Olympics swimming and flag socks – patriotic or insulting?

I am suffering from some serious lack of sleep at the moment as I follow the London Olympic Games. Working? Eating? Sleeping? All have to fit around my TV watching at present.

I have watched all the Olympic swim events so far, even watching the heats and semi-finals. I think the latest swimsuits look boring. Watch any final of the swimming events and it looks like everyone is wearing the same uniform, even though they are all representing different countries. Ninety percent of the swimmers wear all-black racing suits. Come on! Has Speedo gone colour blind? Speedo’s rival Arena can make bright coloured racing suits. Surely Speedo can manufacture racing suits in a colour other than black, or add some kind of design rather than just plain black. These racing suits are so plain and boring compared to the swim suits and trunks that the divers compete in and compared to the swimsuits of many years ago.

Of course these new boring black swimsuits came about after the full body suit, seen at the Beijing Olympics, were banned because swimmers wearing them were too fast! Forget about performance enhancing drugs, these were performance enhancing swimsuits. The Speedo LZR racer suit was launched in February 2008 and marketed as ‘the world’s fastest swimsuit’. Many races were won and records broken by swimmers wearing these suits. Swimmers who wore the Speedo LZR suit could lower their times by an average of 2 percent. The suit also increased bouyancy and the effect compounded, so wearing 2 suits made the swimmer even faster. This prompted FINA to ban full body-length swimsuits in 2009. In 2009, Therese Alshammar, veteran swimmer from Sweden, was disqualified in Australia after breaking her own world record in the 50m butterfly, for wearing 2 swimsuits. I wonder which official had the job of checking swimsuits! Now only swimsuits that reach to the knee are allowed.

So, in amidst a sea of boring black knee-length swimsuits, it was good to see some colour and patriotism from the US women’s swimmers. On day 4 and 5 of the Olympics competition, Cammile Adams and Kathleen Hersey, both US swimmers in the 200m butterfly event were seen walking to the starting blocks wearing knee-high socks with the design of the stars and stripes of the USA flag. Interestingly, Kathleen Hersey’s nickname is Legs, because she has long legs.

Knee-length socks in stars and stripes, similar to those worn by a few US swimmers

Knee-length socks in stars and stripes, similar to those worn by a few US swimmers. Photo from http://www.polyvore.com/american_flag_knee_high_socks/thing?id=26170388

I think the design of these socks is different and meant to be fun – show your patriotism on your feet. But this only works in cultures that don’t think of the feet as low, dirty or unclean. In other cultures, like in Thailand or in many Arab countries, wearing socks with a design of the nation’s flag on it would be highly insulting and a great disrespect to the flag.

Wellington boots / gumboots

Since the London 2012 Olympic Games is underway, I feel like I should write something about the Olympics. Did you notice the team from Czech Republic at the opening ceremony? The Czechs must either have a great sense of humour or are very well prepared for the famous London rain. At the Olympics opening ceremony, the Czechs wore blue Wellington boots and waved matching blue foldable umbrellas.

The team from the Czech Republic at the London Olympics opening ceremony, wearing blue wellington boots and holding matching foldable umbrellas. (Photo: Getty Images)

This type of boot is known by many names. I have called them Wellington boots since the Olympic Games are being held in London, and Wellington boots were named after a British soldier and aristocrat. Arthur Wellesley (1769 – 1852), the first Duke of Wellington wore this kind of boot and subsequently this style of boot were called Wellington boots. They are also called wellies, gumboots, rain boots, rubber boots or galoshes. They are mostly made of rubber, but can also be made of PVC. Wellington boots are great for keeping your feet dry and are also quite comfortable. Traditionally, Wellington boots came to just under the knee, but now shorter ones (ankle-length and calf-length) are also available. In the past, they were plain in dull colours, like black. But now Wellington boots can be found in many bright colours and with different designs.

Modern gumboots in many different colours and designs.

These boots are practical work boots. In Australia and New Zealand, they are called gumboots. Some time ago, I spent a year living on a farm in rural New Zealand and gumboots are the only footwear worn on farms. Plain black gumboots with a red band around the top are especially a kiwi icon. Gumboots are great because it’s no problem to step in cow pats or sheep droppings while wearing gumboots. They are also excellent in wet, muddy conditions.

It is not unusual in rural New Zealand to see a pair of gumboots outside the post office or bank or some other kind of business. Farmers fresh off the farm wearing dirty and muddy gumboots remove them before entering so that they don’t dirty the floor or carpet of the business. Below is a sign from the front door of a branch of the National Bank in New Zealand. Further along the same road, a branch of the Bank of New Zealand has a similar sign on their front door that said ‘Please remove all muddy shoes and boots.’

A sign at a branch of the National Bank in New Zealand. Further on the same road, a branch of the Bank of New Zealand had a similar sign. (Photo: Chang Shih Yen)

There are also funny sports associated with gumboots in New Zealand, like gumboot tossing competitions to see who can throw a gumboot the furthest. There is even a rural town in the central North Island of New Zealand called Taihape that markets itself as the ‘gumboot capital of the world.’ Taihape has held a Gumboot Day every year since 1985, which was where the gumboot tossing competition started. I have vague memories of throwing a gumboot. It’s not as easy as it looks. Wellington boots or gumboots are not the best fashion statement, but they are very practical footwear and keep your feet dry.

The length of your boot matters

It is still the middle of winter. Well, it is in the Southern Hemisphere. At around this time of year, suddenly all the shoe shops seem to only promote winter boots, even if that’s not what you want to buy. So I decided to just go with the flow and write about winter boots, more specifically about boot length, and why they matter.

Though not my favourite style, I will wear ankle-length boots. They are practical boots and easy to get on and off. In my opinion, ankle-length boots make your legs look shorter by cutting the length off at the ankle. So that’s why they are not my favourite style.

Shih Yen wears ankle-length boots (Photo by Jaime Smith).

Personally, I will not wear calf-length boots, especially not in brown. They are just not my style, and I find that calf-length boots make your legs look shorter because they stop at the calves, effectively cutting the length of your legs in half.

My favourite boot length are knee-length boots, or boots that reach just below the knee, in black. I think they are the most flattering and knee-length boots also keep you warm. This style gives the illusion of lengthening the leg and making legs look thinner. Try and get knee-length boots that fit well at the knee. If there’s too much of a gap at the top of the boot, this breaks the ‘line’ of your legs and make your legs look wider than they really are. Knee-length boots go well with short skirts or dresses or with skinny jeans.

Shih Yen wears knee-length boots

I know this blog  is called ‘keeping it below the knee’, but sometimes footwear goes above the knee. I recently wore thigh-high boots for the first time. This tall style is difficult to wear well, mainly because of the association thigh-high boots have with ‘ladies of the night’ type professions and dominatrix-wear. It is also hard to find suitable clothes to wear with this style. Skirts, dresses or shorts have to be almost indecently short when worn with this style. Leggings or tights may be a better choice to wear with this style of boot.

Over-the-knee boots are also difficult to wear. The pair I wore had a zip at the side and shoelaces that go all the way up the back. It literally took me five minutes just to get them on, and another five minutes to get them off again. I had to be sitting on a chair to wear them, or else they were impossible to get on or off. And once I was wearing them, it became impossible to kneel or squat. But they are a nice stye if you are brave enough to wear them. Thigh-high boots are very flattering and also helps keep you warm. So, if you’re buying boots this season, remember that the length of your boots do matter.

Shih Yen wears over-the-knee boots with dress by Zambesi.

Handmade alpaca socks from Ecuador

It’s still winter in the Southern Hemisphere and I’ve been keeping my feet warm by wearing alpaca fibre socks handmade in Ecuador. Ecuador is a country in South America, bordering Colombia and Peru. I’ve been very happy with my alpaca socks. They are warm, maybe warmer than sheep’s wool and alpaca fibre is definitely softer and not itchy compared with sheep’s wool.

Alpaca fibre comes from the alpaca. Alpacas are domestic animals found in South America. They look like small llamas and graze at high altitudes – between 3500 to 5000 metres (or 11 500 – 16 000 feet) above sea level. Alpacas are found on the Andes Mountains, in areas like Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and northern Chile.

Shih Yen’s alpaca socks with a pattern of alpacas woven into the socks.

I love my alpaca socks. A row of alpacas have even been woven into the socks. These socks are handmade in Otavalo, Ecuador. Otavalo is a town in the Imbabura province of Ecuador, an area to the north of Ecuador. The native people of Otavalo are well known for weaving woolen textiles and also for their famous market.

I bought my alpaca socks from my Ecuadorian friend. Check out her website selling handicrafts from Ecuador at: http://www.carvieirahandicrafts.com/

My friend Carla at her stall selling handicrafts from Ecuador