Why Combat Boots?

Natalie Hayes

Writer’s comment: My roommates, Deborah and Mondana, asked why I would write an essay on combat boots. I am not the military type. Nor am I a gangster or a punk-style dresser. I do not even own a pair of combat boots, although I find them quite appealing now. The day my class, American Studies 130, American Popular Culture, was given the assignment to write an essay on an icon of popular culture, ideas ran through my head until the next day of class. After talking to some friends in class and doodling a pair of boots on my notes, I still had no sudden desire to write about anything. I decided to get in line to talk to my TA, Andy. To fill you in on my personality, my roommates know I am an observer. I enjoy watching people interact, analyzing how people’s style of dress, age, and gender reflect their personality, which then affects their behavior around others. So, while standing in line I noticed this tall guy in front of me with blond hair wearing all black clothes, and for some reason his big black combat boots stood out. The idea suddenly came to me to write about combat boots, their history and why they have become so popular today.
—Natalie Hayes

Instructor’s comment: One of the goals of AMS 130, “American Popular Culture,” is to teach students to analyze common cultural objects through various critical lenses. A particular assignment asks students to examine critic John Fiske’s belief that popular culture is characterized by the oppositional meaning people themselves make from culture commodities and then to apply Fiske’s theory to an object of their choice. Natalie Hayes chose to examine combat boots, and in doing so, produced an essay notable for its thoughtfulness and thoroughness. She not only explores the nuances of Fiske’s argument, but also delights us with the various uses and meanings of army boots.
—Eric Schroeder, American Studies Program

Combat boots, initially produced for military use, are now a part of our popular culture. Young teenagers to thirty-year-old adults wear combat boots as a natural part of their wardrobe. Doc Martens, the most popular style of combat boots, resemble designer jeans by coming in all sizes and colors, from the high-top boot to the cut-off version. The owner can dress combat boots up with jeans and a white, long-sleeve shirt, or wear them with a T-shirt and a pair of ripped jeans. Society popularizes jeans because of their western connotation, so the owner can feel as rough and tough as a cowboy when he or she wears a pair of jeans. Likewise, some consumers wear combat boots to feel as tough as military personnel. The popularity of the combat boot is due to consumers’ ability to manipulate and put meaning into a particular product or icon, making the icon an established part of popular culture.
         The government produced and issued combat boots to soldiers with no initial goals of economic profit. Before the 1960’s only men in the military wore combat boots as part of their uniform. These black, quick-lacing, durable, waterproof, steel-tipped boots were used for the practical functions of protection and insulation. In the Vietnam War, a bright pair of combat boots gave away a rookie status, whereas a beat-up boot signified an experienced veteran. A scratch, tear, stain, or scuff on the boot distinguished that soldier’s boot from his armymate’s boot, just as a rip or tear in our jeans distinguishes them from our friend’s jeans. These Vietnam-era soldiers exhibited an opposition towards the government by resisting the stringent military dress code and giving sentimental meaning to their boots. When a soldier died, sometimes his boots were sent home to relatives by the soldier’s armymates as a memento. Within the confining boundaries of the military, the beginnings of a popular culture penetrate a product as common and as functional as a combat boot, exposing the combat boot’s potential to be exploited as a popular culture icon. These soldiers exhibit what the author of Understanding Popular Culture, John Fiske (1989b), calls excorporation, which is “the process by which the subordinate make their own culture out of the resources and commodities provided by the dominant system” (15).
         During the late 1960’s, students wore combat boots and put their own symbolic meanings on them. The boots’ functional purpose meant nothing to a student, who could just as easily walk around campus in tennis shoes. During those turbulent years, students demonstrated for or against fighting in the Vietnam War, the rise of feminism, and Civil Rights. Additionally, many students on college campuses protested against their own enlistment in the Vietnam War. These students felt a need to break the conservative dress code and end the conformism imposed upon them by society’s beliefs and the government’s enlistment. Ironically, these students used the combat boot’s military association to symbolize their anti-military stance and opposition to fighting. Young adult female students also wore combat boots to symbolize their feminist beliefs. In the fight for women’s equality at home and in the workplace, these women gave up some of their feminine qualities, and thus seemed to contradict their fight against the tyranny of male values.
         African-Americans of the 60’s posed another form of opposition to the government by their use of combat boots, which symbolized their belief in black power. The Black Panthers, a group of radical African-Americans, often used violence in their fight against white supremacy and control in society. The Black Panthers wore military uniforms, which included black combat boots, to symbolize their fight against being stomped on by society and their struggle to step above the government’s laws and the white man’s rule. Fiske (1989a) would agree that the African-American’s ability to twist the combat boot’s military connotation for their own purposes “signifies the power (however hard the struggles to attain it) of the subordinate to exert some control in the cultural process of making meanings” (107). Many African-American men, supporting this belief in using violence to achieve equal rights, wore combat boots to symbolize their own voluntary enrollment in the fight for black power.
         As Fiske (1989b) claims, “in order to be popular, then, cultural commodities have to meet quite contradictory needs” (28). The military connotation involving conflict between races continues in the 1990’s. For example, many African-American gang members presently wear combat boots in MTV videos. For some of these gang members, the boots take on a variety of possible meanings, ranging from a fighting behavior or mentality to a symbol of black toughness considered superior to that of the white race. Ironically, a white male with a shaved head wearing combat boots is often stereotyped as being a racist. The Neo-Nazi resurgence movement uses the combat boot to symbolize the extremely conservative Nazi belief in white supremacy.
         Today, designer boots, such as Doc Martens, pose the most opposition to the combat boots’ original military association by taking away all symbolic meaning and making them a cultural commodity. During the 1980’s a sub-culture group of youth called punks exemplified this form of opposition when they “combine[d] workingmen’s boots with bits of military uniform and mix[ed] Nazi and British insignia into a ‘new’ style that [did] not ‘mean’ anything specific, but rather signifie[d] their power to make their own style and to offend their ‘social betters’ in the process” (Fiske, 1989b). Fiske (1989a) observes a similar example in Madonna’s use of the crucifix and other religious icons:

Her use of religious iconography is neither religious nor sacreligious. She intends to free it from this ideological opposition and to enjoy it, use it, for the meanings and pleasure that it has for her, not for those of the dominant ideology (103).

The introduction of different boot colors and styles voids any association with the military because the boot is no longer a product used for camouflage or fighting. The manufacturer’s production of different boot colors attempts to make the owner an individual among all the black colored boot wearers, yet this individuality disintegrates amid the overwhelming combat boot colors and styles. Fiske (1989b) says, “If a particular commodity is to be made part of popular culture, it must offer opportunities for resisting or evasive uses or readings, and these opportunities must be accepted” (32). Following from Fiske’s idea, we can see that combat boots are immensely popular because of the many possible meanings that wearers may associate with them. The opposing meanings of militancy vs. war protest, Black Power vs. white supremacy, and individuality vs. conformity all make combat boots a commodity in popular culture.

Works Cited

Fiske, J. (1989a). Madonna. Reading the Popular. Boston: Unwin Hyman.

Fiske, J. (1989b). Understanding Popular Culture. New York: Unwin Hyman, p. 150.