The origin of thongs is pre-history and extends long before today’s plastic flipflops. Sandals have beautified feet since the beginning of civilization and were worn to adorn, complement status, and demonstrate station. Unlike ‘daggy thongs,’ sandals were restricted to only the few and have been around for at least 10,000 years. They coincide with the Neolithic Age (or New Stone Age) and although speculative footprints indicate a presence before this, absence of archeological evidence makes it impossible to date when shoes started to be worn. Ancient Greeks adapted footwear for every type of activity, with emphasis on beauty, elegance, and refinement. Sandals were extravagantly decorated with rich ornamentation although sumptuary laws prevented Greek women from wearing more than three articles of clothing and hence most went barefoot although Aphrodite was often depicted naked except for a pair of sandals. Height and colour remained clear indications of social class with strap and thong arrangements important to station. Generally Queens of the Nile were admired for their bejeweled footwear. The section of the sandal where toe thongs were attached was called 'nkh”. Many experts believe the Ankh (symbol for life) represents a flattened thong.
Greece was conquered in 146 BCE but Greek styles continued to influence Roman clothing. After the Bronze Age and the Etruscans (800 –264 BCE), the Romans stiffened their sandals with tacks to secure the sole to the upper. The more robust footwear was further strengthened with hobnails (or clavata). These were adapted by the army and Caligula was worn by all ranks up to and including, centurions. Foot soldiers could travel greater distances which is one credible reason why the Roman Empire grew so big. The margins were so far apart from the capital supply from Mother Rome was impractical and local craftsmen were trained in the art of Roman sandal making. Provincial footwear styles, like Galoshes from Gaul were adapted. Many styles of footwear were developed and shoes with a tongue (linula) were restricted to free citizens of Rome.
After the fall of the Roman Empire sandal making was almost lost to Europe and kept alive only with pockets of craftsmen scattered on the perimeters of the old Empire. During the Middle Ages in Occidental Society sandals were rarely worn but during the 16c century they made an appearance as disguised orthopaedic sandals (Duckbills) around the time of Henry VIII. A century later as shoes became more ornate then the wooden sandals were modified as overshoes or pattens.
Sandals made a remarkable fashion comeback in the early 20th Century. The popularity of silent cinema ensured millions saw the new biblical epics from Hollywood. Keen to have authentic costume master shoe makers like Salvatore Ferragamo made thousands of sandals for the cast. The absence of actualhistorical examples meant designs were based on Victorian theatrical designs. Much were inaccurate but when more and more leading actresses wanted to wear their ‘biblical sandals’ off set, their fans were keen to be seen in the same trendy sandals. The trend increased as hemlines rose and feet became sexy.
By the talkies heeled sandals were synonymous with pin up girls. Heeled sandals did for women what the cowboy hat did for characterisation. At a glance you knew who was the Belle, and who was the Jezebel. Wartime shortages saw designers experiment with non-traditional materials coming up with many innovations including cork wedges and bikini sandals with plastic thongs. By the early fifties, the introduction of the stiletto meant no fashion conscious female foot could go without a pair of back less sandals exposing more foot flesh than had ever been seen. Thongs became the string bikini of the shoe world. Ferragamo introduced more innovation with the wedge heel and metal arch supports to allow heeled shoes to be made without toe caps. The Peekaboo style (or toe cleavage) was all the rage with the introduction of colourful nail varnish.
Examples of early Australian sandals are rare not least because few indigenous tribes were thought to wear them. Where examples do exist, (some tribes in the Northern Territory and adjoining desert country) these appear to be of similar style to New Stone Age sandals. Here are oval shaped interlinia slippers (Kurdaitcha) woven from emu feathers, human hair and blood. Worn by tribal executioners of the Arrernte people from Alice Springs. In Australia thongs are not indigenous nor were they given as prison issue to the early settlers. They are totally unsuited to the Bush or Goldfields, and unlikely to have been attractive to a barefoot culture which prevailed for decades. So where did they come from?
The 1956, the Melbourne Olympics were the first to be televised and the global village caught sight of the Japanese swimmers wearing getas (traditional sandals). John Cowie was a Hong Kong based shoe manufacturer who took advantage of the slip-on sandals and started to mass produce plastic thongs. In turn New Zealander, Maurice Yock took the idea to New Zealand and patented rubber thongs calling them Jandals (a combination of Japan and Sandal) in 1957. New Zealand sales rocketed and soon Australians wanted to wear the casual sandals they thought they had seen on the Melbourne Olympics. The normal construction of the plastic thong usually has the thong attachment riveted to the plastic base and this is called a 'single plugger' thong. Due to a fault in the production a double rivet was made and the thongs were christened "double pluggers."