When was the last time you were challenged by fashion? This is a question I asked myself, the first time I slid my foot into a Maison Margiela Tabi boot. Staring back at me was a shiny metallic pink shoe with a signature split between the big toe that forms a cloven-hoof silhouette. These boots live somewhere between mesmerizing and off-putting, and I felt challenged, to say the least. I don’t seem to be alone in this polarizing interpretation. Tabi boots have been dividing opinions since 1988 when Margiela sent the original Tabis down his very first runway. From runway to 2019 real life, they still massively divide opinions and often spark outrage. From disgust to admiration, the history of Tabis is legendary and complicated.
As I looked at the boots on myself, I couldn’t help but wonder…am I brave enough to pull off a Tabi?
The Tabi silhouette was made infamous by Margiela. It originated back in 15th century Japan when cotton first became accessible through trade with China. This lead to a larger production of socks, which in order to be worn with traditional thong sandals, was developed to have a split toe. As Tabi socks grew in popularity, Japan’s hierarchical structure called for differentiation in the colors. Different sock colors signified different social and class standings. Common people often wore traditional Indigo blue Tabis, while white was reserved for wedding and tea ceremonies. samurai were permitted to wear any color of the sock, besides purple and gold. And performers are said to have been the only wearers of patterned Tabi socks. Outside of Japan, the Tabi silhouette had failed to become popular until Martin Margiela’s seminal fashion show in 1988.
During Margiela’s first showing of the boot, he feared that the audience wouldn’t notice the signature cloven-hoof print. To draw attention to the shape, he doused the models in red paint before they entered the runway, leaving a trail of hoof-like footprints behind them. And thus, an iconic silhouette was reborn. Margiela returned to the Tabi boot in his following runway shows for monetary reasons. He told Geert Bruloot—the first buyer to every stock the Tabi boot—in the years that followed his debut collection, “there was no budget for a new form, [there was] no other choice than to continue with [the Tabi style].” Eventually, Margiela managed to make enough to produce new footwear, but he remained true to the Tabi. Rather than abandoning it, he pushed the concept further and began offering sneaker, sandals, and heel iterations of the iconic shape. At one point he even produced a Tabi shaped sole that attached to the feet by using packing tape alone.
Despite this complex history, many reactions to the boot seem to be somewhere along the lines of confusion, fear, and disgust. Although I consider myself well versed in fashion and often open to divisive stylistic choices, my initial reaction to the boot wasn’t dissimilar to the ones mentioned before. Perhaps it is the rarity of the silhouette in western culture, or maybe the almost animalistic design that gave me pause. Regardless, the Tabi confused me. From afar, it appears to be just like any other ankle boot, but up close it’s strange. But also, maybe beautiful? Underneath all my negative feelings towards the shoe is a part of myself that is captivated by them.
In a world centred around aesthetics, Tabi boots can be proof that sometimes what challenges us, is more important than what is simply ‘beautiful’. I realized, when I looked at myself wearing the Tabis, my negative feelings towards the boots weren’t directed towards the shoe itself. My feelings were a projection of how I feared others would see me. Sure, the silhouette is unusual, but perhaps people’s interpretations of the boot as being unsightly, unfeminine, or even downright ugly, are just a projection of fear of what is unfamiliar in our subconscious closets. To some, they might be a fashion taboo. But the Tabis are also sexy. It explores a part of the body that is rarely put on display in such a striking way. Martin Margiela created an iconic business and literal, footprint that was made to challenge the norms of dressing. Margiela’s Tabi design, begs the wearer to leave their own strange and unfamiliar cloven-hoof footprint on the world. So seldom does fashion really and truly celebrate the challenging, but Margiela’s everlasting boot might just be proof — that what is both cherished and despised too, is the most valuable fashion of all.
By: Shannon Homan
Photography by: Casey Tang
Set design by Shannon Homan
Shannon Homan is a third year Theatre and Dance and Government double major. Shannon enjoys gardening, styling shoots, and hanging out with as many cats as she possibly can. When she’s not hanging with furry friends, you can usually find her drooling over the latest Eckhaus Latta knitwear.