Engineer boots, also known as engineer's boots or engineering boots, are an American type of leather boots. Their lace-less, rugged construction has made them popular among motorcycle riders. Originally developed in the 1930s for firemen working on steam locomotives, the boots gained substantial popularity in the post–World War II era among a burgeoning motorcycling culture. They became popular symbols of teenage rebellion in the 1950s and a common component of greaser wear. They were later adopted by skinheads and punks in the 1970s. By the 2010s, engineer boots were being popularly worn for fashion purposes, especially by non-traditional customers such as women, young urban professionals, and hipsters.
Engineer boots are typically made from thick, stiff, full-grain bull hide. The leather is often oiled to add durability and flexibility, and may be brown or black in color. The double-layered shafts may be anywhere between 7 inches to 17 inches in height, and are gusseted at the top and relatively loose, though they can be tightened by a steel-buckled strap. Another steel-buckled strap is placed at the instep of each boot. As per their rugged construction, the footwear is relatively heavy and weighs approximately a pound-mass each.
Original engineer boots were almost always black in color. The toes were bulbous and the soles were made of thick leather. The heels were about one-and-three-quarter inches in height with a slight forward slant, with the edges being concave. Some were customized with studded straps or with cleats. Modern engineer boots vary in toe shape, heel height, sole material, or in the use of steel reinforcements.
Around 1860, the Frye Company produced a popular line of harness boots. Quickly adopted by the United States Cavalry, they featured an ankle strap style that revolved around metal rings which may have served as inspiration for the design of the engineer boot. During the 1930s, Chippewa Shoe Manufacturing Company developed a pair of boots with stovepipe legs and fashioned over their "English Riding Boot" lasts. The West Coast Shoe Company (Wesco) began manufacturing their "engineer boots" in 1939. Engineer boots were originally meant as protective gear for firemen working on steam railway engines (i.e. "engineers"), as their minimal stitching and pull-on design made them ideal for working in conditions with hot coals, embers, and sharp edges. This is a probable source of the name. Wesco's boots were immediately popular with welders in Portland, Oregon-area shipyards, who needed looser fitting shoes that they could quickly remove in the event embers landed in the shafts. On the overall basis, engineer boots were subverted in the shoe market during World War II by the production of lace-up combat boots and demand for them dramatically decreased.
Both Chippewa and Wesco heavily increased sales of engineer boots in the late 1940s. There was a post-war production boom for the boots, with high demand coming from returning veterans and bikers. The latter adopted engineer boots because the laceless design wouldn't interfere with motorcycle drive belts, the shafts were well insulated from heat, and they provided full lower leg protection in case of an accident. The footwear's popularity was furthered by its use by celebrities such as Marlon Brando and James Dean in their respective films The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
The boots would become heavily associated with the American greasers and bikers that wore them in the 1950s. Overall, they contributed to the "rebellious" look of many teenagers of the era. By the late 1960s, the boots were being frequently worn by hustlers and members of the gay leather subculture for fetishistic purposes. In the 1970s, they were adopted by skinheads. From there, they became a part of punk fashion, where they were used to express power and an industrial style. By the 2010s, engineer boots, along with other industrial footwear, were worn popularly for fashion purposes, especially by non-traditional customers such as women, young urban professionals, and hipsters.
In popular culture
- Engineer boots were notably worn by Marlon Brando in the film The Wild One (1953) and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
- Engineer boots are worn by three murdererous gang members and main characters in the crime drama The Young Savages (1961)
- Billy Joel refers to the footwear in his song "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant"
- Boyer 2015, Chapter 2: Boots.
- MacRae 2015.
- Red Wing Shoes 2016.
- Old 2015.
- Blanco F. 2015, p. 137.
- Cole 2000, p. 111.
- White 2014, p. 46.
- Wolf 2007, p. 125.
- Sklar 2013, Shoes and Boots.
- Wolf 2007, pp. 125, 127, 293, 328.
- Stanfield 2015, Chapter 3: Got-to-see : Teenpix and the Social Problem Picture.
- Kilgannon 2016.
- Blanco F., José (23 November 2015). Clothing and Fashion: American Fashion from Head to Toe (illustrated ed.). ABC-CLIO. ISBN 9781610693103.
- Boyer, G. (8 September 2015). True Style: The History and Principles of Classic Menswear. Basic Books. ISBN 9780465061594.
- Cole, Shaun (2000). 'Don We Now Our Gay Apparel: Gay Men's Dress in the Twentieth Century (illustrated ed.). Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 9781859734155.
- "ENGINEER STYLE NO. 2991". Red Wing Shoes. Red Wing Brands of America, Inc. Retrieved 30 August 2016.
- Kilgannon, Corey (June 27, 2016). "Cuomo and Billy Joel Ride for Breast Cancer Awareness". Wall Street Journal.
- MacRae, Michael (August 2015). "Engineers Get the Boot". American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Retrieved 14 November 2016.
- Old, Forrest (16 March 2015). "The History of Engineer Boots with John Lofgren". Heddels. Retrieved 12 July 2016.
- Sklar, Monica (2013). Punk Style. Subcultural Style. A&C Black. ISBN 9780857853059.
- Stanfield, Peter (2015). The Cool and the Crazy: Pop Fifties Cinema. Rutgers University Press. ISBN 9780813573007.
- Wolf, Mary Montgomery (2007). “We Accept You, One of Us?”: Punk Rock, Community, and Individualism in an Uncertain Era, 1974-1985 (Thesis). University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
- White, Edmund (2014). States of Desire Revisited: Travels in Gay America (reprint ed.). University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 9780299302641.