Comfort starts from the bottom, or, practical footwear for serious people

posted 12/19/2002, updated 5/06/03

Leaving aside the fullest complexities of fashion, there is one basic area of clothing that causes the most suffering, the most pain, and the most downright confusion among people today, and that area is footwear.
From a very early age, men and women - but especially men - are given the idea - from the media - that shoes define a person. "The shoes make the man" runs one expression. You can't be "cool" or "hip" without an extremely expensive and poorly made pair of Nike or Adidas basketball shoes, or a pricy pair of hiking boots that look great but fit poorly. As they become adults, these ideas persist, and they continue to purchase many pair of expensive shoes that "look good", and never consider their own comfort. For men, branding plays a huge part in clothing, especially footwear, selection.
Women seem to be taught that comfort and style is more important than brand. Certainly many still suffer discomfort, but most are in posession of, and aware of the existance of, comfortable footwear, and will often resort to a favorite, comfortable pair of shoes in the absence of any overriding fashion consideration.
When once working in a retail environment where everyone was on their feet, on a wooden and tile floor for eight hours a day, a survey of ten male coworkers showed two things: All had "fashionable" footwear - a combination of designer dress or work shoes, or name-brand running shoes - costing over 50 USD, and all complained more-or-less constantly that their feet hurt. When questioned, six denied that there was such thing as "comfortable footwear", and all admitted that they had bought their shoes or boots based primarily on appearance, including the prominent appearance of brand names or logos. Now, we all know men are stupid - but that is just absurd.
Of ten females at the same store, only three had really "fashionable" footwear, while the rest had an assortment of anonymous pumps, mules, and boots. All save one - one of the victims of fashionable footwear - claimed their feet were comfortable.
Is there a point to this, beside the fact that men are stupid? Well, yes. Suffering for what people tell you is fashionable is downright foolish. Equally, spending huge sums of money on something uncomfortable to wear is daft. "Yeah, they give me blisters," said one of the men, of his shoes, a 65 USD pair of lug-soled work shoes, "but they kick ass." Riiiiiiiiight.
It never ceases to amaze me the huge sums people will pay for poorly-fitting, badly-made designer footwear. It also amazes me how willing people are to cover their bodies, including their feet, with huge logos advertising various huge corporate entities, but I digress.
Is there a wonder shoe, a perfect piece of footwear that is comfortable, not outrageously expensive, well-made, and versatile enough to wear with anything?
Yes. There is an answer to the problem of expensive, painful footwear. If you're intelligent enough to avoid the lure of "high fashion", but irked by the poor availability and poorer make of most utilitarian footwear, read on.
The answer may possible be the most common, and most overlooked, piece of footwear on the planet - combat boots. Now, many laugh in disbelief at this, and some who have worn them will disagree, probably because they were issued the wrong size in the Army, but good-quality military footwear is not only very servicable, and goes well with very nearly anything, but can be found inexpensively and are some of the most truly comfortable footwear on earth.
There will be exceptions, of course; the tall riding-style boots from pre-unification East Germany, for instance, are among the least comfortable I've come across, and I've heard similar of the combat boots from the Commonwealth of Independant States. But leaving these aside, and concentrating on the offerings from the USA, whose products are copied or exported to every corner of the planet, still leaves one with a wealth of choices.
Probably the most comfortable combat boot, and among the most comfortable footwear ever, are the boots currently issued by the U.S. military. Made by a number of manufacturers, including Altama, Rocky, Matterhorn, and others, these are designated in typical military-speak as "Boots, combat, water and mildew resistant, direct-molded sole". That tells you pretty much everything you need to know. They come in one color - black, of course, which goes with everything - all sizes and widths, have padded collars, an interesting "speedlace" system, and are a pretty snazzy piece of government-issue footwear. They have a "greasy" finish, which isn't as shiny as the previous-issue boot for the military, but which doesn't show wear as much or need as much maintenance. And, as mentioned, they're comfortable. They're the most comfortable pair of shoes or boots I've ever owned, replacing the significantly less-comfortable pair of Doc Marten's I own in that honour. On hard floors, pavement, rough ground, whatever, I can stand and walk all day, and often do, without any discomfort. Several people I know, and hundreds more on the internet swear by these as the pinnacle of comfort, if not style.
Almost as comfortable are the older-style combat boots that are found at almost every surplus store. Designated, I think, the M1968 combat boot, these take a high-gloss shine and a little more effort to break in, but once broken in are a mighty comfortable pair of boots. Be warned, though, that most of these boots are 10 years old, or more, and have been in storage in indifferent conditions the entire time. If you're looking to get a pair of these, check them out carefully to make sure the leather isn't drying out and cracking or developing "dry rot" - it can and does happen. More recent boots are inherently less prone to this sort of problem, though not entirely immune.
Other issue footwear is hit-and-miss. Steel-toed engineer boots aren't bad, but not as comfortable as the new combat boots. The "flight deck boots" issued to the U.S. Navy - actually "Boots, nonsparking, non-skid sole" - are steel-toed and not particularly comfortable, but have a sewn-and-welted sole that can be easily resoled, unlike most combat boots - though the Navy doesn't permit it. I can't speak for the very similar boots issued to USAF ground crews, but don't have high hopes; and unless you live above the tree line, you're not likely to be comfortable year-round in the lined winter / mountain boot. The desert combat boots, which are tan and come in two varieties, are best avoided and just plain awful. If you're able to find a decent-quality pair of the nylon-and-leather "jungle boots", they're lighter in weight, but less comfortable to walk in, than most of the rest. The Canadian Forces produce two types of boots, a low-cut "garrison boot" and a regular "combat boot", which is very comfortable but heavier than the U.S. version. Unlike the various U.S. boots, though, I've never seen a new pair of Canadian-issue boots on the market, just used ones, though they're probably available somewhere.
Men, perhaps, have it easy - a clean pair of boots go well with just about anything, from dress to casual and everything in between. But they're equally appropriate for women as well. At work they certainly fit any definition of "professional footwear", which is the term used in most dress policies, and they express a certain no-nonsense attitude. Casually they go well with jeans or khakis; your mileage with skirts or dresses may vary, but if you wear dresses, you're probably too much a victim of mainstream fashion to ever consider wearing combat boots, and what are you doing reading this page? Keep in mind though, that if you can do it with (uncomfortable) cowboy boots, there's no reason you can't do it with combat boots. They're durable, they're comfortable, they keep your feet warm and dry, and are as versatile a shoe as you're likely to find.
It is likely, of course, that others, both men and women, will do double takes or stare at you. Reasons will vary, from shock or disbelief (not the sort of person you probably want to know, anyway) to curiosity or admiration (it's always something to talk about, anyway). Some may assume you're in the military, and give you extra respect; rather more may assume you're a lesbian, which certainly isn't a bad thing. At the very best, others will look at you - you can tell a lot about a person from their footwear, after all - and decide that you're an independant, free-thinking, well-prepared woman; could you really want to make a better first impression?


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