Ready For Those JelliesThe Shoe That Became Both Cheap Luxury and Status Symbol

Illustration by Briana Arrington-Dengoue

This article was published in Plastic Issue #91 | Summer 2021

Before fashion trends reach mainstream acceptance, they must go through the big internet gatekeeper: Tumblr. For more than a decade, I’ve watched the 14-year-old blogging platform have the final say about which fashion trends resurge and get thrust back into the spotlight. Sometimes, working in tandem with Twitter, Tumblr has a knack for foreseeing viral fads (like jersey dresses) years before they catch on elsewhere. “At its peak, Tumblr definitely impacted mainstream fashion. I can name so many different trends that got big on there, going as far back as OBEY snapbacks and Supreme,” Sharifa, a Black fashion archivist who blogs under the name Afirahs, says. “So many creatives got on Tumblr, sharing their ideas or outfits they would wear—a lot of people got inspired [by] that website.” There’s something significant about creatives having the power to transcend the high-fashion magazines that once determined and minted trends, especially because fashion media is often late to what’s already been circulating in communities they’re not paying attention to.

However, it’s ultimately disheartening to watch the young folks who popularize apparel being excluded from the very trends they helped start. Once a product goes mainstream and the price tag goes up, they’re no longer at the helm of the trend; they’re sidelined. Jellies, the transparent shoes that have spent decades shining on the floors of middle-school dances, exemplify this cycle. As a small child, I had a pair of fisherman jellies with flecks of glitter in them; they cost less than $10. After an adult would take them off of my flat little feet, the triangular tan lines I’d developed from spending long days in the sun would be exposed. My fisherman jellies are one of the only pairs of shoes I vividly remember from the earliest years of my childhood, and I’m sure I tried to stuff my feet into them even after I outgrew them. I wasn’t fully conscious of what other kids thought about my style or what it meant to be in—or out—of touch. But jellies aren’t just a part of my fashion history; our origin stories aren’t entirely dissimilar. No one really knows where we came from: I know I’m 26, my dad is a gust of wind that I’ve tried (and failed) to grasp, and I’ve always been leery about relying on genealogical websites to figure out where my ancestors lived, but, like with jellies, question marks still abound.

Official and self-designated fashion aficionados alike have differing opinions about the origin of jellies: Elizabeth Semmelhack, director and senior curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, says they first cropped up in the ’50s and ’60s, while in 2003 a fan site credited the French, post–World War I, with the start of the jelly. A 2014 Bustle article notes that the shoes became must-haves in the mid-1980s after Preston Haag Sr., a former bank president, traveled to South America in pursuit of the next big thing. Once he noticed young Brazilian women wearing cheap plastic shoes, he quickly struck a deal with Grendene, the manufacturer of the shoe, to distribute jellies in the United States. It wasn’t until a Chicago shoe exposition in February 1983 that jellies, manufactured by Grendha and priced between $10 and $20, were really noticed and took off during the summer months. A buyer for Bloomingdale’s was among the list of purchasers—placing an order for 2,400 pairs—and the jellies received red carpet treatment as far as store placement was concerned.

Grendha switched their styles twice a year to stay fresh, and famous designers Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier, Dorothee Bis, and Fiorucci ensured that they did. Jellies knockoffs, called “jelies” or “jelly beans,” were a hit and were sold in a variety of stores for about a dollar. They were relatively fashionable among tween girls during the ’90s but had fallen out of fashion by the 2000s. While the most recent wave of jelly adoration may have been in 2019, there was a southern preteen stepping out in the plastic sandals nearly 10 years before. “I got my first pair of jellies around 2010. I was definitely a Tumblr girl at the time, but what really made me want a pair [were] the badass, older ladies in my life who wore them,” former Tumblr blogger Nadia Kelly says. “I grew up surrounded by glamorous burlesque dancers and circus performers, and they each had a pair of glittery jelly flats…. I remember thinking they were the oddest, coolest, most unique shoes and that they went with anything, so I got a pair.” Kelly notes that the dancers in her life wore the shoes for comfort rather than for style, an apt reminder that comfort is too often overlooked by capitalist markets. People feel pressured to wear expensive high heels that cause blisters simply because we’re told it’s the thing to do. (Meanwhile, fuzzy UGG slides cost 100 bones.)

Jellies were once less than $40, but since their revival in 2019, they can be as expensive as $300. Jellies weren’t a phenomenon when Kelly was 12 and wearing them in a small suburb of Dallas, Texas. “Aside from those women who inspired me, the trend didn’t really catch on for my age group where I lived,” she says. “I was one of the only people, if not the only [one] of my friends wearing them…. I was an awkward 12-year-old—jelly flats and some Old Navy skinny jeans definitely didn’t make me the trendsetter.” But maybe they did. In the early 2010s, the “soft grunge” look, also known as “pastel grunge,” ruled Tumblr—not to be confused with the incredibly racist “cyber ghetto” trend that came later. It was a style of dress remembered for its reverence for early ’90s fashion. Think Courtney Love circa Hole—lots of black clothing, tossed hair, and combat boots—but with internet access and cell phones. The pastel influence came in and took some of the same pieces but dipped them in baby pink. It tacked on more elements from the late ’90s and early 2000s such as tennis skirts and brick Nokia phones.

The cover of the Plastic issue of Bitch magazine with the text "Get the magazine that started it all:"

Soft grunge also added jellies to the mix: Whether your feet were bare or covered in white socks with lace ruffles, anyone who was anyone had a pair of jellies in pink, white, or blue. I wouldn’t call Black girls’ take on pastel grunge “pastel” or “grunge.” Instead, we incorporated jellies and the styles of our youth.“From what I remember, everybody had a pair,” Sharifa says. “It was about 2013 or 2014 when the resurgence of them hit its peak. I remember being on vacation in Miami and [seeing] so many people with them on the beach.” Sharifa has become famous online for sharing carefully curated stills from throwback Black films and music videos, indirectly tracking and sometimes reinvigorating fashion trends. Her love for all things old-school led her to the jellies craze of 2013. “I definitely got my pair during the resurgence of jellies solely because of nostalgia,” she says. “I’m a nostalgia freak, and if I can get my hands on something that gives me that feeling, I definitely will.” She can’t recall exactly which social-media platform encouraged her to get a pair, but Sharifa says that Tumblr likely played a part.

Nostalgia is a driving force for many members of Generation Z and Generation Alpha. The world has been wrought with so much turmoil since we were born, from the shooting at Columbine High School and 9/11 to having a bigoted president for the past four years. It has been tough, and sometimes it feels like we have nothing but more anguish to look forward to. So we turn back in an attempt to make life a bit less daunting. That’s why we’re obsessed with talking about ’90s Doritos packaging and wearing jelly sandals. We’re trying to get back to a time when shit still sucked, but at least we weren’t constantly made aware of it. In 2015, I had a shelf filled with neon hair clips; striped, oversize shirts that were GUESS rip-offs; and crew socks. I particularly enjoyed wearing the large sports jerseys I found at my grandmother’s house. In 2016, a friend gave me the first pair of jellies—all white with a two-inch heel—that I’d had in nearly two decades. They were just a pinch too small, but I drew all over them with Prismacolor markers and Sharpie to make them my own—a strawberry here, a rainbow there. I may have worn them once.

Illustration by Briana Arrington-Dengoue

At the time, I juggled being employed and perpetually broke, but I had a signature style. I ate a lot of oatmeal, rice, and seaweed, but I was fly. When my outwardly glamorous but difficult lifestyle in New York City completely unraveled during the summer of 2016, I put the jellies in a box—along with a cracked hot pink iPhone and other reminders of my inability to fully grow up in the big city—put them on a sidewalk, and hopped on a plane to a city where I made further questionable, yet defining, decisions. I had no regrets—and no jellies. As the internet queens moved on, got “grown-up” jobs, and (some) logged out of their blogs for the last time, jellies shuffled from the front to the back of their closets. But we all know that fashion is cyclical, so they were bound to rally. Payless has died and come back to life a few times in recent years. The shoe store flailed in the digital era and first filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2017.

Jellies were once less than $40, but since their revival in 2019, they can be as expensive as $300.

Two years later, at the height of yet another jellies reemergence, it filed again, this time confirming that it would close all 2,100 of its brick-and-mortar locations across the United States and Puerto Rico. It was a sad day—Payless had been a hot spot for parents who balled on a budget and whose kids wanted all of the coolest kicks. The store’s end signified a shift of sorts: Discount spots where fashion babes could get a pair of jellies for $30 were moving aside for, or sharing space with, high-end brands such as Valentino, who were pushing studded plastic thong sandals for $425. Jellies have been luxe from the moment they were placed in Bloomingdale’s and world-famous designers were brought in to continually elevate their look. But why would a shoe marketed toward young girls and women with aching feet need to cost hundreds of dollars? I believe it’s because the rich want to be hip, but still inaccessible. As if to say, “Look! I’m like you, but honey, you’re not like me.” No matter how much the wealthy try to convince us of how absolutely ordinary they are, all it takes is a mid-COVID-19 pandemic getaway on a private island, or a snapshot of them in overpriced sandals to remind us that we’re not the same. C’est la vie—that is, until the revolution starts.

Today, more than 20 years after I got my first pair of jellies and five years after being gifted my second, I’m a mom and a wife. I’m much more adjusted than I was in my early 20s, but I’m just as stylish. I’m currently pregnant with my second child, and even though I’m working from home and not on my feet as much, I still regularly ask my husband to rub my swollen feet. Shoes that are uncomfortable are the absolute worst, but now that’s truer than ever. I hopped on Payless’s website (they miraculously bounced back from bankruptcy in 2020 and are solely focusing on e-commerce) in hopes of finding a cheap pair of jellies, but, alas, I had no luck. ASOS’s $28 jellies are out of stock, Melissa isn’t carrying any right now, and something in me won’t let me purchase a pair from Amazon. (I blame my soul.) I’ll find a cheap pair soon enough, though. Truthfully, there’s not really a jellies fixation right now. It’s probably because we’re all home, or at least we should be, and there’s no real need to follow trends. But I give it just a shake before the injection-molded shoes are back at it again, keeping us cozy and cute. Until then, let’s remember all of the good times we had with the world’s most exciting use of plastic.

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by Brooklyn White
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Brooklyn White is a groovy writer who currently shares commentary on society, beauty, and wellness. She enjoys sour gummy worms and art.