When I was a kid, I wore out my The Rocketeer VHS tape. That rare Disney movie that also features lots of Nazis, it really has it all: mob-boss Paul Sorvino, car chases, evil Timothy Dalton, biplane crashes, Jennifer Connelly, exploding zeppelins, Alan Arkin as the oldest person you’ve ever seen, even though he was only in his mid-50s at the time. What more could you ask for!! Watch it, seriously.
Oh and The Rocketeer had boots. Really tall boots. Most prominently on Cliff Secord, the floppy-haired flyboy protagonist played by Billy Campbell.
A young, skilled-but-cash-strapped pilot who catches a bad break, Secord and Peavy (Arkin, whom he seems to live with, which isn’t weird at all) manage to find a prototype rocket pack designed by said Nazis, which of course he straps on to fly around and do all manner of daring stuff, immediately becoming the talk of 1938 Los Angeles.
And while Peavy does make him a very fancy helmet, the rest of Secord’s gear is the aviator outfit which sure seems to be the only clothing he owns. An absolutely sick if vaguely impractical leather jacket with about 600 buttons, and some lovely light tan pants that just might be considered breeches, which tuck inside the big winners: his knee-high pilot’s boots.
Here, let’s take a look at ol’ Cliffy (in toy form, but as someone who has seen this movie maybe 250 times, I can tell you this is a very accurate toy):
While the lacing system on the otherwise pull-on boot is something I’d never seen much of before (and may be a whole other article one day), the thing that grabs you about the Rocketeer’s boots is their height. Landing just below the knee, they’re about as boot-y as boots get, and they’ve absolutely stuck with me since childhood. He just looked so damn cool, even when he wasn’t flying around saving the world.
Let’s zip ahead to a few days ago, when I stopped by Standard & Strange NYC to check out Japanese super-brand Black Sign’s Aviator boots, two towers of Goodyear welted black horsebutt that will make just about any engineer boot seem like an adorable little chukka.
“But uh…why?” I wondered. Engineer boots are already quite tall! Whenever a guest comes over, my Wesco engineers always get picked up to be marveled at. “This is a really big boot!” they invariably say. And they are correct.
How much more boot is needed? Or even healthy? Or was Cliff Secord onto something the whole time?? Well I had to figure that out.
Let’s Officially Meet the Black Sign Aviator Engineers
As soon as you pick up the Black Sign Aviators, you know you’re holding a serious boot. The stitching and finishing are pretty immaculate on the relatively simple pattern that lacks a traditional distinct heel counter piece. The last is a very appealing round toe affair, with an evvvvver-so-slight partially structured bump up front that breaks down beautifully over time, as seen below. The hyper-simple buckles look old-timey as hell.
Of course you first notice the height. From the bottom of the heel’s toplift to the top of the shaft, my Wesco Mister Lou engineers measure just shy of 12 inches. The same measurement on the Black Sign Aviators? 17 inches!! Lotta boot. Here are the Aviators next to a John Lofgren engineer, which is about the same height as my Wescos (it’s possible that this angle affects the perspective a bit, but hey who’s to say):
Especially compared to many modern engineers, from Japan or otherwise, the Aviator’s towering shaft really widens out as it gets to the top. When you slip them on—which was a remarkably easy process, far less cumbersome or exhausting than I expected, even given my high insteps that can make certain engineers quite tricky especially when new—you realize why.
Most engineers stop mid-calf or so; for me it’s well below the thickest part of my lower leg. The Black Sign Aviators most certainly do NOT. And let me tell you I exhausted just about every inch of calf space they offered (my calves are not small).
Speaking with Black Sign owner Taka Okamoto—via S&S’s extremely wonderful/bilingual Mari Jacobson— the Aviator boots begin to make more and more sense.
Taka spends a great deal of time exploring what he calls “a deep dedication to the roots of objects.” In this case, he’s traced back the beginnings of what he views as true engineerdom to 1930s military boots, especially pilot boots (which in some ways aligns neatly with our friend Gabbard from Kreosote’s research, and others doesn’t quite).
Cowboy boots turned into laceless Army boots even for those not astride a horse. Those boots eventually grew straps and buckles and became WWII engineers initially worn largely by pilots, including this vintage research pair below that Black Sign uncovered.
“When looking at early renditions of products, there is an inherent minimalistic beauty resulting from the juxtaposition of maximum functionality and limited level of detail,” Taka told me. “Our early 1930s-type model is made without a heel counter. The seam where the vamp and heel panel meet is tucked and finished, like the vintage example. The lack of heel counter moves the boot away from the rugged-leaning work boot look typical of engineers and towards the more elegant aesthetics and functional beauty of riding and army boots.”
Sizing, Fit, and Feel
So how did they feel? Honestly pretty great. Both the leather selection—a 2.3-2.5mm veg-tan horsebutt with a lovely hand and more out-of-box flexibility than I expected—and pattern-making decisions seem to be spot on. Aka: they were much easier to get on and off than I anticipated.
The feeling on-foot/-leg manages to be similar to, but also somewhat divergent from a normal engineer boot. While a well-worn engineer is basically a big tall slipper, one that can be just about kicked off if they fit right (gotta do something when that hot welding slag gets in your boots, right?!?), you are just IN these Aviators. Locked and loaded.
Taka told me that the Black Sign-designed last is made to be “suitable for Western audiences without compromising the sleek narrow silhouette of the vintage example.” While I experienced quite a bit of new-boot heel slip at one size down from Brannock—which was basically completely remedied by a pair of Protalus M75 heel inserts—everything else felt fantastic.
And because of all that boot sheathing your entire leg, that heel slip even without the inserts seems like it would be less of an issue, something I expect will dissipate significantly as the sole starts flexing with wear. Everything felt great up front and lengthwise one size down from Brannock.
Overall, time spent with these boots conjures a question few foresaw coming: why are my 10-inch engineer boots so damn short??? Why can’t everything just wrap all the way around my legs and hold me tight?
I started to see what handsome Cliff Secord was after. You can’t have your boots falling off while being chased by Nazis and Feds and Howard Hughes. It just isn’t safe. While I expected to feel awkward in these monsters, or clumsy, I…just didn’t. They were far from a bother, even when not broken in at all. Obviously, any Very Tall Boots need to be quite well-designed to hit these marks. But there’s a unique, different comfort to the completeness of the fit of these Black Signs. I quite liked it.
Which Pants Can You Wear With Such Wonderfully Aggressive Boots?
Of course that becomes the question. Well, I tried a few.
First, the Freenote Belford straight fit denim I wore into the shop. Most of the time—even with standard engineers—these feel pretty darn roomy. With these boots…not exactly. They work! They do work. And look pretty good. But just barely.
Next up, Black Sign’s Military Cord Driving Trousers. These things are huge, and dope. Incredible fabric, basically the same stuff used in N-1 deck jackets. Lots of room for huge boots. Pockets that could potentially fit normal sized boots. They were much wider than any pants I’ve ever worn, but I could kinda see myself becoming this person.
And finally, really big pants for really big boots. Black Sign Wide Straight Indigo Wabash 5-Pocket Pants. They are, quite obviously, very cool. I wish I could pull these off, and envy anyone who can.
And here I am below attempting to look as Cliff Secordian as possible, even though the jacket isn’t leather, and my jeans don’t tuck into my massively tall boots.
I once was fearful of engineer boots altogether, and fixing that was a legitimate Shoe Journey Breakthrough for me. I walked into the shop not afraid of the Black Sign Aviator boots, but curious as to why they were even necessary in a boot world suddenly overflowing with some of the best (normal-height) engineer boots that have ever been produced.
In the end, I’m not Cliff Secord. The functionality that really tall engineer boots offered a pilot in the 1930’s doesn’t really have all that much to do with my current day-to-day lifestyle, believe it or not.
But great boots should be cool. They should be comfortable. And well made! Of course. But let’s face it, cool is key. Cool comes from design, and how a boot changes with you over time, and from just being different. These very tall engineer boots? Trust me, they’re pretty darn cool indeed.