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Why Are Shoelaces Still a Thing?

Is the future made of velcro?
February 6, 2015, 4:25pm

While everyone else bemoans the fact that it's 2015 and we still don't have hoverboards (although we're close), I'm not too miffed about it. The futuristic promise from Back to the Future II that I'm more disappointed wasn't fulfilled is more quotidian: the self-lacing shoes.

Nike is working on it, but I get the feeling it will be more of a novelty item than the new reality of daily footwear. There's no real self-lacing future in sight. It sucks. With all the incredible advancements of technology we've made, and our partiality towards convenience, why are we still bending over every day to strap shoes onto our feet using pieces of string? Have we really never come up with anything better than the shoelace?

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"Nothing else has really come along to replace them," said Ian Fieggen, the self-professed 'Dr. Shoelace,' who runs a shoelace information website and has developed a super-fast shoelace-tying method.

"There are a lot of really clever alternatives that I've seen but they've never really taken off," he told me. "They're kind of complex solutions to what's really a simple problem."

Fieggen pointed me to a few lace-tying alternatives he's stumbled on over the years, like a strap that tightens laces with a single tug or a magnetic clip that loops around the middle of the laces to pull them snug. But all of these "solutions" still use shoelaces to fasten the footwear; they just make them easier to tie up. Nothing seems to beat the old-fashioned shoelace.

And it is really, really old-fashioned. We've been using shoelaces in some form or another ever since we started wearing shoes, Ellen Goldstein, professor of Accessories Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, told me.

"Even if it was just lashing a piece of leather to your foot, shoelaces have always been there," Goldstein said.

The laces as we know them today started to come into use around the late 1700s, she said, though over the years we've tried many different kinds of fasteners on our shoes.

"Velcro, zippers, snaps, hook-and-eye, almost every kind of fastener that's been utilized on clothing has been tried on footwear," she said.

Zippers are common on boots and some fashion-forward shoes, according to Goldstein, but they don't come close to the ubiquity of shoelaces. Even velcro, which most people think of when conceiving an alternative to the bend-and-lace, has never really given shoelaces a run for their money. Part of this is because while velcro is an integrated part of the shoe, shoelaces are independent. If your laces break or get dirty, you can swap them out without having to buy a whole new pair of shoes. And while often overlooked, they even serve an aesthetic purpose, Goldstein said.

"We take laces for granted. Laces can not only be an integral part but also a fashion statement. You also can completely change the look of the shoe by adding different types of laces," she said.

Goldstein said shoelaces have also improved over the years to be sturdier, easier to lace, and look more stylish. And a study published in the Journal of Sports Science found shoelaces can even help prevent injuries in runners, when compared to a shoe that uses an elastic fastener.

Despite being some of the oldest fashion technology we have, shoelaces just can't be beat. I guess when you get it right the first time, there's no need to do it again, even if that means we have to keep lacing our shoes ourselves.