Somewhere in Grand Hotels of Egypt there’s a line about ‘officers swanning around with suede boots and swagger sticks’. The suede boots and swagger sticks were essential bits of kit for commissioned ranks in the British Army in Egypt in World War II. The swagger sticks disappeared with the British Army in 1952 but the suede boots have gone on to worldwide ubiquity.
They originated in Cairo’s Khan al-Khalili, when South Africans troops had commissioned cobblers to replace their worn-out veldtschoen, voortrekker boots sewn from soft, flexible hides. The Egyptian craftsmen came up with a boot of supple suede with solid crepe soles – it was light, simple (just two eyelets for laces), comfortable and low maintenance, which made it hugely popular not just with the South Africans but with soldiers of all nationalities fighting Rommel out in the desert.
A certain Nathan Clark, great-grandson of the co-founder of Clarks shoes, saw the boot in Burma worn by British soldiers transferred from North Africa. He made sketches and cut rough patterns from newspaper and on his return to the family business in Somerset, England made up some prototypes that he introduced at the Chicago Shoe Fair in 1949. The following year the ‘desert boot’ went into production in small numbers for the overseas market, launching in the UK around 1959. Over twelve million pairs have been sold globally since – their popularity boosted by association with the likes of Steve McQueen, who wore them both on screen (in The Great Escape) and in real life, and counter culture groups like the Beatniks (Bob Dylan used to wear desert boots). They were big with Mods in Britain in the 1960s, while more recently Liam Gallagher’s designed his own as part of his Pretty Green clothing range. Not every wearer has quite such a pedigree of cool: the desert boots’ image was severely dented when Tony Blair, at the time prime minister of Britain, was photographed wearing a pair in 1999. But then durability is another of the boots’ traits.
Nathan Clark turned out to be pretty durable too. The man who invented the desert boot in 1947 died just this summer, age 94.