A Brief History of the Humble Desert Boot

Posted by Crown Northampton on

Written by Will Varnham

Sartorial history is full of so-called classics and cornerstones. Garments or items which are certified as timeless imprints on the fashion spectrum, still as relevant now as they ever were. But what factors contribute to putting these pieces on the podium? Is it an everlasting design, historical relevance, adoption by sub-cultural movements, celebrity endorsement? Well, cards on the table, it’s probably a combination of all these ingredients which create the recipe for a classic. In addition, it’s worth noting that the practical application and functional aspect of the item also plays an integral role, and may even be the reason for its inception in the first place. 

So, what does any of this matter and why are we talking about it? Well, in an era of mass production, fast fashion and throwaway culture where we can be quickly overwhelmed by a continuous onslaught of content, marketing and ad campaigns, it’s important to take a step back. Arguably, there’s been no better time to re-visit the classics. After all, they’re labelled as such for a reason. So rather than being drawn into the passing trends and fashion fads of the year, it’s worth investing in a healthy dose of history and recognising that a time honored silhouette has the longevity you didn’t know you were looking for. 

Crown Northampton Woodford Desert boot

Crown Northampton has been in the business of handcrafted footwear for a long time. “Since before you were born” as my old man would say. Well, since 1908 to be exact. You’d be forgiven for thinking that things have drastically changed since before the First World War, but in the context of Crown, it’s remained remarkably consistent and unaltered. Still handmade and still in Northampton, Crown have pioneered a refined artisanal approach to offering contemporary, yet classic, mens footwear. Now we could talk about the history of Crown and the Woodford family all day long, but we’re going to focus on the namesake footwear which continues to be a jewel in the Crown offering: the Woodford Desert Boot.  

Crown Northampton Woodford Desert boot

In the context of British style, you’d be hard pressed to find a more iconic and more reocngisable footwear silhouette than the humble desert boot. From its wartime origins and military service to its adoption by Mods during the post-war years, the Desert Boot is an undisputed classic. Its Twentieth Century history may seem paradoxical and at odds with itself, but the DNA of the desert boot proves otherwise. Still just as relevant today on the streets of London as it was on the battlefields of North Africa, it is a true British icon which is recognised the world-over. So let's take a closer look to see how it came to be. 

Crown Northampton Woodford Desert boot

The Desert Boot’s DNA lies with the humble ‘Chukka Boot’ which is defined as an ankle height boot with suede or leather uppers and open lacing of two or three pairs of eyelets. A style which dates back decades, the Chukka Boot is modest yet mighty. Easy to wear due to it’s small number of lace holes, shallow height and soft supple leather, it remains a popular style in contemporary menswear and for good reason. The boot that’s not really a boot, it can be dressed up or dressed down, the definition of smart casual in the footwear world. It is said to have its origins in India amongst British Army units who played polo and wore a derivative of the Jodhpur boot during downtime after matches. The name also supports this origin story, with similarities to the seven and a half minute playing period knonw as a ‘Chukker’ or Chukka, which is taken from the Hindi word ‘chukkar’ meaning circle or turn.

But when did the distinction between the Chukka and Desert Boot arise? Well, it was the Western Desert campaigns of World War Two - fought by the British Army in Eygypt, Libya and Tunisia - that really cemented the footwear’s namesake. From the battlefields of El Alamein and Tobruk to the banks of the Nile and the bazaars of Cairo, the Desert Boot became the choice of footwear for a rag tag bunch of Desert Rats. Due to the arid and hot conditions of North Africa, a more traditional military boot made from a thicker leather with a heavy sole wouldn’t have been suitable to fighting a sustained campaign on foot, so his majesty’s troops would adapt and overcome. Many Eight Army officers would visit the bazaars of Cairo and purchase rough suede boots with a crepe sole in order to fight the desert terrain and heat, which were reminiscent of the chukka boots they may have seen during their pre-war service in India. But  these desert boots, as they came to be known, actually had their origins in South Africa. 

Known as ‘veldskoene’, these boots were originally imported to Egypt from South Africa and shortly after Cairo cobblers were commissioned by South African soldiers to make them an even better version of these lightweight grippy ankle high boots. This led to the creation of the modern Desert Boot, distinguished from its cousin the Chukka Boot by its now-iconic crepe sole and ‘rough out’ upper. The veldskoene were originally a popular footwear choice in South Africa due to their hard wearing properties and simplistic design, worn by everyone from military men to farmers, safer guides and students. The name itself comes from Afrikaans for ‘skin’, ‘field’ and ‘shoes’ and it's said that they were first manufactured by Dutch Settlers as early as the seventeenth century. 

Crown Northampton Woodford Desert boot

Throughout the war in the desert and the Middle East, the hastily adopted Desert Boot became a firm favourite with British Troops. Quickly identified as a more suitable alternative for the environment at hand and readily available via local merchants, the rest as they say, is history. Not only were the boots preferential during battle, but they could also be seen worn off-duty and while taking R&R away from the front lines. Due to the practicality of the Desert Boot and its ease of use, it made perfect sense for them to be utilized for all walks of life. It was this factor that earned the Desert Boot its place in British sartorial style, as many troops would take their trusty boots home with them and back into civilian life. 

During the post-war years, the Desert Boot also rose to popularity across the Atlantic in America and as far afield as Australia. According to John Berendt, former Editor of Esquire, another distinction of the Desert Boot which lent itself to civilian dressing and everyday comfort was that the uppers were turned outward like a flange and sewn directly to the sole (known as ‘stitchdown’ construction), rather than being turned under foot. As time passed, the Desert Boot came to be worn by the likes of everyone from college dropouts and ‘beatniks’ to Steve McQueen and Bob Dylan. Alex Belth notes that “in an era before sneakers were acceptable as casual shoes, the crepe-sole boots were dressed-down, no-frills footwear that retained not just a British but an international appeal”. 

Crown Northampton Woodford Desert boot

In the 1960’s this point of view was solidified further when the Desert Boot was adopted by British mods, paired with a sharply tailored suit, US Army fishtail parka and Vespa or Lambretta scooter. Bands like The Jam and the Beatles even donned the Desert Boot at the height of their popularity, promoting it to the footwear hall of fame. Jonathan Wells supports this and aptly summarises that “these crepe-soled, suede-uppered stalwarts of your shoe collection are one of the simplest, most reliable and effective examples of footwear ever designed”. 

Crown Northampton Woodford Desert boot

True to its original blueprint, the Woodford Desert Boot from Crown retains all the hallmarks of the original. From its iconic two eyelet design and natural crepe sole to its stitch down construction and unlined interior. For added comfort, the footbed is traditionally half-lined with natural leather and a soft, cushioned heal pad. And while you may not be trudging through the Sahara or clambering inside an M3 Grant tank, the Woodford offers comfort and durability in equal measure. Entirely made in England by artisan shoemakers in Northampton, the Woodford is available in a Kudu suede from Charles F. Stead tannery, as well as a chromoxcel from the world famous Horween tannery in Chicago, Illinois. So pick your poison as the saying goes, and invest in a legacy-grade pair of boots with an unrivaled heritage and history.

More of Will's work can be found over on his personal website 

View the full Crown Northampton Stitchdown Collection here.

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