The History of THE DESERT BOOT
The Worlds' Most Travelled Shoe
Some say the shoes maketh the man, and that does ring true. Certain work requires specific footwear and even more than the work, the environment has a large impact on the best shoes to wear. In the heat of a desert, you would think a lightweight shoe to keep your feet cool would be ideal. But Crocodile Dundee wouldn’t be caught dead in flip-flops. The heat may be high, but you need a rugged and dependable shoe to allow you to comfortably traverse the environment.
Chukka Above The Rest
After serving in WWII, both for patriotism and market research for his shoe company. Nathan Clark returned from Burma having witnessed a shoe worn by the military stationed there. This was the Chukka Boot, described as a Crepe-soled suede boot, these were worn as part of standard military uniform in the area. The boots were durable, tough and reliable.
Perfect for the harsh arid conditions found in the region. After hunting for the source of these boots, he followed the trail that led him to cobblers in Cairo, specifically the El-Khalili Bazaar. The boots had been commissioned by South African troops who felt standard issue military boots let them down in quality and durability.
They requested a design they were familiar with from South Africa, the Velle or Veldkoen, this translates literally as The Field Shoe. The Velle is of Dutch-South African design but has been around in variations since the 1700s. One could say that this style of boot is the Occam's Razor of boots, simple yet effective and the right choice for desert terrain. Lightweight suede offered durability and flexibility while remaining light enough not to boil the feet while the crepe sole provided excellent grip in the conditions.
Clark returned home with a thorough set of sketches for the boot as well as details regarding the use of them he had witnessed. However, The brother of Nathan, Bancroft Clark was unmoved by the designs. They were too simple and relaxed for Bancroft and his tastes, after all a British Gentleman must be the pinnacle of style and class.
The world began to take notice of the boot soon afterwards and had major recognition in Europe and the United State. Given the unique and out of the ordinary style and look, the boot began to creep into many different styles and cultural aspects. The British group known as the Mods (of Mods and Rockers fame) were particularly well known for utilising the boot as a part of their signature style.
But it wasn’t just larger cultural groups that became known for wearing or fans of the boot. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Steve McQueen to name a few, also took the boot as part of their look. The Desert boot also has featured in a James Bond film. Mr Bond does have impeccable style however.
Much like the Flat Cap worn in Britain for hundreds of years, the Desert Boot has many variations, styles and design twists that add a sense of variety to the otherwise simple boot. But the foundation of the boot was the same; durable, practical and comfortable, as well as being unisex. The distinctive look of the Desert Boot has lent itself to many people over the years, becoming synonymous with some even.
If The Shoe Fits
Alongside Clarks, a competitor had a similar idea to bring the Chukka boot to the western world. This incarnation was known as the Creeper. The Creeper shoe became popular with the Teddy Boys of the 1950s but was fundamentally the same design with one major difference. That difference was the thicker sole on the shoe, allowing it to more easily manage on harsh terrain. Unfortunately for Clarks, soldiers wearing the original Chukka boot decided to bring them home with them from deployment, and those soldiers amongst them who decided to indulge in the world’s oldest profession became known as ‘Brothel Creepers’.
It’s not surprising why Clarks wouldn’t be a fan of the shoe that inspired their desert Boot becoming synonymous with such sordid business, even if their shoes weren’t directly given the nickname. Guilty by association it seems. But the enduring legacy of the Desert Boot and its continued place in today’s footwear market means the Creepers cant have had too much of a detrimental effect on the reputation.
Built to Last
Despite being traditionally made from suede; the variations created a leather version that became equally as popular as the original. Well-made leather boots can last a lifetime if well maintained and looked after. Leather offers slight waterproofing as well as being easier to clean and if it is well tanned, very resistant to wear and tear.
The simple design of the Desert boot is not detrimental to the effectiveness of the final product. In fact, the simplicity is potentially why the Desert Boot has been so successful. The inoffensive design can be paired with many different aesthetics and can be worn by both men and women. This is one of the reasons the Desert Boot has been such a global success.
Steve McQueen made them look “cool” to the younger generation, the Beatles made them a fashionable choice for music lovers in Britain and Bob Dylan brought the desert boot into focus among those generations of people who didn’t partake in the entertainment mentioned prior.
The many individuals who have taken the Desert Boot as part of their style, or who have worn them in iconic ways, has helped to make it one of the few styles of footwear that has usage in both casual and smart wear. It doesn’t matter if you’re going to a formal reception, down the local for a pint or out into the wilderness to get away from the world for a while. The desert boot is designed for almost any situation and with modern advancements, can be a key aspect of your look. The phrase ‘they don’t make them like the used to’ doesn’t apply here, as the desert boot is just as useful and effective now as it was when Nathan Clark discovered the design in the East and brought them back to our little island. He saw potential in the Desert Boot outside of military usage, and he proved his belief correct. The Desert Boot may not be a British invention, but it was definitely popularised by the British.
But the British aren't the only ones who can lay claim to the Desert Boot, we can’t forget about the Chukka, Velle/Veldkoen. These are all the ostensively the same shoe yet have come from different places. The road of this incredible piece of footwear is a long and storied one, it’s no wonder that they have sold over ten million pairs in 100 different countries since Clarks launched them, have been called one of the 50 shoe designs that have changed the world and have been preserved in the British Design Museum, or that they have been dubbed “the world's most travelled shoe”. That alone should be enough endorsement to buy a pair for yourself.