Water shoes are the unexpected hottest shoes of summer

This once "ugly" shoe is suddenly in style.
Kayaking in Lake Powell to antelope canyon with feet water shoes at front of red kayak boat and blue turquoise water
The footwear trend your parents made you wear as a child is surging in popularity now.ablokhin / Getty Images stock

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/ Source: TODAY
By Chrissy Callahan

Every year around this time, an "ugly" shoe trend seems to burst onto the scene and become the "it" look of the season. It happened with tourist sandals in 2019 and Birkenstocks in 2018, and now it's happening again with water shoes.

If your parents ever made you wear these waterproof shoes at the beach when you were a kid, the term probably conjures up images of mesh, flexible footwear in bright neon colors. But water shoes have gotten a major makeover in recent years and now they're vying for the hearts of fashionistas everywhere, according to a new column in the New York Times.

Traditionally, consumers have relied on water shoes to protect their feet from rocks, provide traction and drain water during all sorts of outdoor activities. But similarly to Crocs, they've usually been a purely functional piece of footwear. "Since they were mainly used for water activities like kayaking, hiking and swimming, water shoes have not been regarded for their style," Sara Skirboll, RetailMeNot shopping and trends expert, told TODAY Style.

But in recent years, the shoe style has transformed in look and feel; nowadays, anything from sock-like shoes to sneakers and sandals can double as water shoes.

The style has even caught the attention of some well-known — and luxurious — brands. Balenciaga models walked down a wet runway wearing a type of hybrid water sock/shoe in March.

Balenciaga models wore these water-friendly shoes on the runway.Estrop / Getty Images

Popular footwear brand Teva also recently partnered with Opening Ceremony for a mesh "Hurricane Sock" shoe.

So why are people suddenly embracing this typically "ugly" shoe style? It might have something to do with our overall shift in fashion preferences during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Water shoes may be increasing in popularity as more people are finding new ways to stay healthy, fit and venture out while gyms are closed, which makes hiking, swimming and climbing perfect activities," Skirboll said.

With so many of us finding new ways to explore our own states and putting off scheduled summer vacations, shoes that are fit for outdoor activities have exploded in popularity, and designers have stepped in to dress up the typically utilitarian shoes.

"The desire for comfort and utility is more apparent than ever, but that doesn’t mean those who are fashion-forward want to disown their sense of style. Therefore, we’re seeing luxury brands fill this gap in the market by creating products like water shoes that are functional but still carry the clout of a high-fashion brand," Stitch Fix style expert Layne Cross told TODAY.

Society's sudden penchant for water shoes might also have something to do with the fact that "ugly" shoes, like Crocs, have been creeping into the mainstream for quite some time.

"There’s something ironic in wearing what is objectively ugly footwear as a fashion statement. For several years now we’ve seen the fashion industry embrace the 'ugly' shoe (from thick-soled 'dad' sneakers, to orthopedic sandals to Crocs) so I suspect that water shoes are the next iteration of that," Cross said.

Similar to Crocs, water shoes are pretty versatile and you can even wear them while lounging around the house. "Today, the water shoe has moved away from its original functionality and is being incorporated into everyday life activities — even those that require no contact with water at all," Cross said.

But the question remains: What kind of support do water shoes offer?

"Most of the water shoes that are currently on trend offer a more minimal, less-structured design. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as we don't always need to have tons of cushioning and arch support," podiatrist Dr. Emily Splichal told TODAY. "If you are looking for an alternative to flip-flops then I see no concern as a podiatrist. However, the exception to this is for those with extreme foot types such as flat feet, or those with foot pain, including plantar fasciitis."

Water shoes may have suddenly become socially acceptable for streetwear, but do they have real staying power like Crocs or are they just another passing fad? Whether you like it or not, they might be sticking around for quite some time.

"As we all know, fashion is cyclical and water shoes have stood the test of time before they were brought into the mainstream by high-end fashion and street style influencers. While they might not remain at the forefront of trendy footwear, there’s no doubt they’ll be reimagined and updated by the next wave of fashion tastemakers," Cross said.