By Nisha Khater
From humble roots as a 15th century Japanese sock style to its presence today as the focal point of many Margiela runway shows, the tabi has stood the test of time. The story of the tabi began in the 1600s, when it was common to wear the split-toe sock with traditional thonged sandals: the split toe was said to promote a clear mind and balance for the wearer. The style went on to be widely adopted throughout East Asia, and in the 1900s a rubber sole was added to create jika-tabi, the worker’s shoe which is still worn commonly today. So how did the tabi go from a worker’s shoe to a 30-year Margiela legacy shoe that captured the attention of the entire industry?
This is where the idea of the “uncanny valley” comes in. It is a graphed relationship between an item’s resemblance to a human and an individual’s emotional response to the item. As an item gets close to resembling human form, we start to like it more, until a sharp inflection point where a “valley” of negative affinity towards an item is formed. This explains our negative responses towards things like corpses, zombies, and prosthetics. Through the tabi, Martin Margiela played with this valley, creating “fleshy, cloven hooved” shoes that shocked, repulsed, or fascinated people (or all three all at once). As said by writer Arabelle Sicardi, “You might find them charming or you might find them pretentious. The thing is, you’re always in one of these categories. Tabi don’t compel apathy — they force you to feel, and it is rare that a garment can provoke these kinds of emotions.”