Don’t Trip: These Boots Are Made For Lacing

Meditations on the Wardrobe Staple, from Gucci to Doc Martens

  • Text: Katy Kelleher

I’m not, and have never been, a shoe person. I do not collect shoes, nor do I get particularly excited about them. But boots are a different story, particularly lace-up boots. Unlike shoes, which feel collectable (sneakerheads know this well, as do Carrie Bradshaw-types), boots feel like a commitment. They take up space, they typically cost more, and they show up often on lists of so-called “investment” pieces. While I have half a dozen pairs of canvas and leather sneakers, I don’t treasure them the way I treasure my vintage Fryes or my chunky Hasbeens. My boots have become a strangely immutable part of how I see myself.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say we all wear boots, but in colder climates, it’s very nearly true. Stalking the streets of Boston or New York, I see boots pass me by at a higher rate than any other kind of footwear (I’m always looking). There are several reasons for this. They’re practical, certainly, but they also suit so many different needs. They can scream of sex, thigh-high and brazen. They can insinuate toughness, a exclamation of rebellion punctuating an otherwise boring outfit. They’re evergreen. We’ve been wearing boots for eons, and at this point, we have so many mutations, all of which say something specific about the wearer—depending on their body, depending on the context. It’s sort of strange, really, how similarly structured articles of clothing can speak so many visual languages. A dude in Doc Martens and a white undershirt sparks a different emotion in me than someone wearing the same pair with a Molly Goddard dress. Boots take soft leather and make it hard. Big soles take a delicate outfit and give it weight. Boots also give people weight, making them appear larger than they are, granting a borrowed sense of authority to an outfit.

Boots are an interesting article of clothing to read because they really bring home the tension between form and function. Boots are useful, and before the invention of the zipper in the late 20th century, laces were particularly practical (buckles were the other, more expensive option when it came to keeping your shoe in place). In ancient Rome, boots were, like many other articles of clothing, a way to signify one’s status. Roman senators wore red leather boots with laces that came to their mid-calves, while field slaves wore thick-soled wooden clogs, and military folk wore brown boots with hobnails stuck in the bottom for traction.

Shoes have always been expensive to produce and prone to wear, which makes them an ideal platform for trumpeting one’s relationship to labor. This was true in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It remained true until the 21st century. Even now, it’s still often true—consider the case of the Red Wing, favored by dudes who want to look hypermasculine, as though they could take a break from their barista job to chop wood, if they wanted. Or think about Kylie Jenner and other members of her entourage, who favor a faux-boot (open-toed, preferably) that laces up to the thigh, encasing the entire leg in an intricate sheath. Are these boots or sandals? It doesn’t matter. This hybrid (hype)beast isn’t designed for optimum airflow or to protect manicured toes. It’s a peep show, one that taps into the scopophilic side of our sexuality.

But these are all mutations, derivatives born from the type species. Aside from the high-heeled pump, there are few shoes that are as iconic and easily recognizable as the combat boot. It’s a style that took centuries to develop and went through hundreds of iterations, from the early Roman caligae, to American Trench Boots of World War I, to the rugged Meindls worn by members of the French army in the 20th century. While primarily tools of war, these boots have dipped in and out of civilian fashion. Military style is always loved by a certain sector of the population, and soldiers need to be elevated in the public imagination, otherwise we’d have trouble convincing anyone to enlist. Fashion can subvert systems of power, but historically, it’s more often used to prop them up. (It’s worth remembering that, in our age of consumerist feminism and corporate greenwashing.)

There is something about the ritual of lacing up a pair of shoes (even if the laces are made somewhat redundant by convenient zippers). There’s also something appealing about the fluidity of the style. Laces can make boots appear more rugged, masculine, and bellicose—or feminine, granny-style, fussy and prim. On hard, muscular bodies, laces can indicate a certain utility, a sense of discipline, rigid, steel-toed, and potentially violent. But when the shoe is on a femme foot, it begins to possess the power of a fetish object. (As Yuniya Kawamura, author of Sneakers, points out in his discussion of hype wear, sneaker culture, and social capital, “sneakers are the only male footwear that is hardly ever treated as a fetish object.” Boots on men are rarely viewed as a fetish item, though I’m sure someone, somewhere, finds hiking boots unspeakably erotic.) On some bodies, laces seem to call to mind the act of dressing and undressing. “Extreme heels and tightly laced boots and shoes play a similar role in BDSM as do corsets,” writes Margo DeMillo in Feet and Footwear: A Cultural Encyclopedia. “The lacing and unlacing of the boots is erotic, as is the lack of mobility.” Laces say: I’m naked under here. Laces say: I’m going to take these off later.

I’m so conflicted about being desired; I want to both mute my own sexual appeal and amplify it at once. But desire weaves its way through every moment of my day. My material desires are the most suitable for public consumption, but even those can be read as a stand-in for my more base lusts. I want angry Gucci boots studded with pearls. It’s a combination I keep seeing, and one that never fails to delight. There is no point of putting pearls on boots—a famously soft gemstone, made from layers of nacre, pearls do not hold up well to wear. But the point isn’t longevity; it’s purely aesthetics. Pearls are lustrous and shiny, ivory-pale next to pebbled black leather. Victorian women once wore pearl button-up booties, and now designers have begun to mix the combat-style shoe with this textural gemstone. Nicholas Kirkwood has done it, and so has Phillip Lim. It’s a strange mini-trend, specific and odd, yet incredibly obvious, once you’ve seen it. I want to wrap my feet in black leather and tie them tightly, securely. I want my footsteps to echo as I tower through hallways.

On my angriest days, I want to soothe my consumerist soul with ungraceful echos of early 90s grunge and slip on a pair of patent leather platforms from Dolls Kill, boots that are almost cartoonish in their desire to be abrasive. They add a hard edge to an outfit that can feel otherwise soft, they take an average miniskirt and turn it into something else—something subversive, something instantly recognizable. On ragged winter days when my bones feel cold and I find myself craving a sweaty concert hall, I want to encase myself in bulky Marc Jacobs “hiking” shoes with a small amount of soft shearling and find somewhere I can scream along. Then, there are days where I want to be prettier—to see beautiful things and to be seen, admired. Boots have always been a strange combination of soft and hard, subversive and submissive, utilitarian and fanciful, classic and modern. In a time where everything feels on the edge—of an apocalypse, of a crisis, of a sea change, of a new world order—there is something comforting about dressing myself for both protection and procreation, despair and hope. Clothes won’t change the world, but they do make it a little easier for us to live in it—to stomp through it.

Katy Kelleher is a writer and editor based in Maine. She writes a column on colors for The Paris Review and is working on a series about ugliness and beauty for Longreads.

  • Text: Katy Kelleher