It never ceases to amuse me. The portion of what we call classic men’s clothing that cannot claim a military origin (as do trenchcoats, khakis, raglan sleeves, cardigans, duffel coats, desert boots, wristwatches, and on and on and on) must pretend to a pedigree both butch and aristocratic: sport, generally involving horses.
Horses and nobility have been aligned for centuries: knights were famously the equestrian class, literally so in French (cavaliers) and Spanish (caballeros, which still means gentlemen). But knightliness also connoted (rightly or wrongly) duty. Equestrian sports, in particular polo, suggest wealth and leisure – the leisure of the leisured classes ‑‑ as well as breeding. No wonder that polo became Ralph Lauren’s genius shorthand for all our “suburban snob-cravings” (a term used in a negative review of Ian Fleming’s Bond novels, just as applicable here). It gave us the polo coat (a camel-hair coat insouciantly wrapped and belted around East India Company-era players to keep warm between rounds of polo, possibly based on wraparound garments worn by South Asian locals), the small “p” polo shirt (the knit shirt now worn casually everywhere) and even, allegedly, the buttondown collar. Brooks Brothers claimed that Henry Sands Brooks created the famous Brooks Brothers collar after he viewed a match somewhere in the British Empire where players had buttoned down their collar tips to keep them from blowing around, even though no one has found proof that players anywhere ever did that.
And the chukka boot. Rounds of polo are called chukkers, or at least so I’ve read in some of the writing attendant on this bullshit. I’ve never come near a polo pony or indeed… The chukka boot, like the polo coat, first supposedly was worn as comfortable casual clothing between those colonial chukkers. (I remain dubious that the climates of India and Pakistan gave rise to thick coats and boots, unless these games were taking place in some hill station.) Its details emphasize that sort of easiness: often unlined, with a couple pairs of eyelets and open (that is, derby-style) lacing, generally in suede. Suede itself used to be an aggressively casual leather, to the point of suspect loucheness. It’s self-indulgently velvety soft to the touch. It may even have connoted a sort of self-pleasuring tactileness: the Duke of Windsor, recalled that when he wore suede shoes on a trip to the United States in the 1930s, he was warned that Americans thought suede shoes were only worn by a certain sort of man, unnamed but we can dare think his name.
It took the Duke and World War II to help popularize suede and the chukka outside the British Empire. The suede boot acquired the additional butch credential of war thanks to another hot climate, the Egyptian campaigns where soldiers adopted suede low boots with crepe-rubber soles, becoming what Clark’s made enormously popular as the desert boot. Given its paramilitary heritage, it naturally became mufti for James Bond in the movies and for Steve McQueen’s cop in Bullitt, which is the reference a colleague made when he saw me wearing these – in the same breath telling me I might be closer to Benoît Poelvoorde’s parody of him in the comedy Au Poste.
I’ll take even backhanded compliments. In truth, I sought out these chukkas – as light and comfortable as legend suggests – for yet another reason, their use of mythical stag suede. In the early days of #menswear, one of our few online resources we had were the sites of Japanese collectors, archivists really who brought together ancient examples of wonderful shoes once sold in London’s West End in designs and leathers that are barely available today. Particularly interesting to me were the old stag suede shoes, whose naps were so deep and shaggy as to suggest a 1970s lewdness. It proved to be easier to find even antelope than stag suede for new shoes, from my discussions with various custom shoemakers. Ready-to-wear brands no longer offered it in their catalogs, except for the one retailer I found that specialized in selling Scottish deerskin products of all kinds, and which had a good Northampton factory make chukka boots up in stag suede which it may have even supplied. The retailer allowed me to place a special order in exactly my size and width, which arrived some weeks later. That shop is now long out of business, but over the years the suede of these chukkas (worn often and carefully resoled once) has become more and more gratifyingly napped as they’ve weathered the years. Perhaps, in fact, that’s why the stag suede shoes on the websites that had inspired me looked like that, because they had gotten old and shaggy. Rather like their wearer. Sometimes the best we can do is wear our depredations well.