of Rutland. Around here, this might be as close as I’d get to a definitive answer.

Brother James McNeil was happy to help. “The bride and groom will typically let you know how to dress,” he said, adding that another good indicator is the location – outdoor affairs are often casual whereas are a wedding with a church service and a fancy reception venue dictate more formal attire. “You dress to the event.”

During prom season, he encounters a number of high school students who reject the convention of formal footwear, opting for sneakers in lieu wingtips.

“I had one kid who didn’t want to wear any shoes at all,” said McNeil, who added that the young man, knowing he wouldn’t get inside the prom without shoes, went so far as to spray-paint his feet black.

Even in the heyday of my shoe revolution, I don’t think I would have gone that far.
Ultimately, McNeil maintains, “Comfort is the number one rule.” A member of the Vermont House of Representatives, he noted that sandals are ubiquitous in the State House.

“At the end of the day, this is America,” he said, evoking the revolutionary zeal of our Founding Fathers. “You can wear whatever you want on your feet.”

God bless America.

Both Pena and McNeil made some good points about when and when not to expose your toes. But their bigger message was to be comfortable and to be yourself. That said, I don’t think I’ll be kicking my sandal habit. As I prepare to run the wedding gauntlet once again this summer, I’ll be doing it proudly in sandals.

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