Spelling power, style, function and innuendo, boots have meant much more than just walking. Reflecting traditions, politics, cultures, societies, mind-frames and gender roles, boots have been an integral part of modern fashion history. Mamta Badkar and Sohiny Das present the evolution, avatars, references, stereotypes and jargon of the most important staple in the shoe closet
Every day, an office going babu will have his shoes shined by his trusted ‘boot polish wallah’, seated on a railway platform or the pavement right outside the workplace doors. Tapping catchy beats with their brushes against wooden boxes and rhythmically calling out, “Paaliss, boot paaliss”! these footwear fixers will use their creams and lotions to moisturise chapping leather, exfoliate, brush and floss and create mirror-like surfaces, even on shoes which are singing their swan song. It is fascinating to watch the suited booted gentleman put one shod foot on the footrest first, then the other, and majestically survey his surroundings – a posture reminiscent of a post hunt portrait, like a Maharaja with his shikar.
How often do women have their boots polished that way? The ritual would probably invite lurid stares, comments, questioning looks and gasps. It’s more likely that the femme would take off one shoe, balancing on one foot while the job got done. The Indian woman’s subversive shikari pose has yet to find its way to mochis.
Women in boots have become almost pedestrian – Hunterwali Nadia, Madonna, Demi Moore and fashion snapshots featuring many a supermodel come to mind. These pop culture images mostly depict female sexual power triumphing over the male, with strong hints of bondage. Whether songs, movies, runways, this is a recurring theme. Interesting that women create impressions by their choice of footwear. High heels project a certain attitude while flats project something else. Round toes, pointed toes, the frumpy/sexy quotient.
No one needs delectable suede fringed Boho booties in the Indian summer, or even the adorable mock Uggs, yet many seem more than willing to sweat it out. Feminine feet die a thousand bloody deaths in those sexy needle-points, yet women are happy martyrs to fashion. And those Doc Martens, they spell nonconformist, feminist, arty. Who needs to pick just one when they can all be had? There really is a boot for every personality. Or is it every mood? And how have we arrived at these conclusions and stereotypes? History has played as much a part as psychology. Unlike the booted babus though, we can shine our own shoes. We’re self-reliant, and that’s our real power.
Long before boots were made famous in titillating cabaret performances and can-can routines, indigenous communities were crafting their designs as a communal exercise, as signifiers of rank and just a way of sheltering them from their harsh environs.
- In the Canadian arctic, Inuit women would look to their land and resources to create kamiks that were essential to their survival but which also exhibited their artistry. Using caribou skin for insulation and white sealskin to keep out the wetness they created functional and aesthetic footwear. Patterns are shared at gatherings and the resulting boots are often exchanged as gifts. The complex and skilled process meant women artisans had a personal set of tools, some of which were buried with them.
- In Moravia, brides wear traditional black boots with intricate embroidery and accordion pleats under their ornate wedding costumes. Brides walk away with a customary gold coin in their boots, a practice that heralds prosperity. The laced-up boots have ornamentation that identifies wearers with a specific region and is also said to play a part in their dancing rituals.
- Sombha boots are common to Gangtok and the unique Indo-Tibetan markings and craftsmanship have been handed down over generations. Using jute cloth and buffalo hide, the shoe is usually stitched together and bears floral motifs. With an open back shaft, these boots are more reminiscent of slip-on shoes.
Boot moments in fashion history
- The first Martens: Dr Klaus Maertens created the first versions of the iconic Doc Martens in the late 1940s in Germany, using discarded rubber. Their comfort and durability propelled sales among housewives. The company was bought over by a British manufacturer and the name was anglicised to Dr Martens.
- Beatnik: In 1962, Yves Saint Laurent showcased his Beatnik collection – military inspired, featuring pea-coats and high boots – a predecessor to prêt-a-porter and the onset of post-couture.
- Go-go Mod: André Courrèges is arguably the creator of this style, first presenting it in his 1964 Moon Girl collection. The trend was huge in London, where Mary Quant designed her own versions.
- Punk: The storm of the 1970s continued into the ’80s. Vivienne Westwood took the street onto the high fashion platform -- literally, with platform boots fashioned out of PVC and leather.
- Grunge: Doc Martens returned in the early 1990s, this time first on the music scene. Kurt Cobain’s unkempt sexiness triggered off a mammoth trend, which comprised oversized flannel shirts, washed anti-fit jeans and boots. Marc Jacobs created one of the earliest designer grunge collections for Perry Ellis in 1992.
- Neo-Bohemia: Around 2004-05, the neo hippy trend took over global fashion. Gucci had a new Bohemian avatar, thanks to Frida Giannini. In Britain, Kate Moss and Sienna Miller had a massive fan following of their slouchy cowboy boots and hippy dressing.
- Androgyny: Gender bender dressing balancing the yin and yang, with masculine and feminine fashion elements harmonising to beat the ‘for him/ for her’ tags. Jeans, slouchy shirts and unisex boots, with or without a semi-platform heel. Most designers at present are romancing the return of this trend.
Shape, occasion and use have created numerous styles and categories of boots.
- Waders: Thigh-high waterproof boots designed for anglers, these are usually made of rubber. Sometimes they go waist high, taking the form of a trouser-boot combination. Popular in Japan and Russia, they are part of essential flood gear during heavy monsoons.
- Kinky: These ‘fantastic’ forms come with mainly one objective – titillation. Whether knee or thigh high, pointy or round toed, made of leather, PVC or any other material, the common characteristic is the heel. Unusually high, they form an integral part of fetish clothing. The lace-up versions are also called ‘corset’ boots. The ‘kink’ comes from the teetering daintiness that these induce in the wearer, heightening (all pun intended) ‘power play’.
- Go-go: Calf, knee or just above knee high, this low heeled, simple style kicked up a storm around the mid-1960s. Stemming from the slang version of ‘go’ (meaning all the rage), these boots were embraced by fashion and popular culture alike. The most popular colour was white – quintessential ’60s mod. Think Twiggy and Nancy Sinatra.
- Wedgies: These are boots with a wedge heel – a streamlined version of the platform heel. Medium or high, they are a good blend of fashion and comfort.
- Cowboy: Originally a riding boot and now a fashion staple, these come in two basic versions – western and roper. The western has a tall boot shaft and an angled heel, mostly with a pointed toe. The roper has a more square, lower heel, with a rounded or square toe. In addition to cowhide, the fashion runways continue to dish out more ‘exotic’ skins such as alligator, python and lizard.
- Chelsea: Also known as ‘dealer boots’, they are modern versions of Victorian riding boots. Tight and ankle high, it is set apart by a toe to heel elastic siding. A rage in the 1960s and popularised by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, these originally men’s boots gave rise to women’s versions too.
- Riding: An equestrian essential, this style is a broad category by itself. Calf or knee high and created from cow or buffalo hide, these have a regal heritage. Under the British Raj, the Jodhpur, came into existence, for hunting on horseback or playing polo, mostly worn with the Jodhpur style of trousers – for men and women.
- Hessian: Popularised in the 18th century military context, the low heeled, partly pointed, tassled style inspired the rise of the cowboy boot and the Wellington.
- Wellington: Nicknamed the ‘wellie’ or ‘gumboot’ this waterproof style obtained its name from the first Duke of Wellington, who popularised it. The term ‘gumboot’ originated from gum (rubber), the prime manufacturing ingredient. Teenagers are often seen sporting bubblegum shade ‘wellies’ during the monsoons.
- Combat: These are military boots worn during combat. Keeping in mind the adverse conditions that soldiers need to face, this style is designed to combine protection, ankle stability, optimal friction, grip and comfort. Their fashion derivations have been major parts of Goth, punk, grunge and heavy metal.
- Doc Martens: This style is named after the brand that created it – Dr Martens, colloquially called ‘Docs’. First designed during World War II the style was popularised again during the 1970s punk movement, and then again during the 1990s grunge movement. Thick soled and laced up, the style, with its unisex appeal, strongly spells androgyny.
- Ugg: This sheepskin, flat style comprises an inner lining of wool. Long popular in the Arctic, their demand increased during the World Wars, due to military requirement in cold regions. The term ‘ugg’ originated in Australia, among sheep shearers. In the early 2000s, the style rocketed to the top of the fashion list and celebrities were quoted saying, “My Uggs – they’re to hug!”
What does your boot say about you?
- Party: The quintessential Mod girl wears her favourite pair of chic go-gos, with a short shift. It is the season of New Mod, so go ahead and take inspiration, but do not clone Twiggy or Mary Quant. Drainpipe trousers with metallic high heeled booties and a subtly revealing top spell classy glamour, perfect for a night out.
- Tarty: Thigh high boots with a pleated mini and fishnet stockings can be tricky, tricky, tricky. Raunchy schoolgirl needs to be spanked! Corset/ boob tube, miniskirt and boots spell doom. Screaming ‘pick me up’ will lead to just that.
- Arty: Calf high wedgies with a longish skirt and a deconstructed shirt, or a quirkily detailed dress, teamed with some statement non-bling jewellery portray an intellectual edge and an art-inclined personality.
- Flirty: Brightly coloured Wellingtons with a white summer dress spell chic and fun. These printed shoes add a vibrant hue to the drab monsoons and also reflect the lighter side of your personality. Almost makes us want to strike up a conversation with you.
- Bohemian: Think Kate Hudson or Kate Moss. Moss, along with Sienna Miller, created a zillion clones of their famous Boho-chic look in the early to mid-2000s. Slouchy tops and skirts (sometimes skinny denims), teamed with cowboy boots and long beads/chains were carried to perfection.
- Alternative/subversive: Gothic motorcycle boots, Doc Martens and combats have been parts of many a fashion movement, with their ‘alternative’ aesthetics. Almost a protest against pretty, these speak of the dark underlayer to your personality, a sense of adventure and an anti-mainstream appeal.
- Kinky: PVC platform boots or thigh high lace-up styles with needle point heels and toes say, ‘Naughty, naughty!’ While these can conjure visions of many an adult fantasy, they require a certain sensibility to carry off with élan.
- Wannabe: Blindly aping your favourite celebrity without consideration for your own physical suitability can result in disaster. Pink zip-up velour tank jacket, pink pleated cheerleader skirt and Ugg boots became an anthem ever since Paris Hilton was seen wearing them. In India, Urmila Matondkar had caused the ‘Rangeela boots’ trend in the 1990s. Shudder and be glad they are over, but what will come next?
Boots have made their mark in movies across different cultures and in entirely different contexts. Some of these movies, for better or a lot worse, wouldn’t be as memorable without the fashionable boot-print.
- No cinematic boot scene is nearly as iconic as the opening sequence of Pretty Woman. Julia Roberts primping herself as she slinks into her vinyl knee-length boots, fastens them with a pin and colours in a fading spot. “No one who holds her boot up with a safety pin should charge that much,” says Richard Gere’s character who spends the rest of the movie romancing the golden-hearted demi-monde.
- Cabaret singer Lola takes on a conformist and blinkered small town when she helps revive a shoe factory in Kinky Boots. Casting aside the prototype burgundy grandma boots, the feisty drag squirms, “Please, God tell me I have not inspired something burgundy…. Burgundy is the colour of hot water bottles! Red is the colour of sex and fear and danger and signs that say, Do Not Enter,” before issuing the caveat, “Look to the heel, the sex is in the heel.” Inspiring flashy red vinyl boots you can’t argue with.
- Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna was at its cringe-worthy best when Rani Mukerjee put on a risqué front, in suitably bawdy patent leather boots to seduce her husband while he had a party in full swing. The only ones more mortified than Rani – the audience.
- As a tramp in the 1925 silent film The Gold Rush, Charlie Chaplin goes to Alaska for the gold rush and ends up starving and falling in love. In the most poignant and unforgettable scene, he celebrates Thanksgiving dinner by boiling and carving his boot, eating the laces like they were spaghetti. The Licorice boots were made by the American Licorice Company in San Francisco.
- Michelle Pfeiffer accentuated her feline prowess in a catsuit complete with stiletto boots in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. Premiere, in its list of best and worst bat villains said, “Arguably the outstanding villain of the Tim Burton era, Michelle Pfeiffer’s deadly kitten with a whip brought sex to the normally neutered franchise. Her stitched-together, black patent leather costume, based on a sketch of Burton’s, remains the character’s most iconic look.”
- In the 1930’s India got its feminist silver-screen icon in the form of Fearless Nadia, champion of the meek who punched and kicked her way into the storyline with belts, whips and boots. In movies like Hunterwali she donned the ubiquitous mask of moonlighting heroes and boots androgynous enough to frighten off any Bollywood villain. Subversive Nadia occupied the Indian imagination in a way no sari clad desi heroine could.
Boots bear such magnitude in the public imagination that there have been songs written about them and videos that wouldn’t be the same sans their leather or vinyl presence.
- Cher’s 1989 hit If I Could Turn Back Time isn’t ostensibly a tribute to boots but the song probably wouldn’t have made a dent on the charts if it wasn’t for her outrageous look in the music video. Recorded on board the USS Missouri, the video sees Cher singing to a bunch of sailors while she’s clad in a gossamer fishnet body stocking, under a revealing black one-piece bathing suit and knee-length boots. The video was considered so controversial, it was banned by MTV and an edited version was released.
- Nancy Sinatra’s 1966 release These Boots are Made for Walkin brought her more success than any other song she ever released. Her rather clean video had her and a bunch of back-up dancers
in ’60s hair, sweater and shin-length boots. Lee Hazelwood who wrote the song reportedly asked her to sing it as a nubile teenager snubbing a 40- year-old. Jessica Simpson’s 2005 cover brought out the song’s tart potential. Her rendition came from the point of view of her The Dukes of Hazzard character Daisy Duke. She collaborated with Willie Nelson and pranced around in her red boots.
- Madonna’s risqué song and video about sexuality, oppression and a general response to the censure she received for her album Erotica inspired Human Nature. Cavorting around in a leather catsuit and bikini with stiletto boots, playfully spanking her Chihuahua and having her dance troupe tie her up, slink around and gyrate together, Madonna pushed prudish buttons again. The video directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino also inspired Fardeen Khan and Urmila Matondkar’s Kambakkht Ishq video.
- The ladies of Cuckoo County Jail were justifying their crimes against wayward boyfriends in cabaret outfits and boots, in Chicago’s Cell Block Tango. With dark silhouettes offset by prison bars and blood red light filters and scarves, the boots came to represent power play and dredged up stereotypical sinister associations. The visual metaphor isn’t lost on the audience, especially when the first murderess pushes her heel into her lover.
to Verve Magazine or buy the Verve issue on stands now!