THE GLADIATOR SANDAL
Harper’s Bazaar’s Deputy Digital Editor Ella Alexander is no stranger to one of summer’s most relied on staples — the gladiator sandal. She talks us through her not-so-feminist roots with the footwear icon and how it still holds a special place in her wardrobe today.
I would like to say that my long-standing love of gladiator sandals stems from a feminist desire to look strong and Amazonian. The reality is less cerebral or principled. Like so many trends that became truly ubiquitous in the noughties, it began with Sienna Miller.
I was around 18 when I first clocked Miller and her then fondness for a gladiator sandal. They were the perfect hardy counterpoint to her floaty bohemian dresses and feminine skirts. Her clothes might have said impish ingenue, but her sandals said battle-ready. Kate Moss was also an early adoptee, wearing hers with cut-off-shorts, waistcoats and huge disc belts. By early 2009, they were everywhere. I had pairs in black, brown, then another (regrettably) in gold.
There isn’t another style in fashion whose history is as well-known — or older as that of the gladiator sandal. We know that it was a footwear favorite of Roman fighters, a look latterly replicated by Russell Crowe. What is less commonly known is that they were also worn by the Greek gods in a lot of artwork as a sign of status, sex and style. When out and about in ancient Greece, high-society women of the time would have their servants carry a sandalthique, a rich carpet bag, used to transport any shoe changes. Sandals were made of such fine leather and so tightly laced that the feet looked almost bare. Like today, they could be brightly colored or embellished depending on how much of a big deal you were. Gladiators returned again in the ‘60s in accordance with rising hemlines. Pattie Boyd was their most famous patron, after she was pictured wearing a brown, fringed, knee-high style in California. They felt bohemian, fresh and youthful — a look that wasn’t lost on Sienna Miller 40 years later.
It would be remis to talk about gladiators without talking about the bad. Despite their utilitarian qualities, they’re not always easy to wear. The knee-high styles require lean, tanned calves, not to mention time — you’ll need lots of it to artfully tie them up with enough even space in between the latticework to ensure they stay up. If you are Rihanna, then this is fine. If you aren’t, then the flat versions are a better option and don’t require a kinetic, architectural layer of complexity to put on. I like the classic style, those in a simple tan shade that deepens in the sun. Ancient Greek Sandals are, as you might expect given the name, a go-to destination for timeless versions that really last. Ann Demeulemeester does a great version with rope-effect straps, available in both black and a glamorous gold. The braided silver platform sandals at 3.1 Philip Lim offer a modern take that would again look great with a dress or denim.
One of the joys of gladiator sandals is that they’re extremely versatile — perfect for adding a low-key elegance to billowing summer dresses, midi skirts or shorts. They work as well on holiday as they do with straight-leg cropped jeans in the city. In their simplest form, using the finest of leather straps in neutral shades, they are extremely elegant. The thicker the strap the tougher they look, again useful when adding nonchalance to pretty summer looks. They are my T-shirt weather equivalent of the GANNI hiking boots I wear all winter — they subvert my most feminine outfits and turn them into something more interesting.
More than anything, my gladiators are synonymous with sunshine. They represent the start of warm days in parks, trips abroad and balmy days spent walking around cities — both known and new — nights sat outside bars with an Aperol Spritz. They are the closest it gets to walking around bare foot in public places. For all their straps and ties, they make me feel free.