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White House footwear fans flip-flop kerfuffle

A group of Northwestern University women’s lacrosse players who wore flip-flops to the White House have fanned a flap over fashion sense and tradition.
When Northwestern University women's lacrosse team was photographed with President Bush at the White House on Tuesday, four of the nine women in the front row were wearing flip-flops.David Bohrer / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Back and forth it goes with the tale of the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse players who wore flip-flops to meet the president.

Flip: “Nobody was wearing old beach flip-flops,” said one of the players, who wore a rhinestone-bedecked, $16 pair to a July 12 ceremony at the White House honoring the team for its NCAA championship.

Flop: “Don’t even ask me about the flip-flops,” said her mother. “It mortified me.”

Flip: Everyone was dressed up for their picture with the president. “Their hair wasn’t askew, they were clean-cut kids,” said one fashion expert. “They’re athletes, so the whole concept of casual dressing on the part of athletes dictates that’s the way they should dress.”

Flop: This is the buttoned-down, dignified Bush White House, where the president has forbid jeans and required neckties in the Oval Office and women are instructed to be “appropriately dressed.”

A tradition of breaking with tradition?
The flap is rooted in the same generation gap that almost a century ago — at the very dawn of mass culture — caused elders to be scandalized by the above-the-knee dresses and bobbed hair of 1920s flappers.

From miniskirts and go-go boots in the ’60s to Madonna’s lingerie-wear in the ’80s, it’s a rite of passage for young people to offend grownups — intentionally or unintentionally — with the way they dress. No doubt some of the same baby boomers who rolled their eyes over flip-flops at the White House were once young people who earned parental scorn by making blue jeans into go-anywhere wear.

Said fashion expert Ellen Goldstein, head of accessories design department at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, “It is the baby boomers who really have set the trend when it comes to flip-flops. We wore them in the ’60s as a statement. Now, we’re wearing them again as a statement of at-leisure comfort. Once it becomes a statement of at-leisure comfort, who’s to say I can’t wear them to get married on the beach?”

Or to meet the president?

“It’s a fine line,” Goldstein said. “If it were you or me or any of the rest of the public who were meeting the president — it’s inappropriate. ... But there was nobody there in torn clothes and ratty T-shirts.”

One former college lacrosse player — herself a dedicated flip-flop wearer — shrugs at the whole debate.

“Let’s take the focus off footwear and congratulate these women on winning the national championship and raising the profile of female lacrosse players,” said Torrey Fazen, 27, of Chicago. “Flip-flops are comfortable, fashionable and worn everywhere from the beach to the boardroom.”

Dressing down
The current generation of adolescents and young adults — Generation Y, or those born between 1977 and 1994 — “has grown up in a setting that’s very informal,” said Michael Wood, a vice president at marketing firm Teenage Research Unlimited in Northbrook, Ill. “These are kids whose parents grew up wearing blue jeans. They’re not requiring their kids to dress up.”

Wood and others note that while young people often take any fashion trend to its extreme, they aren’t the only ones dressing down.

“There used to be a day when people dressed up to ride on airplanes, to go to football games,” Wood said. Many churches that were once bastions of formality have added “come as you are” services.

But Wood worries the arrival of flip-flops at the White House is a sign that respect for even the nation’s most sacrosanct institutions is waning.

“Is a trip to the White House special? You would hope that it would be. You would hope that when you were going to meet the commander-in-chief, that it was special enough to get dressed up for,” he said.

Then again, says Bruce Tulgan, founder of New Haven, Conn.-based Rainmaker Thinking, which consults to corporations on attracting and retaining young talent, think about the circumstances in which Generation Y has grown up.

Comfort or rebellion?
“They look at folks in privileged or powerful positions and they’re very familiar that folks get built up and torn down,” he said. Political leaders in particular are no longer remote figures of reverence, but deeply humanized.

College students like the Northwestern players were in elementary school when President Clinton was asked “boxers or briefs?” during a 1994 MTV town hall meeting and responded, “Usually briefs.” They were teenagers when the details of Clinton’s Oval Office sex antics became public knowledge.

And the current president’s daughters are Generation Yers whose youthful indiscretions have made headlines and who teamed up to make a jokey speech at last summer’s Republican National Convention.

In fact, when a 19-year-old Jenna Bush made a court appearance to plead no contest to misdemeanor charge of being a minor in possession of alcohol back in 2001, she wore ... black flip-flops.

Rachel Gillman, a friend and colleague of Fazen’s, sees flip-flops as less a statement of rebellion than part of the quest for comfort.

“My generation might be less caught up in the formality of appearance and consciously chooses to dress in a style that suits their personality, style and desired comfort level,” she said. “(Today’s) youth want to look presentable, but not at the expense of feeling good.”