PC 82 Footwear

Over my lifetime there has been a huge change in the type and style of shoes, both for men and women, what has become acceptable and what not, so I thought I would scribble about footwear!! This is, I should hasten to add, a predominately male piece!

Unless you joined some institution like the Armed Forces or the Police, it’s unlikely you had any training in how to clean your shoes, for they were nearly all made of leather and that required cleaning. A toothbrush was useful for cleaning the welts and the piece between the heel and the sole needed as much attention as anywhere else. God forbid if, when you placed one leg over the other when sitting, the underside of your now exposed shoe was dirty. Despite the need to polish your own drill boots and George Boots, at the Royal Military Academy we had a batman who took care of the other leather items – Sam Browne’s, shoes etc. Your ‘best boots’ were shined to within an inch of their lives. Polish was applied and a spoon, heated over a candle, was used to melt the polish and soften the slight bumps in the leather; then you ‘bull’d’ your boots, applying spit and polish around in little circles to create a shine – hours and hours of work!!

Of course scribbles about shoes must include the lovely story that illustrates how you see life, the ‘half empty – half full’ glass. Back in the late 1880s, Clarkes the shoemaker decided that they wanted to enter the East African market. They planned to send two people, James who had been with the company a long time and was considered quite senior despite having a mixed track record of success, and a relatively new hire Mark. Recruited against the Company’s competency profile, he had a very positive attitude and was a good match. The pair duly caught the train to Dover for the long overland journey by train and boat to Mombasa.

Despite an initial telegram saying they had arrived, nothing was heard from the pair for a few weeks. Eventually James telegraphed from a hotel in Nairobi and wrote: “Been all over the country. No one wears shoes here. Completely wasted exercise. Returning home” A few days later another telegram arrived, this from Mark. “Been all over the country. No one wears shoes here. Great opportunities. Have opened office and initial order to follow.”

One of the main aims of joining the Army was to wear the traditional mess uniform – actually I joke somewhat but we did enjoy dressing up (overgrown schoolboys I guess!!). The formal attire for dinner was Mess Dress – a sort-of blouson jacket with skin-tight trousers, known as overalls. These had a thick red strip running down the outside and were strapped under the bottom of one’s Mess Wellingtons, a tall boot that almost reached one’s knee and worn on the inside. And spurs! Soldiers who went into battle on horses (before my time, I should hasten to add) used a metal spike in their boot to encourage the horse to gallop faster – to ‘spur it on’!! These accoutrements became part of one’s dress uniform, indoors and out, and they fitted into the heel of the boots in a special box. I was lucky enough to have my step-father’s, which had an old sixpenny piece as the roundel.


In civilian clothes, in mufti, you wore leather shoes, which of course had to be polished to the same standard! I suppose the constant need to have one’s uniform shoes clean meant that when I could relax, I developed a penchant for light brown suede boots – a quick brush and they were good.

Avid readers of my postcards will know that I spent a great deal of my twenties sailing. Wet weather gear was essential and I bought some sailing wellingtons – yellow on the outside, blue on the inside with a sole which gripped on the yacht’s often wet slippery deck. They eventually perished as rubber will– but I loved those boots; I wore them to a party once!

At one time in my life I got stuck on having some red shoes and still have a pair of red Timberland boots. But then in Russel & Bromley I saw these lovely Italian red suede Chelsea boots. One of those ‘I must have these’ moments. I’m sure  Elvis would have been jealous as he had to do with blue ones.


I should say at this point that I take a size 11 or 12 shoe, a size which often is not available in the more fashionable brands. I saw a gorgeous pair of Gucci loafers once and, despite the fact that there were a tad small, I bought them, thinking the soft leather would stretch. It didn’t and on one occasion I wore them on a long flight. Big mistake!! When I walked off the aeroplane I could only fit half my foot in!! They were too narrow a fitting and I would have benefited from using one of those machines that was in pride of place in a shoe shop. You never see them today; you climbed onto the step and looked at your feet in the shoes – in a vaguely green light. Then you could see if they were a good fit or not.

Do you remember Winklepickers, long and pointed shoes for men? Or Bovver Boots, so basic and chunky? Shoes with ‘Cuban’ heels for those of us who are vertically challenged? If I wasn’t so politically correct I should say ‘short’! Then there were Chelsea boots, Desert boots, George Boots, Boat shoes, canvas shoes, jellies for a rocky shore, the list could go on and on. Getting my first pair of Rugby boots was a defining moment in my upbringing, but they were black, because all rugby boots were black. Nowadays it’s as if the team wants to dazzle the opposition by the colour combinations of their boots

The only sort of ‘trainers’ were ones you used for sports or tennis and the latter had to be green flash Dunlop. Now, if you are a “Dedicated follower of fashion”, as The Kinks sang about in 1994, you will no doubt possess many pairs of ‘trainers’, for they have become the only form of footwear for the younger generation …… and for some of the older generation too. Mintel’s senior fashion analyst recently wrote that “there has been an increasing trend for consumers to integrate sports clothing into their wardrobe; trainers have become the second favourite item of footwear after flat shoes for women.”

It seems now that the world has turned full circle. From the time at home growing up, wearing socks and lace-up shoes, to our way of life now – the ubiquitous wooden-floored apartment, not wearing socks in the summer months and never wearing shoes inside. Now! Where are my slippers?

Richard 31st October 2016


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