Saturday, 12 May 2012

Desert Boots

Welcome again to what we must all understand by now is an occasional blog.

OK. McQueen wore M-43 boots in The Great Escape. He wore playboy boots on plenty of occasions.

Desert boots. Clarks says they've "been worn by Hollywood legends like Steve McQueen". The operative word presumably being "like". I wondered once, briefly once, which "Hollywood legends like Steve McQueen" wore them.

Desert boots do have Steve McQueen style, though. Clarks especially of course knows they're the kind of thing you'd associate with Steve McQueen regardless of whether he wore them. They're close to the playboy style (which incidentally predates the desert boot). It's little wonder people think he wore them.

Ancient Romans wore practical, ankle-high laced leather boots. If you had some kind of machine to take you across 17th century Europe, say, you'd see similar things on the end of many commoners' legs. But don't lie, because I know perfectly well that you have no such machine. I'd be a fool to fall for that again. Anyway these commoners' boots, called startups, were the template for the first industrially manufactured work boots.

Schier Hyena Veldskoen

Somebody who seemed odd (that's a compliment far as I'm concerned) once posted a comment on this blog about the history of the desert boot. He said that the Hottentots, the native people of southwest Africa, wore similar things on the end of their legs. He mentioned veldskoen, southern African footwear that descends from the Hottentot design.

Veldskoen certainly look like desert boots. Rather, desert boots look like veldskoen. The huge Dutch East India Company made the first veldskoen in the 17th century. A company called Schier has made veldskoen in southwest Africa, in Namibia, since 1938. Eight tribesmen make 20 pairs of veldskoen by hand each afternoon in the Herbert Schier workshop. The footwear is vegetable dyed leather, mainly from culled antelope. Hyena is most traditional apparently, and it's also similar to the tobacco colour of our man's Bullitt boot.

Clarks Desert Boot in sand

Clarks began in a Somerset village in 1825, a tanning and wool stapling business run by a Quaker, Cyrus Clark. Three years later the business began to sell footwear, thanks to brother James Clark. He'd had the idea to make slippers from sheepskin off-cuts.

Nathan Clark, great-grandson of James, volunteered to help the goodies in the Spanish Civil War. He noticed the espadrilles – the light comfortable shoes with jute rope soles – that the local peasants wore.

Nathan served in World War II and went to Burma. He served with allied officers sent east when operations were over in the deserts of North Africa. Nathan noticed the practical, ankle-high boots these officers wore when they were off duty. They were made of rough suede, were light and comfortable with crepe soles. It'd started with the South African officers, who'd had replacements of their veldskoen made in a Cairo souk. Clark copied the design in good old Somerset and launched the result in Chicago in 1950. Most of Britain only became interested in them in the 1960s. (Nathan Clark died last year, aged 94.)

I've become something of a Clarks Desert Boot fundamentalist. I've put several colours on this blog but I now believe only in one. Clarks' website says its desert boot "now comes in a neutral sand shade". That's the colour, with the orange stitching, they've always sold. If you're afeared that they're too light, be not afeared. They're about the same shade as the "wolf" colour they sell by the time you've sprayed on protector and walked a few miles.

Perhaps the "cola" colour is still acceptable to me, especially as it's close to the Bullitt snuff colour. Hmm. I admit that I like the look of the "ebony vintage" leather ones too. Trickier than it looks, this fundamentalism lark.

The Schier boot looks great. If I ever get some money again, I'll try them. The Clarks boot is great. I love the crepe soles. Natural and sustainable. I love the whole boot. It's too much for a few people that Clarks makes its desert boot in Asia. These people usually give me the impression that the root problem is racism rather than any sound ethical consideration. It's also too much for a few that Clarks are relatively common, but it's rare to be that pathetic. Most of us understand that the Clarks Desert Boot is great: now you understand even more than most.