The Surprising History of Slippers
For Filipinos born in the ‘70s through the ‘90s, slippers or tsinelas represent more than just a type of footwear: they are both a tool for corporal punishment, and an implement for playing tumbang preso.
The pre-colonial Filipinos were predominantly barefoot. In the 1500s, Filipino nobility adorned themselves with fine clothing—silk doublets with gold trimmings, gold bands, and thick gold chains around their necks. But evidently lacking is anything to protect their feet.
Barefooted Visayan and Tagalog Nobility, circa 1594
How Slippers Came to the Country
Slippers were a foreign concept to Filipinos in the pre-colonial era. However, trading and intermarrying with foreigners allowed foreign and indigenous cultures to merge. The slippers or tsinelas we recognize today were introduced to the Filipinos by the Japanese over 400 years ago.
Long before the Spaniards rediscovered the Philippines, the Japanese assimilated into the local population in the 15th century. In 1600, there were as many as 3,000 Japanese in Manila. Japanese settlements were also established in Ilocos, Davao, and parts of the Visayas.
Although the Japanese word for slippers is zori, Filipinos called the slippers tsinelas, which comes from the Spanish word chinelas.
The Japanese zori is recognized as the slippers’ forerunner, the original flip-flop. It is one of several types of everyday sandals worn by the Japanese. Depending on the weather, the Japanese wore different types of slippers.
A pair traditional zori made from rice straw
In summertime when the ground was dry, the Japanese used a basic rice straw zori. In the Philippines, manila hemp or abaca fiber was used to construct the slippers.
Other types of Japanese slippers had wooden soles, which probably influenced the Philippine bakya’s design.
In the rainy season, the Japanese wore another type of slippers called the geta. These were wooden sandals with flat soles and two pegs at the base for elevation. The pegs prevented the feet from getting muddied in rain puddles.
A pair of geta slippers
Slippers as a Status Symbol
Even before the Spaniards colonized the archipelago, pre-colonial Filipinos ascribed value to clothing as a status symbol. In those times, only members of the nobility wore red clothes made of cotton or silk. Ordinary folk wore neutral colors and were adorned with less ornaments.
When the Spaniards captured Manila and successfully colonized the archipelago in the 16th century, they discouraged the use of ethnic clothing and introduced Western clothing in the form of pants and shirts, including their use of shoes or zapatos.
Eventually, slippers and shoes became symbols that segregated members of Filipino society into different social classes. According to the Yuchengco Museum, the bakya or wooden sandals were considered as cheap befitting the poor majority. The slippers or tsinelas were acceptable for the middle class, while the shoes or zapatos is a standard for the insulares, peninsulares, and some educated Spanish mestizos. Those without slippers or shoes were often looked down upon by society.
Tagalog Attire in the 1800s
The Birth of the Rubber Slippers
When Imperial Japan expanded its territory in Southeast Asia in the 1940s, it transformed the region into a massive production house of raw materials that the empire needed to bolster its military might. Among those raw materials was rubber.
In 1945, after suffering a devastating defeat at the hands of the Allied Forces, the Japanese were left with a depleted treasury and an oversupply of rubber. At that time, rubber was largely used for industrial and military purposes.
To recover their losses and rebuild their country, they had to monetize their surplus rubber. One solution the Japanese thought of was to invent rubber slippers.
As a sort of subtle revenge for their loss in the war, Japan flooded the world with super cheap yet reliable rubber zori. In 1950, almost every household in the United Sates owned a pair of rubber slippers. Unlike the traditional zori made of rice straw, the rubber zori produced a flopping sound when worn while walking. This sound effect resulted in the slippers’ being coined as “flip-flops.”
The Japanese culture of minimalism was very well expressed in the construction and design of the rubber slippers. It was also light and comfortable, which is another reason why the slippers easily gained worldwide popularity.
Slippers in Today’s Culture
Gone are the days when slippers were used as a tool to punish naughty children. Parents would also frown to see their children using Nike slippers as a handy projectile in parlor games.
Today, slippers are regarded as some of the simplest and most casual footwear in the world. In the Philippines, rubber slippers can represent simplicity and humility, and have been used by politicians in their election campaigns as a symbol of their character and as freebies in their sorties.
In popular culture, they have also been used to depict the seemingly impossible, such as in Rafe Bartholomew’s “Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-flops and the Philippine’s Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball.”
Why Remove Slippers Before Entering the House?
Some Filipinos remove their shoes before entering their houses, then switch to slippers once inside. This practice of removing footwear before entering someone’s abode is also a Japanese tradition that was passed on to Filipinos.
The Japanese remove their slippers before entering their homes because they want to keep their house clean. Typically, Japanese houses have tatami flooring on which the Japanese sit and eat meals. Bringing your slippers inside the house is like putting your shoes on the table.
Although Filipinos do not eat on the floor, some still prefer to remove their shoes and switch to indoor slippers to keep the floor clean.