Cool People Accidentally Saved America’s Feet

Millennials popularized bulky, super-cushioned shoes. Then Millennials got old.

Shimmering Hoka sneaker and its reflection
Illustration by Joanne Imperio

My mom has been warning me that I’m going to ruin my feet for almost as long as I’ve been able to walk. She has her reasons: I spent much of my childhood refusing to wear shoes more substantial than soccer slides. In high school, she wouldn’t buy me high heels, so I got an after-school job and bought them myself. During college, I added slipperlike ballet flats and Ugg boots to my repertoire. When I was 25, a physical therapist who was treating my ankle, destroyed years prior during rec-league soccer, told me that he’d never before had a client with a leg injury show up in flip-flops.

Now I am 37, and if you already have been 37, you probably know where this is going. I’ve cleaned up my worst shoe habits, but a moderate concession to podiatric health wasn’t enough to save me. Recently, I developed plantar fasciitis, a common, nagging injury to a band of connective tissue in the foot that most acutely afflicts people who spend a lot of time on their feet—nurses, bartenders, distance runners, seemingly everyone in the NBA. It is also possible to acquire plantar fasciitis by being a dumbass who loves traipsing around in terrible shoes, which was my method.

When I called my mom a few weeks ago to admit that I’d ordered some orthopedic house slippers, she started laughing before I’d even finished my sentence. I couldn’t begrudge her the amusement; she also deals with plantar fasciitis, and I’ve been teasing her about her own selection of medically sound footwear for years, setting up the kind of long-game I told you so that I imagine is one of the most satisfying parts of having children. Unlike my mom, however, I bumbled my way into a very opportune moment to be a dumbass. The kinds of shoes that could help fix my feet—cushioned, stabilized, and with plenty of support—used to be the province of suburban dads, sensible aunts, and grandparents. But over the past decade, ultra-comfy sneakers, cushy clogs, sandals with arch support, and all manner of quasi-orthopedic footwear haven’t just become more abundant than ever; they’ve also become cool. Like, for young people.

In fact, that might be underselling it. Orthopedically healthy shoe styles have had an unusually broad and enduring appeal across geography, age, and a host of other demographic markers. At brands better known for hyper-technical, slightly dorky, or even outright ugly designs—New Balance, Hoka, Birkenstock, Teva, and Merrell, among others—sales are up. Ugly-cool shoes made it; they’re the rare lasting change in how millions of people dress. And everyone’s feet might be better off for a long time because of it.

For a fashion trend to work at any scale, it has to be compelling to look at. You can’t get very far in convincing people to wear something if it isn’t aesthetically pleasing or interesting in some way. But aesthetics themselves aren’t enough to make a trend durable. Instead, they’re the spark that gets a fire going; the size of the eventual blaze depends largely on the environment in which it burns, and what kinds of needs and desires are available to fuel it.

In the case of ugly-cool shoes, the aesthetic spark came in the mid-2010s, as the trend cycle that had dominated mainstream dress norms for the preceding decade—skinny jeans, high heels, tight tailoring, and minimalist sneakers such as Adidas’s Stan Smiths—was on its last legs among the kind of young, creative people who push dress norms forward. That cycle had been itself a rejection of the baggy jeans, oversize flannels, and lug soles of the 1990s. Such is how the pendulum of aesthetic culture swings: People get sick of looking at clothing shapes that are bulky or bulbous. Something tight and spare might feel risky or foreign, and then maybe thrillingly so, and then it is the accepted norm. Then, once 10 or so years have elapsed, people are bored of looking at nothing, and they want to look at something again. Even if it feels a little ugly. Maybe because it feels a little ugly.

And so, bulky and bulbous are back. In 2014, New York magazine introduced the public to a new word to describe this nascent aesthetic phenomenon: normcore. You’ve likely noticed sometime in the past decade that it is cool for young, hot people to dress vaguely like Seinfeld characters—mom jeans, dad hats, crew-neck sweatshirts, ’90s florals, and bulky sneakers from brands such as New Balance and Reebok. Among those elements of normcore, chunky shoes really, really broke out. People are generally more willing to take risks with their accessories than with their clothes, and especially for men, shoes are a common place to try out something new.

Shifting tides within the sneaker market itself helped. As mainstream interest in limited-edition shoes from major brands such as Nike and Adidas surged, thanks to the expansive cultural influence of hip-hop combined with America’s embrace of athleisure, scores of resellers with bot armies drove up prices for new shoes to several times more than retail on StockX and other broker websites, pushing out regular buyers. This made purposefully uncool, widely available sneakers, as well as other inexpensive shoes like Crocs and Tevas, newly enticing to the nation’s sneakerheads. “I think it really excited a certain type of guy who was just sick and tired of, like, begging for the opportunity to purchase sneakers,” Lawrence Schlossman, a co-host of the men’s-fashion podcast Throwing Fits, told me.

The fashion industry didn’t take long to alchemize these chunky, foot-friendly shoes into its own expensive, limited-release products. Schlossman described ugly-cool shoes’ trajectory in the late 2010s as a “trickle-up effect” during which high-end brands such as Balenciaga, Off-White, and Dior took the chunky look of ’90s sneakers and dorky sport sandals to their logical extremes. The look gained favor among influential celebrities and rappers—Rihanna, Yung Thug, and Bella Hadid were among its acolytes—and then trickled back down to regular teenagers, who aped the look with more basic and affordable ’90s-style sneakers from Fila, Nike, and Adidas. By 2020, thick-foam soles abounded. Bulky, low-top white Air Force 1s were so in-demand that Nike couldn’t keep them in stock. Crocs became a high-school wardrobe staple.

The trend could have easily cooled off here, having burned through much of the under-40 buying public over the course of more than half a decade. But in the tale of the ugly-cool orthopedic shoes, this is where the coronavirus pandemic comes in. (The pandemic always comes in these days.) Over the past few years, “health and wellness was one of the greatest industries to be in,” Colin Ingram, the vice president of global product at the running-shoe brand Hoka, which is known for its thick, curvy, and sometimes bulbous foam soles, told me. People who felt cooped up at home or who missed their usual gym routines looked for new outdoor outlets, and a lot of them took up running or hiking, which have relatively low barriers for entry and require little equipment beyond, of course, shoes. In its 2020 fiscal year, Hoka brought in revenue of $353 million. Three-quarters of the way into the brand’s current fiscal year, revenue has already topped $1 billion.

Whether you took up any new sports or not, pandemic-era habit changes might have done a number on your feet. Priya Parthasarathy, a Washington, D.C.–area podiatrist and a spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association, told me that once people were comfortable returning to their usual medical visits, podiatrists saw a sustained uptick in patients with plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendonitis, which can be caused by sudden changes in activity levels or too much time spent barefoot or in unsupportive shoes on hard floors. All at once, millions of Americans had started moving, stopped moving, or begun spending a lot of time at home, padding around their hardwood floors all day. Some proportion of them hurt themselves in the process. If they wanted their feet to get better, they, like me, would soon discover that they had a wide variety of sensible shoes to choose from.

Most fashion trends don’t last a decade. By all indications, ugly-cool orthopedic shoes will clear that mark easily. The New Balance 990, which Schlossman told me was the first normcore sneaker to really ignite, was just the subject of a lengthy feature in GQ, and the brand is in the midst of a series of fashion-world collaborations with buzzy designers including Salehe Bembury and Aimé Leon Dore’s Teddy Santis. If anything, the trend is simply settling in: As Schlossman pointed out, America’s pants are starting to go broadly the way of normcore, with fewer super-skinny cuts and more straight or wide legs. Those styles look better and more proportional with a bigger, bulkier shoe.

The ugly-cool shoe trend has pulled back a bit from the extremes—you can now get some of the wildest designer versions at a significant markdown—but general-release versions of old dad-shoe favorites still sell briskly, and related phenomena such as gorpcore, which repurposes outdoorsy designs and tech fabrics into fashion, are thriving. Meanwhile, the high-end fashion industry in general has started to turn some of its footwear energy away from sneakers, according to Schlossman, instead moving much of it toward shoes that look like those made by Clarks and Birkenstock, as well as classic loafers, all of which still have plenty of dad-shoe appeal (and room for arch support).

At least for the next few years, comfort looks less like a style that will pass than a foundation on which new shoe trends will be created. Once you know what it feels like to wear a good shoe, it can be very difficult to go back to wearing bad ones full time. That, Hoka’s Ingram told me, has been the brand’s greatest advantage in winning over the people who prefer the sleek look: Just put well-cushioned, highly stable alternatives on their feet. This certainly seems to have worked for the once-broke creatives who made normcore pop a decade ago. Now in their 30s and early 40s, they’re considering the prospects of actual middle age instead of just mining the closets of their elders for cheeky references, and many of them have more money to spend on things they enjoy wearing. Like me, many also spent their pre-normcore lives running around in a previous era’s terrible shoes, too young and immortal to think about things like the connective tissue within our feet. Even if they didn’t, maybe they’re just now learning the hard way that you’re not supposed to walk around barefoot at home. (May I suggest you look into recovery sandals and compression socks, both of which have become somewhat trendy in their own right?)

Parthasarathy, the podiatrist, told me that in her experience, it’s not a foregone conclusion that people entering middle age will make a natural transition to healthier, more supportive footwear. In the past, she’s found that conversation difficult to have with some of her patients, many of whom don’t want to give up the shoes that landed them in her office in the first place. Getting dressed, after all, is a way that we construct an understanding of ourselves, and what we wear is a language we use to communicate with everyone who sees us. Losing the stilettos or wing tips because we’ve gotten older and our bodies have narrowed our choices for us can feel intolerable in a way that isn’t about the shoes, not really.

Lately, Parthasarathy said, those conversations with her patients have tended to be easier. People who might have been holdouts a few years ago are more receptive. Indeed, those of us in our 30s and 40s might have accidentally given ourselves a tremendous gift: The coolest among us spent the past decade making orthopedic shoes the height of fashion, and we even persuaded people much younger than us to get onboard—right in time to provide our older selves with a little bit of plausible deniability. We’re not wearing these New Balances just because our knees hurt. We swear.

“You’re just getting older, and you want to look cool, but you also have a body that is absolutely failing you because you’re aging, and that’s just how it works,” Schlossman said. “Time stops for no man, and it stops for no sneakerhead.”