Alpargatas from South America

Recently, I’ve been a bit obsessed with footwear called alpargatas, and let me tell you why. It was a couple of months ago after I had just finished writing about Argentine tango shoes. I was walking along wondering what other footwear from Argentina I could write about. I was thinking about alpargatas, but I didn’t have a photo of them. Then, I saw a man walking ahead of me wearing the exact shoe that I was thinking about. I couldn’t believe it. I walked with him for 2 blocks. No, I was not following him! We just happened to be walking in the same direction for 2 blocks. I walked with him and stared at his shoes until I had to turn to go to my workplace. I had my camera with me that day and I wished that I had stopped him, but I am not enough of a lunatic to stop a complete stranger on the street and ask if I can take photos of his shoes! I really regretted it though for I never saw him again. But to be honest, I wouldn’t recognize him anyway; I would only recognize his shoes. For a while, every time I walked that way, I would look out for a man wearing alpargatas. I think of them as the shoes that got away, and the whole incident inspired me to write a poem. Yes, I wrote poetry about alpargatas! I debated whether or not to share my poem here, but decided that since this blog has been non-fiction so far, I would like to keep it that way. So after that very long preamble, let me get on with actually writing about alpargatas.

Alpargatas, or espadrilles in English, are traditional footwear worn by the gaucho, or cowboys, in South America. Gaucho are found in parts of Argentina, Southern Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. They live in rural areas, and are well known for riding horses and herding cattle on horseback. Alpargatas originated in the Pyrenees, the area between France and Spain, before being brought to South America by Basque settlers. Alpargatas are warm weather shoes, worn in the spring or summer months. Alpargatas can be worn by both men and women.

These alpargatas have the traditional soles of jute rope, but modern uppers made of leather.

These alpargatas have the traditional soles made of jute, but modern uppers made of leather.

Even though alpargatas has an association with peasant footwear, or footwear for the common man, they have become fashionable worldwide. I know this because I have seen alpargatas worn as far away as in New Zealand, and I have also seen them for sale both in New Zealand and in Malaysia at high-end prices for this humble footwear.

Traditionally, alpargatas were made with cotton or canvas uppers and with soles of jute. And traditionally, alpargatas came in monochrome colours like black or white. These days, there are all sorts of modern variations on alpargatas. They come in different colours, fabric design, and different materials. Alpargatas can now have rubber soles instead of jute soles, and some have wedge heels made of jute, but all can still be called alpargatas.

The stranger I saw was wearing this pair of TOMS alpargatas. These alpargatas have modern rubber soles, but traditional canvas uppers.

The stranger I saw was wearing this exact pair of TOMS alpargatas. These alpargatas have modern rubber soles, but traditional canvas uppers (Photo from the TOMS website).

The stranger I saw on the street was wearing alpargatas from a label called TOMS. This is a label started by Blake Mycoskie in 2006. Blake first went to Argentina as a contestant on the TV show ‘The Amazing Race’. When he later visited Argentina again, he saw poor children who did not have proper shoes, and this inspired him to start TOMS shoes. The TOMS motto is ‘one for one’. For each pair of TOMS shoes sold, another pair of shoes would be given to a child in need. TOMS currently gives shoes to children in over 60 countries around the world.

The logo of TOMS shoes, which is sewn onto the back heel of TOMS shoes.

The TOMS logo, which is sewn onto the back heel of TOMS shoes.

Some TOMS shoes are made in Argentina, and the TOMS logo is a variation on the Argentine flag. The logo is sewn onto the back heel of TOMS alpargatas. Personally, I would have a problem if my nation’s flag was used as a brand logo and then placed in such a lowly position as the back of the heel.

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