Removing one’s shoes before entering a home and putting on slippers is not a Czech custom alone. It’s a practice that takes place throughout the world for both religious and sanitary reasons—but the Czechs do seem to have a particular affinity for it.
Anyone who has ever suffered the indignity of on an ill-fitting pair of faux Birkenstocks will relate to the social awkwardness that accompanies a home visit in the Czech Republic where the one-size-fits-all IKEA mule tends to render even the most stylish outfit utterly geriatric.
Resistance is futile. Insist on going sock-footed or, God help you, barefoot, your hosts will implore you to take the slippers so as not to get chilly feet which, naturally, could lead to your death of cold.
The issue of swift and certain death by draught (průvan) is another debate, but in terms of shoe removal the Czechs have got it right: according to a 2017 study by the University of Houston, shoes are a breeding ground for Clostridium difficile, a bacteria found in feces that can lead to colitis; removing them outside drastically reduces your chances of catching and spreading the disease.
Czechs do not limit their hygienically sensible—albeit fanatical—love of indoor footwear to the home. It’s common to see people sporting slippers at work or being asked to slip protective booties over your shoes on visits to the doctor’s office.
If you have children then you surely have a pile of those little plastic-soled corduroy-topped jobs that are a must in the classroom, although in recent years you can buy them in a variety of more fashionable orthopedically-sound designs that cost nearly as much as a regular pair of adult shoes and have become the status symbol of the školka set.
Czechs even have special classifications for their domácí obuv (house shoes): Bačkory (also called papuče) typically cocoon the entire foot and have a firm sole—these are what kids wear at school, while pantofle are slip-ons with a covered or open toe (tapky are a variety of pantofle but with a softer heel). Then there are důchodky, a woolly lined felt upper with a hard sole that has its origins in Moravian folk costumes and is primarily worn by senior citizens.
In all of the years I have been putting on slippers as a guest in Czech homes, I’ve always wondered about the history of the local slipper-shoe custom. A March 2017 essay from The Atlantic traces its presence in Russia, where the author was born, to the Ottoman Empire which brought Eastern habits to the European continent.
The article goes on to quote the curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, founded by a member of the Czech Bata shoe dynasty.
“By the 17th century, an increasing number of men are having portraits done of themselves in a kind of casual, domestic setting in their mules, their slippers,” explains Elizabeth Semmelhack, a curator of the museum. “By the 18th century, where intimacy and intimate gatherings become very much a part of social culture, you begin to see more pictures of women and their mules.”
Perhaps it’s this intimacy that throws many of us for a loop the first time we’re asked to remove our shoes and put on someone else’s! (If I’ve learned anything from living in this country it’s advisable to wear clean, hole-free, and matching socks at all times.)
In Russia, indoor slipper-shoes were abandoned after the 1917 revolution as a trapping of the leisure classes but made a comeback in Soviet homes “offering their owners comfort after a long day of building the Communist paradise.”
This is a fact my Czech husband confirms, recalling the muck that accompanied the construction of his and others family’s new high-rise paneláky during the glory days of the ČSSR when walking around the flat in shoes was an offense punishable by your mother’s wooden spoon.
Whatever their reason for doing it, it would seem that the Czech house slipper habit will keep you cozy and healthy no matter how dorky you feel wearing off-brand Birks and socks—though do keep in mind that German-invented Birkenstocks were originally intended to be worn indoors (with socks!) putting the Czechs yet another step ahead of the comfort game.
Here are an additional 8 Positive Czech Life Habits Every Expat Should Adopt.