Fit For Purpose

A walk home after dinner at a favorite neighborhood restaurant.  Heavy rain. Neighbors who had just fertilized their sizeable yard with manure, of all things in a city. The resulting unspeakable slurry that collected and eddied on our sidewalk easily overcame my dress boots, and pushed me to act on a longstanding temptation, even if it was like closing the barn door after the cow – unfortunately not metaphorical enough – had left. 

For a long time I’d wanted boots made with the legendary veldtschoen construction, which ticks so many of the boxes that #menswear enthusiasts thrill to: obscurity, doubtful pronounceability, and legendary if unproven powers. However, I for one had never gotten around to acquiring a pair, until now. Veldtschoens are relatively rare in ready-to-wear. Asking for a boot to be made with veldtschoen results in a punishing upcharge in already painfully expensive custom – by my recollection almost half as much again.  And who now wants to spend custom money on utilitarian heavy boots? 

Because of that expense, “utilitarian” is probably an inappropriate concept for this discussion, except in our shared #menswear fantasies of rus in urbe. No one today really needs shoes whose construction has the butch origin story required for #menswear fantasies.  Some sources situate the legend’s birth during the Boer War, when British soldiers first encountered hardily made boots the Boers had come up with for comfort in both marches and marshes (hence the bastard Dutch name, allegedly meaning “field shoe”). Originally made from rough game hide that was turned outwards at the sole line, better shoemakers refined the veldtschoen for country shoes and boots that were highly water-resistant, since in addition to being turned outwards, the upper of the shoe was stitched down onto a midsole and, separately, all the way to the outsole. Instead of the untanned game hide of the original settler shoes, they used heavy, durable calfskins, often decoratively grained, the sort of leathers you could treat with seal grease or mink oil to keep them proofed and darkly lustrous. 

In recent decades, shoemakers, too, realized that the utilitarianism of veldtschoen shoes is a false economy, one of many in luxury shoemaking, like the ability to repeatedly resole shoes justifying hand welting them at many times the cost of capable machine work. Unlike veldtschoen shoes themselves, these justifications are flimsy, pretexts for a handful of us to exult in something made in a supposedly traditional manner.  So the number of veldtschoen boots on offer dwindled – even traditional classic shoe brands suggested instead Goodyear-welted shoes, sometimes with something called a storm welt, usually a small strip of leather that was folded out around where the upper met the sole to keep water from leaking in.  But in a pair of those, in a decent rain, you’d still have to change your socks when you arrived at your destination. 

I like a nice pair of boots. I’ll probably never walk through a grouse moor in them or put on a smelly Barbour in waxed cotton (another Industrial Revolution-era waterproofing technology), but I like shoes and boots in real leather (much longer wearing and less sweaty than a pair of rubber boots) that I can kick around in in rain, snow and whatever the word is for the sewagey deluge that had engulfed my non-veldt boots. 

In the last few years, the renewal of interest in both classic menswear and in durable workwear spurred these shoemakers to bring back a few true veldtschoen models, with thick rubber soles, heavy-duty pebble-grained so-called country calf leather, and tongues that attach to the upper with folded pieces of leather like a bellows in order to keep moisture from leaking in from the top. Shape is far from elegantly slim, the better to accommodate thick warm socks (in order not to say shooting hose). While I’ve written that I have no plans to adopt the spurious outdoorsiness of the fleece vest, I’ll gladly sport these boots in order to be prepared for whatever shit the universe, or at least my neighbor, may put in my way.

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