Mapping The Desert Boot’s Rise
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“I’m in love with my Clarks desert boots — ridiculously low maintenance and easy to kick off in airport security lines. They go with everything and you can beat the hell out of them and they just look better and better.” - Anthony Bourdain
Just a few ingredients: two pieces of suede, a leather footbed, and a short lace sewn on top of a soft rubber sole
Desert boots are cool. And blessed with staying power. They’re one of the few shoes, like a Chuck Taylor or Sperry Topsider, that make the rounds in every guy's wardrobe, at least for a time in their lives. Even if you've never had a pair of actual desert boots, chances are you own a pair of shoes influenced by the desert boot’s minimalistic, comfortable design. Not stiff and chunky like the platonic ideal of a service boot, but overwhelming soft, the boot’s construction is simple — two pieces of suede, a leather footbed, and a short lace sewn on top of a soft rubber sole, a sole that balls up and curls after hard wear, and feels gummy and flexible underfoot.
Especially in the relentless, sandy desert, their sole adapts to uneven terrain, and their unlined upper lets enough air through to give your feet reprieve from hot climates
Then when you discover the Desert Boot’s history, as a shoe worn by the badass British 8th Army at WWII’s North African front, it gives the style a greater sense of gravity. For a boot so comfortable and easy on the eyes, it’s hard to believe that its heritage is so functional. But in fact, Desert Boots are functional. Especially in the relentless, sandy desert, their sole adapts to uneven terrain, and their unlined upper lets enough air through to give your feet reprieve from hot climates. (Still, there’s a fun sense of disbelief here, like if you found out Navy SEALs wore Birkenstocks on their most grueling missions, or saw a blog post of why deep sea fishermen prefer to wear Air Jordans while hauling in their prized catches.)
In the brief history below, I’ll break down the Desert Boot’s past in four parts, noting places around the globe that have played the biggest roles in the boot’s creation and its rise as a go-to style for every man’s wardrobe.
Beginnings in Burma
They were comfortable, streamlined, good-looking boots built to withstand the unforgiving desert. Nathan Clark was sold.
In 1941, Nathan Clark went east as an officer in the Royal Army Service Corps to establish supply lines to English colonies. At his brother’s urging, he also acted as an intelligence operative for his family’s successful shoe business, C. & J. Clarke International Ltd. On the feet of 8th Army officers on leave from the North African front, Clark found what he imagined his brother wanted—ankle-high, crepe-soled suede boots custom made in Cairo’s Khan Al-Khalili bazaar, based on a South African walking shoe called the “Vellie.” They were comfortable, streamlined, good-looking boots built to withstand the unforgiving desert. Nathan Clark was sold.
Misfire in London
Nathan’s Brother, Bancroft, on the other hand, was not sold. He, along with the rest of the Clarks’ board, wrote the Desert Boot off, letting it languish as Nathan’s pet project. In Bancroft’s mind, the Desert Boot would never sell to Englishmen, and Clark’s had no place for it in their line, which consisted of more traditional, stiff black leather shoes. In 1949, determined to find the Desert Boot a market, Nathan went to the U.S. to see if American buyers would be receptive to his shoes.
Gold in Chicago
Throughout the 50’s, Desert Boots gained popularity within American subcultures and then spread to become a staple of post-war preppy style
Clark struck gold. Thanks in part to a piece by Oscar Schoeffler, fashion editor at Esquire, whom Clark met at the 1949 Chicago shoe fair, desert boots took off in the United States. Americans admired the boot for its suave “Britishness.” An affordable style that looked good in anything from jeans to a modern suit, that was also durable, comfy, and built unlined to keep your feet from getting sweaty. Throughout the 50’s, Desert Boots gained popularity within American subcultures, like the beatniks, and spread to become a staple of post-war prep style. Clarks mass produced them to keep up with demand. And finally, in the 60’s they returned to London, ironically admired for their dressed-down “Americanness.”
Back to London
The desert boot became a global icon of men's style, with shoemakers from all over the globe improving and adding their own touches
Mods, young Englishmen named for their modern dress and attitude, stomped London’s streets in hordes wearing Desert Boots. They tore through London on motor scooters, with Desert Boots on their feet, whose flexible, crepe rubber soles gave them better feeling on their bikes. Over the course of the decade, the style's popularity throughout Europe swelled, becoming a mainstay of casual dress and rebellious celebrity style. Steve McQueen, the Desert Boot's most iconic ambassador, wore a variation on the boot called the Playboy on and off the big screen, most memorably in his role as Bullitt. Throughout the remainder of the 20th century, the desert boot became a global icon of men's style, with shoemakers from all over the globe improving and adding their own touches to the original, WWII-era design. [H]