Why massive shoes are the trend of the year

A new design launching this week at Paris fashion week is the latest in this year’s most surprising trend – comically oversized footwear. Daisy Woodward dips a toe into the clompy world of cartoon shoes.

From cowboy boots and kitten heels to Mary Janes and court shoes, 2023 has heralded the return of many established shoes to the runway. But it has also seen the rise of a new, more surprising one: the cartoonishly oversized shoe. Pre-empted by the likes of Bottega Veneta’s BV “puddle boot” (a chunky-soled rubber rain boot with a bulbous toe that debuted in 2020), and Kerwin Frost’s super-stuffed Adidas Superstars (a 2021 collaboration that saw the classic Superstar sneaker padded out to appear clownishly large), the maximalist look was galvanised in February of this year when the US label and art collective MSCHF released its attention-grabbing “big red boot”.

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Seeming to have leapt straight from the pages of the 1990s Japanese manga series Astro Boy, the giant, pillarbox-red boots, rendered in TPU and EVA foam, are simultaneously nostalgic, futuristic, and utterly absurd; as MSCHF declared in its press release, “If you kick someone in these boots, they go boing!” Yet, despite their silliness and inadvertent suction issues – see the viral TikTok video in which one wearer gets stuck in their BRBs – the unisex boots were soon being sported by everyone from Doja Cat and Lil Nas X to Iggy Azalea and Janelle Monáe.

Marni is launching its “big foot 2.0” sneakers at Paris fashion week (Credit: Marni)

Meanwhile, the launch of the spring/summer 2023 collections provided a more refined take on the cartoon-channelling shoe, from Prada’s proudly puffy nappa loafers to Loewe’s comic lacquered foam pumps (seemingly inspired by Minnie Mouse’s oversized, slip-on high heels) to Proenza Schouler’s pillowy Arc platform mules. And, across mens’ and womenswear alike, the craze appears to show no sign of slowing down. In August, like Balenciaga before them, MSCHF paired up with Crocs to present the “big yellow boots”– a sunflower-yellow take on the BRB, bearing Crocs’ trademark holes and heel strap – while Marni is set to release its “big foot 2.0” sneakers this week at Paris fashion week, a more exaggerated, decidedly comic-book take on the Italian house’s 2018 platform trainer.

So, what does our newfound interest in clompy, cartoonesque footwear signify? “In one sense, it communicates a desire for non-conformity and personal expression, which aligns with contemporary values of individuality and self-confidence,” Dr Carolyn Mair, a cognitive psychologist and fashion business consultant, and the author of The Psychology of Fashion, tells BBC Culture. “And at the same time, it subverts more traditional ideals of beauty in preference for novel, unconventional aesthetics.”

Cultural historian Annebella Pollen agrees. “They remind me somewhat of the shoes designed by second-wave feminists in the 1970s and 1980s,” she tells BBC Culture. “They viewed the trend for stiletto heels and pointy toes as a way of keeping women in their place, so they produced their own handmade, foot-shaped styles that drew on men’s workwear boots, and were very much anti-fashion.”

Bottega Veneta’s “puddle boots” were a precursor of the big shoe trend (Credit: Getty Images)

The UK shoemakers, who included all-women’s collectives like Green Shoes, Orchid Shoes and Made to Last, frequently advertised in feminist magazine Spare Rib, billing sensible shoes as a form of resistance. “That said, they made them quite decorative, using ribbons for laces, for instance, and bright-coloured leathers like purple, pink and green,” Pollen continues. “The shoes were tough and practical, but also made a big statement. They allowed women to take up space, and gave them freedom of movement.”

Go big or go home

In terms of functionality, Caroline Stevenson, programme director of cultural and historical studies at London College of Fashion, sees similar correlations in some of the other historical precedents of the cartoon shoe, with its raised sole and protective padding. “Perhaps the earliest link is the chopine,” she tells BBC Culture, referring to one of the first iterations of the platform, worn by Venetian noblewomen between the late 15th and early 17th Century. “They were built for practicality originally, to protect the wearer’s feet from the streets, but then became a fashionable item in their own right, taking on this symbolic meaning about social position, because their height conveyed the status of the wearer. They were very hard to walk in, though – some were 20 inches high.”

Even more pertinent a predecessor, in Stevenson’s opinion, is the 1990s reference that many of today’s oversized shoes appear to draw on: “the big, Spice Girls-style trainers, like the platform Buffalo boots,” she says. “They were representative of oppositional cultural politics and female empowerment, and they had a unisex appeal too. They were also about 90s rave culture – they had this element of practicality for people who were stomping around in a field till all hours of the morning.” Platform trainers were themselves inspired by 1970s platforms, Stevenson notes, which were also designed for dancing – for standing up for hours on end, while standing out amid the glitz and glamour of the disco era.

And, in the case of the cartoon shoe, standing out is very much the point. As Mair explains, “Our vision has evolved to allow us to automatically process, without attention, objects which are typical or representative of their category, so we can use our limited cognitive resources to pay attention to unusual objects that [in an evolutionary sense] might be a threat. The attention-grabbing aesthetics of today’s oversized shoes may not appeal to everyone, but they will certainly get you noticed and, as such, are likely to project an adventurous and fun image.”

The “big red boot” by MSCHF has been a hit with fashionistas and celebrities (Credit: Getty Images)

In this vein, it is interesting to note the ways in which the absurd, maximalist nature of the cartoon-style shoe seem to correlate with a wider fashion movement: “clowncore”, a circus-inspired aesthetic that gained traction on TikTok in 2020, and has since made its way into high fashion – with houses from Dior and Armani Privé to Chanel embracing the trend. “The Spring 2023 Paris couture shows made tons of references to clowns and harlequins, tying into the clowncore movement,” says Stevenson. “It’s about being playful and escapist, which makes sense because we are living through very confusing times, and fashion always tries to make sense of confusing times.”

And whether they call to mind visions of clowns or cartoons, 90s robot boys or girl power-proclaiming pop stars, there’s no doubt that the current craze for big, bulbous shoes taps into a pervading sense of nostalgia. “They remind us of childhood memories, evoking a sense of familiarity and warmth, fun times: splashing in puddles and playing with friends in a carefree world,” observes Mair. As MSCHF put it, in reference to the Big Red Boot, “Cartoonishness is an abstraction that frees us from the constraints of reality” – and perhaps that’s what we need most right now.

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