The vivid hues of jellies can be a big part of the allure.

iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Introduction to How Jelly Shoes Worked

Injection-molded soft plastic footwear -- also known by sexier-sounding names like jelly shoes and jellies -- is made the world over, rising and falling in the fashion world at any given time. Many folks remember jellies from when they were growing up; some still don them today.

But jelly shoes got their start back in the '80s. The early products were usually made by a Brazilian company named Grendene, and were marketed and distributed in the United States by the Grendha Shoe Corporation for around $10 to $20 a pair. For such an inexpensive shoe, Grendha took design seriously: Jellies were restyled every six months or so to stay ahead of the competing companies. Four European designers were tasked with concocting the ongoing rollouts [source: Baker].

But a lock on soft plastic footwear can really only last so long. Nowadays, shoes made from plastic are manufactured by all sorts of companies in a wide range of styles sold at several different price points. They can be clear or colored, woven or solid, glittered or bejeweled, translucent or opaque. Jelly fans rave about the shoes because they're easy to clean, cheap to manufacture and comfortable to wear (although there are others who would beg to differ on that last point). And while most jellies are cheap to make, it's important to note the price can be quite steep for those marketed to high-end consumers and made by companies better known for their fine footwear.

On the next page, we'll take a closer look at how jelly shoes leaped off the assembly line and onto shoe store shelves the world over.

Jellies were very durable, but if or when they did wear out, they were also cheap to replace. This made them a big hit with '80s moms.

Tim Hawley/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

The Origins of Jelly Shoes

So how did clear plastic shoes from Brazil become mainstream American fashion? While it's not entirely clear when or where jelly shoes were first invented, their game-changing debut in the United States took place at the 1982 Knoxville World's Fair. The following February, they really secured their spot in the annals of fashionable footwear at a shoe exposition in Chicago [sources: Moore, Baker].

Steering this push to the wider fashion world was the Preston Haag family. Preston Haag Sr., a former banker interested in a new career, was traveling across South America in 1981 searching for products he could arrange to export. Brazil was where he noticed jellies for the first time, and he quickly struck a distribution agreement with the company that manufactured them, Grendene, to sell the unique shoes in the United States under the amalgamated name: Grendha shoes.

The Preston Haag family's first order was for 24,000 pairs of shoes. Two years later, it was 3.5 million [source: Baker]. One important early customer was Bloomingdale's; Doris Johanson, an employee in charge of purchase decisions, ordered 2,400 pairs in nine styles at the Chicago shoe convention. The shoes were sold both on the Bloomingdale's sales floor and through the catalogue.

Others also noted the potential of jelly shoes, expanding the field of injection-molded soft plastic footwear and experimenting with different formulations. Next up -- how jelly shoes are made.

Toxic for Toes?

PVC is a highly controversial but widely used substance. In 2007, for example, close to 14.2 billion pounds (6.4 billion kilograms) were consumed by the United States and Canadian markets [source: American Chemistry Council]. It retains this materials monopoly, despite being cited by many critics as harmful to human health, although a solid link between normal consumer usage and tangible ill effects has yet to be proven conclusively; industry reps deny such claims [sources: EPA, Kassir, The European Council of Vinyl Makers].

The Making of Jelly Shoes

Jelly shoes are made from various plasticized materials, the most common of which is PVC. PVC, which stands for polyvinyl chloride, has many potential formulations and can be both rigid and flexible. It's relatively cheap to make, and products made from it tend to be long lasting and low maintenance.

Making jelly shoes is a pretty straightforward process. At Grendene, for example, machinists use CNC machines (that stands for computer numerical control) to shape the molds for their various brands. The jellies are then formed through the process of injection molding; PVC resin, along with lots of additives to adjust the shoes' rigidity, texture, color and other physical characteristics, is forced into the molds to take shape. Researching which additive combinations work best is a big part of their process -- they've currently concocted more than 70 different formulations for PVC [source: Grendene]. Some even incorporate recycled PVC [source: Michault].

Lots of other products are made from PVC, too. It's used heavily for construction, automotive, agricultural, medical, electronic and packaging purposes. It can also be found in consumer goods ranging from garden hoses to sporting goods and kitchen appliances to kids toys.

On the next page, we'll examine the journey jellies have made through the do's and don'ts lists of fashion magazines over the years.

Jellies are still sold today; they make a great beach shoe.

Martine Mouchy/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

The Rise and Fall of Jelly Shoes

Since the early 1980s, jelly shoes have ridden the fashion rollercoaster steadily. And although they are, perhaps, best associated with the '80s, they definitely still appeal to today's consumers. There was a surge of new or slightly more grownup buyers in the mid '90s, and another in the mid '00s. In 2006, Grendene manufactured some 131 million pairs [source: Grendha].

In the world of injection-molded soft plastic footwear, there are now also loads of shapes, so to revisit jellies, you don't have to pick the same styles of your youth. PVC ballet slippers, pumps, flats, thongs, boots and sandals abound. Some come with stylized straps, others sport bows, while still more are adorned with rhinestones and other sparkly accoutrements. For winter wear, jelly shoes can also be lined with warmer interior materials so feet don't freeze.

Jelly shoes can cost just a few dollars, or they can cost hundreds. Some designer pairs can even be found on models striding down runways. Critics of jelly shoes often contend the shoes are uncomfortable, especially when the weather heats up and people's feet start to sweat -- and stink. One fashion reviewer said the shoes are all right for kids, but cautioned adults against making such fashion foibles [source: Rickey]. Still, there will always be some who find the jelly trend fun, funky and functional -- an '80s throwback or a modern style statement.

Regardless of where you stand on the great spectrum of jelly-shoe adoration, one thing is certain: As a fad, they'll likely be back, time and again. So since PVC is so long-lasting, it doesn't hurt to hang onto an old pair. That way, the next time the fashion magazines start raving, you won't need to run out and buy a new pair.

Lots More Information

Sources

  • Baker, Steve. "Jelly Shoes Make Success Story." Ocala Star Banner. March 10, 1985. (Aug. 27, 2011) http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=uisaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=pg4EAAAAIBAJ&pg=4045,5922226
  • Booth, Moore. "Jammin' Jellies." LA Times. May 30, 2003. (Aug. 27, 2011) http://articles.latimes.com/2003/may/30/entertainment/et-moore30
  • Grendene Web site. (Aug. 27, 2011) http://www.grendene.com.br/www/index.aspx?language=1
  • Grendha Web site. (Aug. 27, 2011) http://www.grendhausa.com/
  • Jellies Shoes for Women. Jellies Shoes. (Aug. 27, 2011) http://www.jelliesshoes.org/tag/history-of-jelly-shoes
  • Kassir, Kari. "Is PVC Bad for Children? A Pediatrician Addresses the Controversy." MyFamilyDoctor.com. May 2010. (Aug. 27, 2011) http://familydoctormag.com/childrens-health/255-pvc-and-bisphenol-a-a-pediatrician-examines-the-evidence.html
  • Michault, Jessica. "The Reincarnation of the Jelly Show, With a Designer Flair. New York Times. Aug. 17, 2009. (Aug. 27, 2011) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/18/fashion/18iht-fshoes.html
  • Rickey, Melanie. "What a week it was for ... jelly shoes." The Independent. June 30, 1995. (Aug. 27, 2011) http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/what-a-week-it-was-for----jelly-shoes-1588991.html
  • Singer, Maya. "Rubber Soles: What Do You Think?" Style.com. April 24, 2009. (Aug. 27, 2011) http://www.style.com/stylefile/2009/04/rubber-soles-what-do-you-think/
  • "The Economic Benefits of Polyvinyl Chloride in the United States and Canada." American Chemistry Council. December 2008. (Aug. 27, 2011) http://www.pvc.org/upload/documents/The_Economics_of_PVC.pdf
  • The European Council of Vinyl Makers Web site. (Aug. 27, 2011) http://www.pvc.org/en/p/pvc-industry
  • "Vinyl chloride." EPA. (Aug. 27, 2011) http://www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/hlthef/vinylchl.html
  • "7 Super Jelly Shoes for Spring from Stuart Weitzman." iFashion Network. Spring 2010. (Aug. 27, 2011) http://www.ifashionnetwork.com/ifashion-designers/itrends/34-street-style/393-7-super-jelly-shoes-for-spring-from-stuart-weitzman