Your Favorite Childhood Jelly Shoes Are All Grown Up

The classic style suddenly feels high fashion.

Written by Kelsey Stewart
Originally Published: 
Jelly shoe trend
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The style set is known for an obsession with the cutting edge. They’re never late to trends and always sourcing fresh inspiration, be it from their social media feeds or print magazines. But in our reboot-laden culture of 2023, nostalgia reigns supreme: The fashion fiends of today are nodding to the past by championing ‘90s staples (like the slip dress ) and Y2K-esque pieces (see the triumphant returns of the micro-miniskirt). Though some of the throwback trends are a tad controversial (*cough* low-rise jeans *cough*), one blast from the past that appears to be embraced across the board? The jelly shoe trend. With luxury fashion houses like Gucci and Valentino sending takes on the PVC plastic classic down the runway, the present day version of the children’s footwear favorite is operating on a different tier than its previous incarnations.

Of course, though, there’s certainly still a strong association with jellies and kids’ shoes (for good reason: they’re lightweight, relatively affordable, comfy, and colorful), but instead of having to work against that notion, it may be a part of what fuels the trend. According to The RealReal’s Senior Fashion lead Noelle Sciacca, a desire to reach back into our past — both our past as individuals and our collective pop culture history — has inspired a new fondness for the shoe. Nostalgia has helped propel it all the way to the most influential runways in the industry.

“For many of us, they [jelly shoes] evoke the carefree and idyllic summer days of childhood,” says Sciacca. “Fashion houses are wise to offer pieces that recall pleasant memories and offer a sense of optimism [especially in today’s] world.”

The exact origins of the jelly shoe are not clear. Some claim a post-WWII leather shortage resulted in more designers experimenting with the production of plastic-based footwear in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Andrew Geller shoe company President Bert Geller earned a New York Times writeup in 1980, saying he’d seen them on blue collar workers in Greece and decided to rework the style and bring it to American markets, offering them in a variety of colors at Saks.

Others trace the style’s U.S. debut back to the the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, TN, where the shoe was introduced by Brazilian manufacturer Grendene. After American businessman Preston Haag Sr. noticed the shiny shoes being sported by many young women in Brazil, he got to work on a deal with Grendene to distribute them in North America, where plastic shoes hadn’t risen to mass popularity; the material was still more commonly associated with utility footwear. They started generating greater interest in 1983, when a buyer for Bloomingdale’s saw Haag’s product at a Chicago exhibition and ordered 2,400 pairs of the injection-molded shoes in nine different styles. After that spark by the highbrow brand the rest of the fashion world caught on, catalyzing the original ‘80s jelly shoe craze.

Because the style was so inexpensive, consumers could afford to purchase them in a multitude of hues. Though high-end designers took note on what was turning into the major footwear fad of the decade (with both Thierry Mugler and Jean Paul Gaultier releasing takes on the shoe), the low price point and funky colors made them a hit with the children and other young consumers.

Jellies have experienced several iterations of stylish shoe supremacy since, striking again in the ‘90s and the early ‘00s before coming back around now in 2023. The label perhaps best known for its association with the iconic shoe is the Grendene-manufactured Melissa. The beloved jelly accessories brand that had a huge hand in starting it all is well-known for its signature bubblegum scent and the rainbow of different color options in which the shoe is sold. Melissa has been on the market since 1979, right before the first big jellies boom. Melissa’s Head of Global Marketing, Graziele Toscan, acknowledges the nostalgia factor and references the 2000s as a “golden era” for Melissa — but ultimately she believes that reinvention is crucial to the longevity of the shoe style.

“It’s hard to say that it’s only about nostalgia on a specific trend,” says Toscan. “Melissa has been playing an important role in bringing current designs and major collaborations for jellies, and that has been key to making not only the brand, but also the styles resonate among consumers for that long.”

With the debut of their early aughts-inspired “Real Jelly” collection last year, the brand has sought to honor their Y2K heyday.

“We were definitely inspired by the comeback of the Y2K era, but also from our own Melissa history in those years,” says Toscan. “The first step was to look back on our collections and re-contextualize those styles. The colors from that era have also been a big source of inspiration, we’ve brought the Clueless pink to the collection, and even the nostalgic [iMac] Macintosh transparencies. We also brought back the heart shape, which is so Y2K but also played such an important role in Melissa’s designs of that era. Basically, the energy, joy, the music, and all vibrant aspects from the 2000s serve as background for the collection.”

And when it comes to styling the shoes, Sciacca takes an anything-goes approach. She feels that jellies can be elevated for more dressed-up occasions, but still fit right in as part of a casual beachy summer ensemble.

“The great thing about jellies is they are extremely versatile,” she says. “You can wear them with a flowy cotton dress to a summer event or on vacation with a swim top, button-down overshirt, and longline shorts.”

Whether jellies conjure up childhood memories of bouncing around in sparkly sandals at waterparks or the evocative bright synthetic looks that defined the ‘80s, there’s a sort of spirited and enduring joy about the squishy pops of color that ensures the shoes will continue to consistently come back into fashion. For anyone looking to walk on a little bit of sunshine this summer, see the edit of the best jellies on the market and how to style them below.

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