From sword-and-sandals to full metal jackets, our history books are packed with militaries flexing their muscles. A soldier’s uniform is a statement of power, unity, and identity, telling us who they are (and who they are not). So, what happens when clothing intended to display government authority is worn by a bunch of rebellious civvies? Our project, Lesser Known Voices: Curating Shoes in the Store, aims to tease out these hidden histories in our shoe collection at Leeds Discovery Centre.
Early in the project, we created a display tray for British military footwear from the 1800s. This includes leather cavalry boots, Artillery Volunteers riding boots and buckled court shoes. Where most of the older military footwear in our collection are dress shoes, this blog will focus on footwear designed for protection in the field – Combat Boots.
Combat boots evolved in style, material, rise and colour over the next 100 years. Whenever army regulation uniform is updated, out-of-service versions trickle down to us through surplus shops. The Black Leather Combat Boot adopted by the US Army in the mid-1950s resemble what you’d find on Leeds Briggate today. They were worn by men and women to protest the Vietnam War. They were also worn by activists from Black Power and Feminist movements across the US. Still, it was Britain’s youth subcultures that made combat boots the fashion item that they are today.
We have two pairs of Dr. Martens in our collection. These Classic 1460 DMs were bought in Bradford in 1998, but the style hasn’t changed since 1960 when the cherry-red eight-eyelet boot first arrived in the UK. Despite being patented in Germany in 1947, these boots became an iconic British shoe, in part because of their adoption by the Skinhead movement.
In the 1960s working-class youths rejected the spirit of peace and love spread by middle-class hippies. Instead, they adopted a sharp, militaristic style inspired by Mods and Jamaican Rudeboys living in London. Skinheads always had a close relationship with their shoes, which ranged from cherry-red Dr Martens to their dad’s NCB pit boots. These were nicknamed ‘bovver boots’, after particularly antisocial ‘bovver boys’ from Skinhead gangs. This hint of danger only added to the mischievous charm of these brands.
Today, Skinheads have a reputation for racism. Their steel toe boots have been reframed by the media as weapons for racial violence. Many were encouraged to hang up their Docs for good, tipping the balance further towards the far right. Exhibitions like the Museum of Youth Culture’s ‘Unity through Subculture’, held at Leeds Dock in 2017, celebrates stories of working-class neighbours of all races who found common ground through music and clothing.
In the mid-1970s the punk movement marched into town. In Leeds, alternative clothing could be bought from shops like X Clothes, Other Clothes, Boodle-Am and second-hand items from Kirkgate Market. A DIY ethic characterised the fashion of the era as clothing was ripped up and reformed into an explosion of styles. The tradition of polishing combat boots to a ‘military shine’, a key part of a soldier’s discipline training, was turned on its head as boots were painted, holes were punctured, and leather was deliberately scuffed or torn off.
Besides Dr Martens, US Jump Boots and British Army DMS boots (remembered fondly for triggering trench foot during the Falklands War) were punk staples.
Music had a huge effect on what young people wore. Leeds’ punk rock scene may not get as much attention as Manchester but Bands like Gang of Four, Mekons and the all-female Delta 5 shaped local style. Between 1977–1982 the F Club ran a hugely successful clubnight. Venues like the Duchess of York, Leeds Polytechnic (now Leeds Beckett) and Brannigan’s nightclub were hotspots for leather-clad men and women looking to break the rules. In these confined, sweaty spaces combat boots were often a necessity for protecting your toes and yourself.
While looking for evidence of the punk scene in Leeds we found a photo of a man (Dennis) with orange spiked hair and a British Army ‘woolly pully’ jumper in front of police. At the end of the ‘70s a far-right political party called the National Front (NF) led marches throughout England. Dennis was a gay Punk who moved from Glasgow to Leeds to attend anti-NF demonstrations. Groups like Bradford Gays Against Fascism were a big part of these demos.
Sexual freedom was always very Punk. For queer women however, their public image in the ‘70s was centred on masculinity. Male-female gender roles were still being performed in homosexual relationships, with lesbians expected to identify as either butch or femme. Fashion was a way to perform these identities, with the butch in men’s boots being an enduring stereotype.
We are lucky to have a wonderful example of customised DMs. The donor identified as a lesbian and wore these boots from 1998 – 2003. Just as Skinheads replaced their boot laces to show which football club they supported, these rainbow laces are a way to discreetly (or proudly) signal you were gay to those in the know.
For women and girls, finding army boots that fit was more difficult given that females were excluded from combat roles in the British Army until 2016. Military-style unisex boots like Dr. Martens and Monkey Boots were popular amongst those with smaller feet. Funnily enough, 20 years earlier DMs were mainly sported by women over 40 as orthopaedic shoes. In this respect, they were always unisex.
High Fashion to Highstreet
Punk was edgy, bold, and provocative, perfect for Westwood and McLaren who had just opened their boundary-pushing London boutique, SEX, in 1974. Four years later (when SEX rebranded as Seditionaries) Westwood created these black leather boots. The designer embraced Punk’s DIY style by fusing references to military uniform, motorcycle leathers and Teddy Boy brothel creepers.
In the 1990s and 2000s we saw designers like Alexander McQueen push military punk shoes further into the mainstream with his more moderately priced McQ label. The high heel on these ‘Military Lace Up Show Boots’ suggest that utility is no longer the main appeal of combat boots. In addition to heels, many modern boots have embellishments or embroidered designs which ‘feminise’ the shoe. Double-buckle straps not seen since the M1943 Combat Service Boot are now found in highstreet retailers.
Ultimately, our project aims to platform stories of countercultures, marginalised identities, and alternative fashion. Over the last 60 years combat boots have been adopted by a wide range of social groups trying to create an image of power. Today combat boots are everyday wear, with some adopting them as a fashion statement and others as practical and comfortable footwear.
By Bethany Lunn, ‘Lesser Known Voices: Curating Shoes in the Store’ Project Placement