New York Apparel Peopling of New York, Spring 2015

New York Apparel


Footwear in New York

By Filipe David

Among the things that are subject to change for an arriving immigrant to New York, one crucial element is their shoes. Immigrants from all over the world arrive with different weather and cultural backgrounds, which may have previously affected the way they chose their footwear. When each individual arrives to their new environment, however, it is quite common that some of their shoe habits change, just as they may stay the same.

Japanese and Korean Traditions

An entryway typical in many Japanese and Korean homes.

In many respects, an immigrant’s cultural aspects that involve shoes differ between his or her past region and New York. Japanese and South Korean immigrants experience this phenomenon. In their original countries, it is common practice to leave their dirty, outside shoes at a designated area and switch into slippers before entering their home or the home of a stranger. Traditional homes are specifically designed to include an entryway, or a genkan as they say in Japan, to accommodate this practice. For any visitor in these countries, it is widely known as the polite thing to do and someone who does not partake in this practice is subject to a great loss of respect. This can be attributed to the great relationship that the Japanese and Koreans have with the floors of their home, highlighted by the fact that their typical furniture, such as tables, is set up close to the ground. As a result, they refuse to bring the dirt and germs gathered from their shoes onto their house’s floors. Furthermore, this is a practice that is taken even to public facilities like restaurants, where cubbies to place shoes are often found.

An example of this shoe practice typically found in Japanese and Korean restaurants can be seen in the following video:

It may be difficult to imagine for a New Yorker, but many Koreans and Japanese continue to follow this rule during their stay in New York. A Korean student studying full-time at Baruch College serves as an example to this. Whenever he enters his apartment, this Korean student continues to place his shoes near the door. Even though he has changed whereabouts, he still considers it rude if someone fails to remove their shoes in his apartment. This may just be out of habit and preference, however, since Western furniture that most Japanese and Korean expats adopt is not typically affiliated with being close to the ground. Native-born New Yorkers would find this Korean student’s practice to be peculiar. They typically disregard the filth on their shoes and walk around the floors of their homes without giving it a second thought. Most Korean and Japanese restaurant owners in New York have taken note of their new countrymen’s practices and have thus begun to disregard their country’s cultural traditions inside their public facilities. This choice to disregard the usage of outside shoes in their restaurants is most likely an attempt to provide convenience to their local clients and gain more business from them. However, more luxurious Japanese and Korean restaurants, like Yakiniku West in downtown Manhattan, have the capability to impose the practice of removing shoes at the door. This may be an attempt to maintain the traditions of their homeland in some regard and perhaps to provide Americans with an understanding of a certain aspect of Japanese and Korean culture.

Islamic Traditions

Mosque in Dubai.

Muslims have a similar custom in regards to shoes that can be added to their multiple other religious practices. However, where the Japanese and Koreans can’t use their shoes in side their homes and restaurants, followers of the Islamic faith can’t use their footwear inside their house of worship: the mosque. Their belief consists that they must present themselves to God, also known as Allah, in the cleanest manner possible during their daily prayers. The religion’s prophet, Muhammad, reiterates this through the words, “Cleanliness is the key to prayer.” As a result, there is a practice of removing of the dirtiest piece of clothing on the body prior to entering any mosque, which of course is the shoe. In order to accommodate the beliefs of Islam, mosques typically contain a shoe rack at the entrance where followers and visitors alike are asked place their footwear.

Mosque Pic

Cubbies in New York’s Masjid Ar Rahman.

In most cases, people continue to practice their religion when they come to New York and this holds true especially for Muslims. Mosques in New York, for the most part, contain a similar set up as other mosques in the world as a shoe rack is always placed near the main entrance. This is seen along W 27th street where a mosque known as Masjid Ar Rahman is located. At this mosque, Muslims from countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan can be found taking their shoes off at the entrance’s staircase. They would then place them inside shoe cubbies before going inside the house of worship for their daily prayer. By visiting Masjid Ar Rahman and other mosques in the city, it can be seen that this religious tradition has truly maintained itself for Muslims arriving in New York.

Climate’s Impact

Not only are immigrants coming from different cultures, but they are coming from different climates as well. The weather in New York can experience some polarities; in the winter, temperatures can reach below freezing and in the summer, temperatures can be unbearably hot. Because of this, two different types of immigrants must adapt their shoe habits to accommodate this differentiated type of weather.

Boots are typically seen during New York’s winter.

In Brazil, flip-flops are commonly used.

In warmer climates, people have the tendency to wear less on their feet. This is often the case for people from Latin American countries like Brazil, for instance. Brazilians often enjoyed their days in the homeland wearing light footwear like flip-flops and sandals. The weather conditions allowed them to remain comfortable without having to wear a heavy pair of shoes. The fact that Brazil is the third largest producer of flip-flops, where “the domestic market is the biggest share of the sector’s gains,” highlights their extensive use of the product. This is not the case for Brazilians that have made their way over to New York. In terms of temperature, the average yearly low of 64 °F found in Rio de Janeiro contrasts to the average yearly low of 27 °F found in New York. These low temperatures in New York are often accompanied by frequent snowfall as well. Thus, when the winter hits, Brazilian immigrants in New York are not going to be wearing the footwear they were accustomed to in the old country. Most will resort to wearing boots, just as other New Yorkers have chosen to wear during this time year. Galoshes are also commonly seen in the New York winter as well and are used to cover the dress shoes of New York’s business people. Ultimately, these pieces of footwear will enable people to keep feet warmer and withstand a step into a puddle or block of snow.

A boot that may be familiar to those in Siberia.

On the other hand, people that arrive from cooler climates have the tendency to be more conservative in the way they choose their footwear. Those who reside in the colder areas of Russia, like Siberia, provide an example of this. In these parts of Russia, people are accustomed to wearing fur boots and valenkis a boot widely used during the 19th and 20th centuries made of sheep wool (for more information on Russian attire click here). These two pieces of traditional footwear make walking on snow easier while keeping feet warmer than any other shoe would. For certain Russians, these boots are even necessary to prevent conditions like hypothermia in temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius below zero. Fur boots and valenkis wouldn’t be required on a warm, summer day in New York, for both climate reasons and fashion reasons. Temperatures in New York during the summer are significantly higher than those seen in Siberia, for instance. Also, trends in fashion during New York’s summer typically go against the usage of boats. Instead, those people who come from the colder parts of Russia may choose to wear a lighter piece of footwear like sandals and sneakers in Manhattan or flip-flops in the beach town of Coney Island.


Sneakers could be seen across all corners of New York.

Like these Russians, most other immigrants who come to New York, men in particular, end up assimilating into the very dominant sneaker culture of the region. Sneakers were developed in America and have been gradually gaining popularity since they were first invented. They can be seen everywhere, from the parks in Brooklyn to the streets of Manhattan. There are many reasons that explain their popularity, especially in New York. New York is any area where people, including immigrants, can work and gain a surplus of money after their expenses. Since there are more people with extra money, people are able to splurge on items like sneakers and cultivate their mass production. Also, it can be said that sneakers give out the impression of youth and “coolness”. Billboards across the city often associate a brand of sneaker to a celebrity like a famous athlete. People want to be like these celebrities and marketed to believe that wearing the same sneakers as them will help them achieve this goal. Furthermore, sneakers are often seen as the more comfortable piece of footwear, which makes walking the streets of New York much easier. Sneakers have become so popular that they have even been accepted in more formal settings in recent years. “This is particularly true in creative and web-based industries, where sneakers are part of the modern man’s uniform.” The traditional use of dress shoes in the workplace may soon be dwindling as a result of the sneaker’s rise to fame in today’s generation. Those immigrants who arrive to New York will surely witness the wide use of sneakers and may even be likely to wear them as well.

Abel, an immigrant from Portugal, serves as an example to this practice. For a great portion of his early childhood in Portugal, Abel never wore a sneaker. He was limited to only wearing a plain, non-athletic shoe bought from the local shoemaker. It was only at the age of 11, when he first came to America, that Abel was introduced to the rubber-soled sneakers. He recalls that the first sneakers he bought were from a brand named “Keds”. At school, he saw that most people his age were wearing sneakers and he decided that he needed a pair, in order to better assimilate with his new country. These “Keds” sneakers provided him with more athletic ability which would allow him to better participate in newfound American sports that require a lot of agile movements, like basketball. The success that the sneaker has found in the United States has recently made its way towards mainland Europe, possibly due to the intermingling between native people and returning migrants. Surely, this progress overseas goes to show how the American shoe culture has thrived in recent years.

Foreign Influences on New York’s Fashion

United Kingdom’s chukka boots.

Catalonia’s espadrilles.

In contrast to what was previously said, immigrants are not just adopting the footwear of their newfound land; they may also be impacting New York’s shoe culture through their own foreign footwear. Two examples of such foreign footwear that have become quite prominent in recent times are the chukka boots and espadrilles. A chukka boot is an open-laced boot made of leather that fully covers the ankle. They originated in the United Kingdom and were used by the British forces during World War II in North Africa. Its material was specifically used to help the soldiers better navigate through the desert terrain. Eventually, perhaps by means of British emigration, these chukka boots made their way to New York. However, they are not being used for combat but, instead, as a means of fashion. They are typically used by young men and are quite frequently seen throughout the city, mostly during the winter months. Another shoe that hit the New York harbor from another region was the espadrilles. These flat shoes are composed of cotton fabric and jute rope and were first made in the Pyrenees mountain region of Spain’s Catalonia. They have been used for a few hundred years and are traditionally viewed as a peasant shoe. This is not so much the case anymore as one luxury shoe store in New York could be found selling a pair of espadrilles at the price of $500. They are commonly used by both men and women in today’s New York, mostly for casual encounters and informal excursions. Through these two examples, it certainly can be said that New York’s shoe culture has had some foreign influences.

Gender Differences

It is also worth noting that there are strong gender differences in regards to footwear in New York. Men and women typically have contrasting opinions in this manner. For instance, the contemporary woman is more likely to own quite a few more pairs of shoes than a man would. Fashion and style play a huge importance in the lives of New Yorkers and, for many women, shoes are big a component of the way they dress. They must own a wide array of shoes that vary in both color and style in order to coordinate with the many other pieces of clothing they own. There are some that even stress that a shoe is the single most important piece of any outfit. Surely there are a few men who overindulge in regards to shoes, particularly sneakers, but they are certainly outnumbered by men who lean to be more conservative with their shoe expenses. On average, American men have the tendency to own less than half as any shoes than women. A men’s shorter list of shoes may consist of a few pairs fit for casual appearances and another few pairs for more formal outings like work and parties. The purchase of another pair is only often seen as necessary once the shoe becomes unusable or even irreparable by a local shoe repair shop.


It goes without saying that there are many ways in which people across the globe address their footwear. Cultural beliefs and weather conditions all provide light to this occurrence. In New York, it is quite easy to notice the different shoe cultures, such as in mosques, but there are also shoe practices that remain quite prominent among people, particularly with sneakers.


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