Thursday, April 14, 2011

FF: These Boots Are Made for Walking

We can always trust the Mongolians to have something fun on their feet.

One of the things I've noticed about steampunk fashion is an adoration for boots of all shapes, sizes, classes, and creeds. Whether this is because boots suggest a more rough and tumble air or just because they're so bloody cool remains unclear, but all the same- a good pair of boots appear on just about every "how-to steampunk dress-up" guide. Victorian ankle boots and army surplus models are certainly great (I own a few pairs and wear them around on a day-to-day basis), but you should know by now that there are many options and inspirations from around the world during this time. So, ready boots?

A boot is defined as any shoe that extends above the ankle... that's all. This means that there are about as many types of boot as cultures in the world. Some are soft and designed as plush palace-wear or for special occasions, while others are tough and ready for a day of work.


A colorful pair of Tibetan boots. 19th c. (Bata Shoe Museum)

Curled toes, as seen on these Tibetan boots (and also prevalent on traditional Mongolian boots) are a recurring theme in a lot of footwear in Asia. It stems from Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions of ahimsa, which literally means to "do no harm". It was believed that the curled toe treded softer upon the earth, therefore was less likely to injure small creatures living in the soil- so they also encouraged the Buddhist tenet of right mindfulness.

The man pulling this Meiji-era snow taxi is wearing leather tabi, a forerunner to modern jika tabi (Okinawa soba)

Jika-tabi, which may be iconic for the anime-consuming crowd, are soft, flexible boots that fit the form of the foot quite closely. They're designed for the working class- particularly farm laborers, roofers, and taxi that need a decent amount of flexibility and good traction. That comes from the special rubber sole that grips and bends, yet protects the foot from ground hazards. Heavy duty leather tabi have been around for centuries, but actual jika-tabi don't show up until the 1920s- with the advent of modern rubber.

Awesome leather jika-tabi in brown, cream, and black from Ayyawear. ($198)

Of course, the 19th century was the last heydey of Chinese footbinding, or the custom of deforming a young woman's foot from girlhood onwards by constant pressure and tight wrapping. The result was a tiny lily in its gilded shoe, but outside... well, here's a link, may you not have nightmares. It was thought that the shaky, swaying, vulnerable walk produced by the instability of such small and ungrounded feet was the height of attractive but Empress and general all-around badass lady, Cixi, put a kibosh on it in 1903.

Well... these aren't made for walking AT ALL. (Angela San Cartier)

These boots are beautiful, but a sobering reminder of what women were doing (and in many cases continue to do) to their bodies in the name of looking beautiful. It makes Miss Kagashi proud to have size 10 snowshoe feet- they come in handy on icy walks during Michigan winters.


Once more, the Bata Shoe museum makes my job so much easier...
In most parts of Africa, sandals and low-profile shoes are the traditional norm, since the climate and lifestyles of the people call for them. Most examples of African boots were developed with protection in mind, particularly while riding animals or spending long days in tough environments like the Sahara desert. According to the Bata Shoe Museum, the boots above are specifically padded in the knee for additional comfort during long days of riding.

(National Museum of Moroccan Art, courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art)

These boots from Morocco are made from the traditional textiles and designs of the Ait Ouaouzguite people (a subgroup of the Amazighs, remember them?). Still, for all of their beauty, they are made of a tough leather for days in the arid landscape of North Africa.

The Near/Middle East

Syrian Boots (National Museum for Eastern Art- Rome)
There are as many cultural groups in the Middle/Near East as of grains of salt in a shaker, but one noticeable feature of these boots are the original basic structure that their based off of. The boots above are based off of traditional slippers in the Near East, while the pair below are clearly built off of Ottoman babouches. The other thing is the love of tooling on a lot of the leather boots and shoes throughout the Middle East, particularly in the Ottoman Empire and Persia.

A pair of 16th century Persian/Ottoman boots with exquisite tooling


Unlike some modern snowboots, no wookies had to die to make them. (Goeastern Europe)

These piles of fuzz are valenki, traditional snow boots from Russia made from layers of wool felted together and worn by the working class for centuries. In the last century an outer shoe of rubber or leather went over the heel and toe to make it more impervious to water.

The note says sealskin, but it looks more like reindeer to me... (Bata Shoe Museum)

These are traditional snowboots of the people around Lapland in Scandinavia and Russia. This particular pair is made from sealskin, but later on it was adopted by various militia groups in WWII out of leather because of its insulated design and a special feature- the beak. The "beaked" toes on these and later models of boots caught on because it helped keep skies latched tightly.

The Americas

This gent is wearing old fashioned cowboy boots.

When you hear 'cowboy boots', what do you think? Pointed toes? Tooled leather? Gaudy? Well originally cowboy boots scantly resembled the foppish showpieces you see in Westerns and they were born and bread to work. The prototype for the cowboy boot was the Hessian military boot- a knee-high riding boot with a divot in the front to aid in the flexibility of the knee and solid soles for keeping saddle stirrups in place. The first cowboy boots started popping up in the 1870s, and were plain, sturdy, and often had an adjustable cuff.

High-top Kiowa moccasins. (Icollector)

Certain Native American tribes tended to make tall, boot-like moccasins- typically as a result of the introduction of horses or a colder climate. As we discussed in our prior post on moccasins, the materials used told a great deal about the environment the wearer lived in. Arid territory, horse cultures, and tribes further west tended to use tough rawhide, bear, and buffalo hide to make their footwear with a separate sole piece. Tribes further east, or ones who lived in humid or Woodlands terrain had soft-soled moccasins- often made from one whole piece of leather.

I hope you enjoyed our little jaunt around the globe to take a gander at some peoples' soles. Who knows, perhaps you got some ideas for your next steampunk outfit (boy are those jika-tabi nice), but thank you for indulging in a little boot lust with me!

Seriously though, check out the Bata Shoe Museum.


  1. This is such a great post! Thanks for sharing....I knew I liked boots but now I really like them :) That shoe museum in Canada looks great...wish I could go there ....

  2. The jika-tabi are stunning!

    Thanks for this!

  3. I want a pair of those mongolian boots! This is a very interesting post and I enjoyed reading it. Who doesn't love boots?

  4. Great post! The valenki-boots, or huopikkaat, as we say here in Finland are actually making a come-back since we've had a couple of really tough, snowy winters (there's still snow on the ground, gah...). I think the factory that makes them actually sold every pair of boots they had in storage and couldn't make more fast enough to satisfy the market. :)

  5. Stephanie-

    I love all of your posts. So glad I found this blog. Love all the boots. And does any one remember watching the Dr. Quinn medicine woman episode where they deal with Chinese immigrants and foot binding? Made an impression on me because I was only 8 at the time.

  6. I was wondering where you found the picture of those 16th century Persian boots at.

    Thank you.

  7. What beautiful boots you have here! Very inspiring!
    The beaked boots are Sami boots. Probably from the southern parts of the Sami area. You are right that they are not made from sealskin, they're definitely made from reindeer and I think that they are called "nuvttagat".

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