Think of your father, and the first pair of shoes that come to mind.
Grass-stained golf cleats. Crusty old mudders on the deck. Fraying, decaying Birkenstocks. Burgundy leather loafers, the slip-on kind, softened and flattened by the weight of so many workdays.
As kids you’d step inside and marvel at how cavernous they felt, like, How do a man’s feet get this big? How old are these things, anyway? How come he won’t get a new pair?
Let me tell you something: Your dad has gotten a new pair. All dads have, myself included — dress shoes, sport shoes, water shoes, cool shoes you thought you could pull off before realizing they were a terrible, shameful idea.
But they’re all unnecessary. Dads require but one single pair of all-purpose shoes — maybe two, if you count those old flip-flops by the back door. And once you find them, it’s like finding Cinderella’s slippers. Your search is over.
You’ve found your Dad Shoes. You may trot out your remaining years in peace.
We’re a tribe, us dads, all shod in the same lame footwear, shuffling from one responsibility to the next. Our Dad Shoes get us there in comfort — puffy white New Balances, waxy black Rockports, salt-stained Sperrys or rugged earth-tone Keens. We care not a whit for fashion’s latest tastes and trends, even when those trends accidentally double back our way. We care only for our gross, calloused Dad Feet.
On Father’s Day, we salute the men who raised us, who hoisted us up on their shoulders to show us a world we had never seen. Toiling down on the ground the whole time were the ugly old shoes that made it possible. In a way, they carried us, too.
• • •
My Dad Shoes are made by the hiking company Merrell. They’re Moab 2 Ventilators in "walnut," a chunky low-top boot of mesh, suede and rubber offering "out-of-the-box comfort" and "unmatched durability, stability and slip resistance." They go with everything, from denim to cargo shorts — the entire glorious spectrum of Dad Fashion. I wear them to work every day, and on weekends mow the lawn until they’re prickly with chiggers. They’ve been to Paris and Bonnaroo and the births of my children. I’m on my third pair. I might never buy anything else.
You’d be shocked how often I’ve met other dads wearing my Merrells. I see them at airports, hardware stores, family reunions, work assignments, preschool graduations — all the traditional dad habitats. Inevitably, that person has owned more than one pair. We’re like a stubborn, hairy cult.
"It is certainly one of our top sellers, and is one of the most popular hiking boots in the world," said Clark Matis, a former Olympic cross-country skier who co-founded Merrell in 1981. He described its target wearers as "experience seekers. They’re complex and interesting, thoughtful and soulful, always up for learning and do so by experiencing."
"Do they seem like Dad Shoes to you?" I asked.
"We of course have many dads who love these shoes, and many who say this is the only shoe they continue to purchase time and time again," Matis said. "But really, the shoe is meant for anyone looking to have a trail-ready shoe that can be worn daily."
Before he found his (my) Merrells, Ron Stoy spent a lifetime looking for shoes that fit his extra-wide feet.
"These, I put on, and it’s like, Oh my god," said Stoy, the owner of the Sound Exchange in Tampa and Pinellas Park. "It felt like I’d been wearing the shoes for six months or something. It’s one of the only pairs of shoes I ever put on that actually felt great immediately. They last forever."
That’s only half true. Merrells do wear out; I get a couple of years or so out of mine. But the thing about dads is, we can’t just throw our Dad Shoes away. Instead we push them down the line. Your old everyday shoes become your paint shoes, and your old paint shoes become your mud shoes.
"Once I get a new pair," Stoy said, "everybody gets shifted down one."
Stoy, it turns out, is not the only local record store owner who wears my shoes religiously. There’s also Doug Allen, the owner of Bananas Music in St. Petersburg, who is on at least his sixth or seventh pair. He buys them at Peltz.
"I need toe room at my age. There’s something you want to see in the paper," Allen said. "I can’t find anything better."
Maybe he’s on to something. Maybe all us dads are.
• • •
We are living in a golden age of Dad Shoes. Google it if you don’t believe me.
Here’s a recent headline from Men’s Health: "Dad Shoes Are The Latest Footwear Style Trend For Men."
And another from GQ: "The Coolest Sneakers to Buy Right Now Are Ones Your Dad Already Owns."
And this, from Vogue Paris — VOGUE PARIS, PEOPLE: "Dad Shoes: 13 On-Trend Normcore Sneakers."
"This is the men’s equivalent of the Mom Jean," said Shannon Adducci, fashion editor for Footwear News. "These fashion brands have taken this really dorky Dad Shoe concept and sort of subverted it, and now they’re telling us it’s cool. It’s certainly not, for the fashion brands, about comfort. But what I like is they’re telling us that comfort can be cool."
It’s part of a larger sneaker revolution across all realms of fashion, from Kanye West’s bulbous Yeezys to Adidas’ pearly-white Stan Smiths to Nike’s bland-is-bold Air Monarch IVs. Dior Homme’s calfskin-accented B22s retail for $970. Balenciaga’s cloggy Triple S trainers are $985. Louis Vuitton’s elephantine Archlights start at $1,090.
"It’s a trend that is really difficult to pull off for everyone," Adducci said. "And yet at the same time, dads have been wearing this shoe for decades. I still think of President Obama in his — I think he’s worn Asics and New Balances with his Dad Jeans."
Even my drab, utilitarian Merrells (sticker price: about $100) might someday get their moment. Comfort brands like Crocs and Birkenstock have collaborated with high fashion designers attracted in part to the ironic juxtaposition of their styles. Gucci sells a Timberland-like "leather and canvas high-top sneaker" for $1,250, and their pre-fall 2018 collection included a "hiking boot/dad shoe hybrid" that Adducci said she’ll be watching very closely.
Perhaps they just need a Hollywood push. A while back, I was watching American Sniper — a quintessential Dad Movie directed by America’s patron saint of dads, Clint Eastwood — when I noticed Bradley Cooper wearing Merrells, the shoes favored by real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Cooper has since been photographed wearing the shoes in real life.
I emailed Eastwood’s studio seeking input from Deborah Hopper, the costume designer on all his movies since 2000. A spokeswoman replied, saying they had just begun production on Eastwood’s next film, and Hopper might not be available.
But then she added something even better.
"I know Merrells are comfortable!" she wrote. "Clint wears them a lot during his shoots."
• • •
When you become a dad, your children usurp the mental territory you once devoted to self-image. You stop noticing the stains and stray threads, the crow’s feet and grays. The back cracks, the belly jiggles and the wardrobe stops evolving. You lack the time and wherewithal to bother pretending you’re still young and hip.
What you get in return — beyond the blessed joy and sanctity of fatherhood, yada yada yada — are horcruxes of paternity, possessions that become immutably and irrevocably yours, no questions asked from your family. This is Dad’s Chair. These are Dad’s Tools. That is Dad’s Mug.
And these are Dad’s Shoes. They clomp and smell and are always in the way. But they’re Dad’s. They hug his heels and swaddle his arches and make the world feel that much less confusing. They have earned that nesting spot by the ficus in the foyer.
My daughter, 5, believes we ought to wear our Dad Shoes with pride.
"You could make a club for all the people who are wearing the type of brand of shoes you have," she said. "Even girls!"
"Would you wear my shoes?" I asked.
"Uh ... hm-mm. Too black and gray."
I turned to my son, who at 16 months is a meticulous shoe sorter, and can and will fetch mine on command.
"What do you think of Daddy’s shoes?" I asked.
"Deh-deh tiew," he replied.
See, he gets it. He’s still in his first sneakers, puffy cream and navy Stride Rites. But we just got him a new pair one size up, royal blue Sauconys with marshmallowy soles — Dad Shoes-in-training, for sure.
They’re a little big now, but that’s fine. He’ll grow into them.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.