The Peculiar Pandemic Appeal of Fish Flip-Flops

Like tie-dye, roller skates, and the "strawberry dress," fish-shaped flip-flops have become an unexpected new shopping trend.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, United States
August 12, 2020, 11:00am
four pairs of feet posed in a circle while wearing coddies classic fish flip-flops
Photo courtesy Coddies

Within a few weeks of lockdowns in states nationwide, "isolation shopping" had convinced people to make "some weird choices," like a lamb-shaped cake mold or liquid latex or a $60 box of bulk cookie dough, as readers told VICE in March. As the pandemic has continued, so has boredom-driven shopping for people who still have the luxury of disposable income. On the practical end of the spectrum, sweatsuits gave way to "nap dresses" and the bike shorts revival; fitness equipment remains in high demand; and mask accessories and blue light glasses gain steam as lifestyles change.

But some isolation shopping remains downright silly. Some people are tie-dying everything. As a result of rising popularity on social media, roller skates are sold out worldwide, and TikTok specifically has catapulted designer Lirika Matoshi's $490 "strawberry dress" to such internet fame that it's been remade on Animal Crossing to dissuade people from buying knock-offs. Others, meanwhile, are reeling in fish flip-flops, novelty plastic shoes that make it look as though you've got your feet stuffed inside two whole fish, with your toes poking out of their floppy lips.

"Sandals, be gone," The Daily Beast's Laura Bradley heralded in late July. "This is the summer of 'Fish Flops.'" And indeed it is—across social media, people have been showing off their fish flip-flop purchases.

Several nondescript sellers on Amazon and Wish sell fish flip-flops, as VICE UK's Zing Tsjeng discovered earlier this year, but the most recognizable brand to sell them is Coddies, a novelty footwear company whose signature product is the "Fish Flip Flop." Those are available in multiple fish varieties, including classic orange goldfish and metallic silver mackerel. (Though Bradley and others use the phrase "fish flop" to refer to shoes like Coddies, Fish Flops is actually a different company that sells plush fish-shaped slippers, clogs, rain boots, and flip-flops printed with fish designs.)

Jack Bennet, a fish pun aficionado whose email signature reads "Flounder & Director," started Coddies in April 2018 inspired by the shoes he saw during a trip to Thailand. As a teenager, Bennet sold rare breeds of pet chickens, but he wanted to build a footwear brand that allowed people to express themselves. Now, Bennet describes Coddies as "fun, unique, and reel comfy—just what we need when stuck inside like sardines." (It's not all fish, by the way: The company also sells shoes shaped like bananas and cabbages.)

According to Bennet, who wasn't able to provide specific numbers, Coddies initially saw a dip in sales at the start of the pandemic, but interest has since risen. To Bennet, not only are Coddies comfortable and relaxed for house or garden use, but they might also boost people's moods. If you're going to wear slippers at home, why not make them silly?

"2020 hasn't been a great year to date and people are looking for something fun to brighten up the days of themselves and everyone around them," he said. "There aren't many people that won't smile when they see our shoes!"

That's exactly why graphic designer Jennifer Norwood bought a pair of fish flip-flops in early July. She was looking for slides to wear around the house when she "finally fell victim" to the Coddies ad she'd seen on Instagram a few times. "Yes, quarantine madness + cocktails + my impulse shopping tendencies certainly led to said purchase," Norwood said. "Their appeal is their absolute ridiculousness. They just make me laugh… I wear them around the house nearly everyday for my own entertainment. Though I would love an occasion to wear them elsewhere!"

It makes sense—given the global circumstances—for people's purchasing habits to have taken a weird turn. Humans need control, and the pandemic has effectively taken that away. "Research has shown that when control is taken away from us in one domain, we try to exert it in other domains," said Colleen Kirk, a New York Institute of Technology associate professor of marketing who focuses on the role of emotions and psychological ownership in consumer behavior. That can mean shopping.

"For example, if our usual outlets for socializing and having fun are unavailable to us, we might be inclined to purchase things that are more fun and frivolous than we might otherwise purchase," she said. "In addition to making us happy, these purchases give us an illusion of control in a world where we may not actually have much as much control as we are used to." Cue the tie-dye obsession and the strawberry dress and the fish flip-flops.

With a higher need for stimulation, young people are especially likely to be drawn to novelty items, Kirk said. Perhaps that's why so many of these silly shopping trends have their roots in TikTok, where 69 percent of users were between the ages of 13 and 24 as of March 2019. According to Kirk, novelty goods can function as a way to explore new products and experiences, and by trying something new, we can feel "competent and good about ourselves."

In April—when seemingly everyone was still whipping dalgona coffee, having PowerPoint parties, and baking bread—Vox's Terry Nguyen explored the "micro-trends" of quarantine. "…There’s a cultural quarantine hivemind developing on platforms like TikTok, Instagram Stories, and Zoom, allowing micro-trends to bloom and fade even faster than before," she wrote, concluding that the participatory, social nature of these trends help quell loneliness.

Though the specific trends have changed and even if many of us have cut down our number of weekly Zoom gatherings, the idea still holds true. When it comes to consumer trends during the pandemic, Kirk said, "Sharing such trends with others can enhance a sense of social connection and help reduce the psychological distance between us." Of course, people follow trends in non-pandemic times, but couple the increased need for connection with the pleasure rush of buying something new and silly, and the fact that many of us are still isolated, and it's no wonder that pandemic brain has driven us toward such weird new trends.

But you don't need an excuse to buy fish flip-flops; just keep calm and fish flop on.