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Jammin' jellies

STYLE & CULTURE

From thongs to pumps, the plastic shoes are breaking the mold.

May 30, 2003|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

Like miniskirts and French manicures, they surge in popularity every few years. And so the squishy, candy-colored shoes that make you feel as if you are walking across a tray of Gummi Bears are back.

Although jellies are well known in their most popular incarnation -- the fisherman shape (with a round toe and T-strap that buckles on the side) -- there's a surprising range of styles to choose from this season.

Burberry's jelly thong sandal ($85 at Burberry) comes in several juicy shades, including red, blue and orange, with the signature check lining the foot bed.

Mail-order catalog Newport News offers a version that laces up the leg like a ballet slipper ($10).

Last fall, Melissa Shoes introduced a lace-up jelly sneaker, and interpretations of that popular style ($40 at melissastore.com) have even made their way to the discount stalls of L.A.'s Santee Alley.

For babies, the classic fisherman comes in red, white and blue for the Fourth of July ($6.50 at Old Navy).

But leave it to Barneys New York to take the jelly to a higher fashion plane. A sophisticated jelly pump by the Italian label Amaterasu -- complete with a trompe l'oeil bow on the toe -- costs $150. (A bar of metal is embedded in the arch for support.)

The injection-molded soft plastic footwear is produced all over the world. But who actually invented it is a matter of some debate. An Internet fan site devoted to jellies suggests that a shoe manufacturer in France first produced the shoes after World War II because of a shortage of leather.

But Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum, which is devoted to the history of footwear, puts the shoes' origins in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when plastic became a commonplace material and fashion designers began experimenting with it too.

Jellies, she says, "were more likely a product of experimentation with industrial materials than a response to deprivation."

Brazil-based Grendene Shoes claims to have introduced jelly shoes to the U.S. market during the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville, Tenn. Also known as "jelies" or "jelly beans," they were a fad in the mid-1980s, when they came in myriad forms, from flat-heeled thong sandals to booties, and could be purchased cheaply everywhere from department stores to drug stores.

Plastic shoes may last past Labor Day, says Barney's executive Lisa Park, who adds that high-end designers Christian Louboutin, Lanvin and Rochas are all offering clear shoes for fall.

In the meantime, the Amaterasu pump is appropriate for settings from the beach to the bar and beyond. Park says: "It's also the perfect rain shoe."

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