I hoard slippers—the thin-soled, terry kind that many hotels include in their amenity packages. My house is full of them, some still plastic-wrapped. Shoes that will never be good for anything but indoor wear. Yet to me, they are simply too precious to leave behind.
I grew up in the USSR, where tapochki—indoor slippers—were worn habitually. We changed into them when we came home, leaving the dirt of the outdoors at the entrance. We carried them to school where our fellow students stood guard at the door posted by the principal with the sole purpose of checking our bags for smenka, the change of footwear. Museums provided containers of felt mules by the entrance for visitors to don over boots before entering the halls. And we knew that when we visited a friend, we would be expected to take off our shoes and wear the slippers the host owned just for that occasion. Walking inside a home—any home—while still wearing outdoor shoes was bad form.
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The origin of the habit is mysterious, but tapochki occupy an important part of the Russian psyche. The pragmatic benefits are obvious—casting off outdoor shoes keeps the floors and rugs clean. But the real benefit is symbolic.
A decade ago, a monument to Oblomov—the titular character of Ivan Goncharov’s famous novel about a lackadaisical Russian nobleman—was installed in the city of Ulianovsk. The monument features Oblomov’s couch, with his slippers underneath it. Created by a local welder, the mules celebrate the novelist’s ability to infuse personal objects with a symbolism that captured the Russia of his day. In the novel, Ilya Ilich Oblomov spends most of his waking hours in his robe lying on a couch and doing nothing. The novel had political overtures; it was published two years before the abolishment of serfdom in Russia and has been credited by some as a portrayal of general apathy among the Russian nobility. Oblomov’s robe, the couch, and the slippers represent the hero’s indifference to life outside his home. But they also symbolize the domestic space, the feeling of leaving the worries of the world at the door, and the safety and comfort that only one’s abode can offer.
Personal objects separating the outside and the inside can be found in European paintings as early as the 15th century. In The Arnofini Portrait (1434), Jan Van Eyck included two pairs of pattens—the wooden clogs usually worn over the indoor shoes to protect footwear from the mud and dirt of the outside. The 1514 engraving Saint Gerome in His Study, by Albrecht Durer, also features shoes that seem to indicate domestic use—a pair of mules in the foreground, stored under a bench with books and pillows. Whether they are there to suggest their purpose as outdoor-only footwear or the beginning of the practice of using mules at home we may never know. Yet just as in the Van Eyck’s work, a discarded pair of shoes—the shoes that the subject isn’t wearing at home—may be the indication of a new custom taking hold: a custom of separating footwear into indoor and outdoor.
Around this time, the conquests of the Ottoman Empire brought Eastern habits into the European continent. “[Most Ottoman people] were wearing outdoor shoes over the indoor shoes like galoshes,” explains Lale Gorunur, the curator of the Sadberk Hanim Museum in Istanbul. “But they’d never go indoors with outdoor shoes. They’d always take off the outdoor shoes at the gate of the house.” Territories under the empire’s rule seemed to adopt this habit, and slippers remain common in countries like Serbia and Hungary.
“We have the tradition of indoor shoes because we were under the Ottoman rule,” confirms Draginja Maskareli, a curator at the Textile and Costume Department of the Museum of Applied Art in Belgrade. When she was a student in the early 1990s, Maskareli visited cousins of Serbian origin in Paris, to which she traveled with slippers in tow. “They were shocked that we had indoor shoes.”
Although the late 20th-century Parisians seemed amused at the idea, their predecessors were enamored with indoor shoes. “By the 17th century, an increasing number of men are having portraits done of themselves in a kind of casual, domestic setting in their mules, their slippers,” explains Elizabeth Semmelhack, a curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. “By the 18th century, where intimacy and intimate gatherings become very much a part of social culture, you begin to see more pictures of women and their mules.”
The Victorian era added its own twist to the infatuation with the indoor shoe. Women used Berlin wool work, a needlepoint style popular at the time, to make the uppers of their husband’s home slippers. “[They] would take those uppers to a shoemaker who would then add a sole. And they would be gifted to the husband to wear while he is smoking his pipe by the fire in the evening,” says Semmelhack.
Portraits of the Russian upper classes of the 18th and 19th century frequently feature subjects in either the Ottoman style mules or in thin—intended for indoor use—slipper-shoes. The same couldn’t be said for the poor. Peasants and laborers are either shown barefoot, wearing boots meant for outdoor work, or donning valenki, the traditional Russian felt boot. Perhaps because of this link between the indoor footwear and the leisure of the rich, tapochki were snubbed immediately following the 1917 Russian Revolution. Remnants of the maligned, old world had no place in the new Soviet paradigm. But the sentiment didn’t stick. Although never as extravagant or ornate as before, soon tapochki were back in most Soviet homes offering their owners comfort after a long day of building the Communist paradise.
Today, attitudes towards taking off shoes indoors vary, often by national culture. An Italian friend told me it was considered rude to go barefoot in the house in Italy, and a Spanish friend raised her eyebrows when I offered a pair of slippers. “Spaniards don’t take their shoes off.”
In Japan, where slippers are a Western introduction, most people take off their outdoor shoes before going indoors. Jordan Sand, a professor of Japanese History at Georgetown University, notes that architecture accommodates the practice. “The Japanese live in dwellings with raised floors. It’s basic, even in modern apartment buildings, that every private dwelling has space at the entry,” he explains. “As you enter the door there is a little space and step up and the rest of the house is higher than the outside. You shed your footwear there. In a traditional house, most of the interior space is covered with tatami mats. No footwear is worn on tatami mats.” While the Japanese generally go either barefoot or wear socks on the mats, there are exceptions. In those parts of the house that aren’t covered by tatami—the kitchen, the hallway, and the toilet—people wear slippers. A singular pair of slippers is reserved specifically for the toilet, where it stays.
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When I moved to the U.S. in 1989, slippers disappeared from my life. Americans never took off their shoes and their wall-to-wall carpeting bore traces of the outside tracked indoors on the soles of their footwear. I could never get used to it. My shoes came off immediately whenever I entered my house and I’ve asked my guests to take off theirs. The panoply of terry mules I have hoarded from hotels is always on hand to help.
As for me—my personal slippers wait for me by the door. When I slip them on my feet are freer, my floors stay cleaner, and I always feel as if I’ve truly come home.
This article appears courtesy of Object Lessons.