We’re gone talk about boots.
Not Doc Martens, or Timberlands, or Uggs. We’re going to talk about why boots are such a thing in the South, what kinds are appropriate, and how to style your boots correctly.
As a brief history lesson:
Before steel-toed boots were invented, workers used leather shoes or wooden clogs that often led to work-related injuries. Steel toed shoes didn’t come into popularity in manufacturing and construction fields until the early twentieth century. Before that, during the early Industrial Revolution in mostly Europe, workers often wore “sabots,” a style of wooden boot that protected feet from falling objects and sharp objects in the fields. The word “sabotage” might come from when laborers threw their sabots at gears in factories to stop production.
Cowboy boots in America were generally Western. I’m talking Mark Twain’s West, somewhere around the mid-1800s in America. European émigrés brought Wellington and Hessian boots to the American West, or something along those lines, which developed a taller riding-style boot primarily for ranchers that we recognize as distinct cowboy today. Samuel Lucchese and others developed manufacturing technology that made boots easier to make, and by the 1930s and 40s Western films gained popularity and increased the intricacy and design of colorful dress boots. Hand tooling, my personal favorite style of leather in boots, gained popularity around the same time as Gregory Peck and John Wayne. Floral designs and colored stitches, which are extremely impractical for the average worker, were also due to their influence. Round and square-toed boots with a Cuban heel might look absolutely dazzling but are largely impractical for riding or working. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to wear modern boots on the ice, but I can tell you my sore behind has. It doesn’t end well.
By the 1960s, boot wearers typically preferred styles of the original cowboys with less intricate designs and lower heels. During the 70s, pointed toe boots came into style, and I can’t help but attribute that to the tasseled and rhinestoned boots of honky-tonk performers. With Urban Cowboy in the 1980s, cowboy boots saw a transformation that they’re still reeling from.
Tenant farmers and poor laboring Southerners—my people—mostly went barefoot in fields or shared shoes with a relative, or perhaps wore leather or feedsack shoes like the ones in the photo above. That’s part of the reason, I think, why ringworm is ascribed as a Southern illness. Since ringworm is typically contracted by direct contact with soil, it makes sense that poor shoeless farmers would be primarily afflicted.
All this to say, I’m not a historian, but that’s a brief introduction to why boots are so relevant to Southern culture despite the fact that they didn’t originate in the South.
Here’s the most crucial bit of what you need to know about boots nowadays: Do not buy your boots on Broadway in Nashville or in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We’re about authenticity here, so I’ll let you in on a few tips handed down to me by my grandfather.
My grandfather, or Pawpaw, had beautiful legs. Smooth, hairless, feminine legs with even skin and a surprising lack of callouses for the amount of work he did. I inherited those legs. He even wore my shoe size.
After my Pawpaw had a stint put in his heart, he rode home from the hospital in my grandmother’s car. When she parked in their driveway, he walked straight out with his shirt still half unbuttoned over bandages and walked right over to the garden to use the rototiller on the red clay plot. In case you don’t know, rototillers shake the shit out of you. He was fine though, that tough sum’bitch, and I guarantee he was wearing his work boots.
Whether or not you choose steel-toed boots is up to you. I recommend them if you’re an ass whooper. Otherwise, regular farm boots should suffice. Currently, I wear Laredo Maddie Cowgirl boots in black, featured below. They have faint red stitching and hand tooled swirls, pointed toe, reasonable heel. Always shop a half size down because leather stretches after a few wears.
These boots are technically “dress” boots because of the flashy hand tooling. They’re not farm boots, but since I’m walking on asphalt I recommend heeled boots. It gives you leverage when you’re walking over broken sidewalks and tree roots. Previously, I’ve been an avid consumer of Mason Western and Acme Farm boots. Both of those I inherited from my grandfather, and they are your typical working farm boots—none of that flowery ass Nashville shit.
Here are a few rules about good boots:
- You get one pair a year. No more, no less.
- Retire them only after you’ve worn a hole in the sole like I did to the Acme boots in the featured image.
- Do not put a boot chain or scarf on your boot. You are not in a biker gang.
- Polish your boots one time every other season. You want them distressed, but not cracking or peeling.
The only accessories allowed are:
- One red, black, or American flag bandana tied around one boot.
- A set of perfectly tooled, short, SILVER toe tips.
- One set of spurs without blades because spurs with blades are illegal, believe me, I’ve googled it.
- None of these accessories can be worn at the same time.
Now that you know the basics about non-pretty boy boots, go pour yourself a glass of bourbon, slide on your Laredo, Mason Western, or Acmes and listen to some George Jones. Admire the boot. Store things in the space between the boot and your calf. Keep a ’45 underneath your coat and another one in your boot. Bless y’all.