If there was a leaderboard for “ways to justify buying expensive boots,” your chart-topper would be the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness (with the second and third place going to ‘resoling’ and ‘something something molds to your foot’). 

Said Vimes Theory goes like this:

“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

And look, it crops up everywhere for a reason. It sure seems to make logical sense, and it gives you the perfect excuse to buy something that’s not cheap. Great work, Vimes! 

Here’s the thing: unfortunately Vimes actually makes no sense. For some reasons you may expect—the economic underpinnings are actually quite easy to pick apart in 2024, especially with resoles from a good cobbler being the equivalent cost of 1-2 pairs of bad shoes that will still last a year or two—but also plenty you may not.

Men At Arms Cover - Terry Pratchett

We read serious literature at this publication. The Vimes Theory is from Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms.

Ok, Vimes is Wrong. Then Why Does Anyone Buy Expensive Boots?

WHY?!?! Well you’ve got your very real sustainability justification—they’re not dying quick deaths and heading to the dump. Some people have foot issues that require something expensive (and rarely cheap, bespoke or not). Others are just fucking loaded and fucking loaded people buy lots of nice things. 

But I think most people get really into boots (or shoes, of course; but let’s just call them boots) in one of two ways. 

Boot Path No. 1: They need a new pair of boots! Maybe for work. Or they moved and it’s snowy now. Or their old boots have holes. That dang cemented sole came off. DOGS

Boot Path Number 2: “Holy $#!t what is that.” You click on, see in an actual store with actual humans, or otherwise stumble upon a really really cool pair of shoes or boots. Something about them just hits you. That gets you excited enough to try them on and maybe learn a bit about them.

In either case, actually handling and wearing a pair of really well-made boots or shoes can change things for most people. Our experience of objects mediated by the internet is visual and two-dimensional. Actual objects tend to be three dimensional and tactile. The weight and rigidity of a great pair of boots, and the depth and texture of top-end leather, are worlds apart from what most of us are used to. 

That’s when people tend to GET it.

"Shadowgraph" of a Boot - Nikolai Tesla

A “shadowgraph” (X-Ray) of Nikola Tesla’s boots. No wonder these things feel heavy to people used to sneakers.

Wait What Do I Get? What Do I Even Call This Thing?

Ok now let’s say you like good boots now! Even if you don’t own them yet.

That feeling tends to come with questions: why does this object make me feel like this? How do I find more stuff like it, although maybe subtly different? But I suddenly think I may care a lot about that difference! How do I explain why I’m so excited about this to my friends/loved ones/anyone else I can corner? 

Answering any of these requires learning about—and learning to describe–your boots. 

The cemented shoes that shod most feet worldwide are pretty simple. You’ve got a foam or rubber outsole, some sort of textile or not-very-good-leather upper, stitching, and glue. Because there isn’t a ton of variation in component materials or construction or history, people who are into sneakers tend to get excited about design and colors and the names behind them. 

Contrast that to the huge material variation within traditionally made footwear, where you’ve got massive available range in pretty much every component and method. That means there are a lot of specifications to geek out over, and a lot of proper nouns to bank. Vibram®. Chromexcel®. The relative merits of celastic, leatherboard, and leather heel counters, of chrome-tanned and vegetable-tanned leather. And combo-tanned! Whatever the fuck a ‘Veldtschoen’ is. (Here’s what the fuck a ‘Veldtschoen’ is.

All of that can be very useful! If you know that boots from the Pacific Northwest, whose high-arched lasts and thick leather shanks provide a ton of arch support that (apparently) saves your joints when you’re on your feet all day, you can find other footwear that feels similar, and by extension good to you. And that’s just the function piece. 

At its best, developing this understanding parallels any technical subfield of any aesthetic field, whether it’s art or film or product design. It gives you a vocabulary to learn about and discuss and understand beauty. Not the static, visual beauty of something behind glass in a museum. The tactile, dynamic beauty of an object you touch and use every day, and which—through wear—learns to accommodate the way you use it, instead of deteriorating. 

All of which probably sounds way too high-minded right now. So let’s leave it alone for a second! But we’ll come back to it.

Welsh Stick Chair - John Porritt

Dynamic and Tactile Beauty: This Welsh stick chair by John Porritt is actually new, but it’s designed after original examples which have been made comfortable by one or two hundred years of wear. It reflects the wearer and is polished at points of contact.

The Tyranny of the Specification

Pretty quickly, most people figure out a secondary use for their intimate knowledge of toe collapse patterns in stitchdown boots with leather toe stiffeners and combination-tanned upper leather: justifying their (perhaps sizable) expenditure. 

You hopefully aren’t spending an irresponsible fraction of your income on boots, but the mere fact that you could get cheaper footwear creates an implicit need for consumers and brands to rationalize the gap. All the materials specs you just learned about are one way to do that; they allow you to compare boots to one another. But it also ignores the enormous qualitative variation within any given manufacturing process. 

Take a side of regular ol’ undyed veg tan leather. Many tanneries make a version of essentially the same product, but there can be huge variations in a stack of hides of the same weight and same grade from the same tannery, or even within a single side.

Endless skill is involved in hide selection and clicking (itself a technical nerd-term meaning how makers choose ideal sections of leather to cut and deploy for different parts of different footwear), and the results don’t show up in marketing copy. But that good eye matters, arguably more than the hide itself at times. Name any component or process and you’ll find plenty more of these unquantifiable inputs. The only way to learn about a maker’s clicking is to handle and wear a bunch of their boots, or talk to a bunch of people who’ve handled and worn their boots. Which is, luckily, quite fun.

The same is true of every facet of design. It’s not hard to argue that the most important component of any boot is its last. Shoe and boot lasts define both the visual form and the mechanical function of a piece of footwear. If the last is sculpted poorly, the boots will look awkward, strange, or just plain ugly to most people. If the last doesn’t fit well—either because it ignores the geometry of the human foot generally, or just politely disagrees with the geometry of your particular human feet—even the best built boots in the world are going to be sorely disappointing. 

Oh yeah, and that shape defined by the last (along with the pattern) plays a role in determining what components are subjected to mechanical stress, and generally constrains what materials and techniques are adequate on any given part of the boot. Once again: difficult to quantify. Once again, the best way to learn is simple: handle stuff, wear stuff, talk to people who have done both. 

Lasting Pull Order Diagram

Proper order and direction of pulls on the upper while lasting from Golding’s Boots and Shoes, Volume 4. Were the lasting pulls on your boot ordered correctly?

An Interlude: Reason in Western Europe, 1760-2000

When comparing (and buying) anything, it’s not unusual to take inventory of a product’s features, then see if you can get the same features for less somewhere else. If you live in the modern west, this mode of thinking is practically omnipresent.

By and large, we are (or learn to be) good Homo Oeconomicus: Economic Man, guided by perfect rationality above all else. (John Stuart Mill came up with this, not me.)

There are two basic reasons to do anything. Either said thing has 1) intrinsic value, meaning it’s worth doing for its own sake, or it has 2) instrumental value, which means the thing itself doesn’t necessarily hold value, but it allows you to achieve something else that does. 

Historically, a trend towards the cultural dominance of instrumental rationality in the anglophone world has been clearly documented at least since sociologist Max Weber described the phenomenon he called “Rationalization” at the turn of the 20th century.

[The academic in me feels compelled to note that Weber is predated in his description by Marx’s sociological writings, and that the Utilitarians were advocating for instrumental rationality as a social governing principle as early as the late 18th century with great success.]

Here’s the thing with instrumental rationality though. As useful as it is—it allows us to figure out how to get what we want as efficiently as possible—doing things that are only instrumentally valuable kinda sucks. 

If one of your goals is not having the IRS kick your door in, you need to do your taxes. But just because it gives you something that you want (an intact door and good legal standing) doesn’t mean it’s pleasant to do. Optimizing for efficiency trades off with optimizing for enjoyment.

[As an aside, this is in part why writers, artists, and craftspeople so often get burned out when commercializing their craft. When you’re a hobbyist, you can spend endless time perfecting and experimenting, even when it’s inefficient or might not produce anything at all. The moment you’re a professional, you need to track and bill for hours and minutes, which shifts how you perceive your craft and tangles up the sometimes contradictory goals of financial security, quality work, and satisfaction in the work itself.

It’s a lot like buying things on sale—your rational, value-calculating brain will confuse something you really want or need with something that’s simply cheaper than it was before. You might get a great price! But the excitement of finding a good deal is fundamentally different from the excitement of finding something you truly love in one key respect: it’s not actually attached to the object itself. 

The same is true of specs. Sure, they’re literally physical components of a boot. But in a more significant sense, they’re a list of abstract boxes that have been checked. 

If you don’t love the object for what it IS—not just what it’s made of—you’re probably not going to stay excited about it. And for many, many people, that means it’s time to find something new and exciting. Aka: buy more stuff. Making Pair One not exactly a great value after all. 

Portrait of John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill, who gave us the (rather dramatic) term Homo Oeconomicus. Unfortunately his shoes are not in the picture so it’s impossible to tell if they represent strong value for money.

Loving Boots Like Chairs

The best approach towards boots I’ve yet to encounter came from furniture maker Chris Schwarz (also an excellent author and all-around person worth checking out). It didn’t have anything to do with boots.

“Real beauty? Before you can make it, you first must find it …Visit every museum you encounter. Look at paintings, sculpture, decorative objects, whatever is on display. It is red meat for your eyes as a furniture maker. Look at the colors. The forms. The proportions. The values. The composition. Develop likes and dislikes. Even intense ones. Get a point of view.” 

Aesthetics are semiotic—we all grow up steeped in symbols that we have an unconscious half-understanding of. But what we’ve picked up through osmosis is actually the tip of an iceberg of significance, relationships, patterns, and associations. When you start actively looking for those connections, you find them everywhere. And as you consume and learn and consume learning, the significances get more explicit. You develop a deeper knowledge of what you like, and why.

What constraints dictated the design of logger boots as a tool? What subcultures adopted them, and how does all of that inform how they feel? And how you feel in them? Or how other people’s perceptions of you change when you wear them? You can learn that shit. Or you look at the form and feel of a whole load of boots and watch your preferences converge around things that just look right to you. Or both. And again this stuff is fun! That part is important.

That process doesn’t need to be hyper-intellectual. It probably shouldn’t be. You’re not looking for the True and Ultimate Form of The Boot Which Persists Unchanged Alongside the Unbroken Column of Time.

Your preferences are a reflection of countless little accrued associations and bits of experience that you filter the world though: you, basically. Learning all of the patterns that underlie that intuition is really quite satisfying, and also happens to be the most surefire method of finding things that just click.

And when things click, you’re going to want to pick up that pair and touch it. You’re going to wear it for experiences that turn out to be important. You’ll think about it, probably a lot. At that point you’ve done something strange and wonderful: taken an oblong bit of leather, thread, rubber, and some metal, and turned it into something that’s legitimately meaningful. To YOU, specifically.

Congrats, now you’re weird. But in good company.

Beatle Boots Advert

Don’t buy that semiotics dictate what boots you like? Advertisers sure seem to think they do.

Coda: The Reproduction of the Boot Obsessive

When you wear boots a lot, and you talk about boots a lot, and you write about boots, you kinda become known as “the boot person,” and people will ask you to tell them what they’ll like. Fair enough. 

A few months ago, a friend of mine was looking for a pair of boots—I think he decided he was way too into Bob Dylan to keep wearing Hokas. He wanted to find stuff that fit the aesthetic and bounce it off an “expert” to make sure it was decent. The Amazon links started coming in. 

We talked about what he could expect at various price points. He seemed like he was listening. Then I just started sending him boots—in stock, out of stock, in or out of his price range, basically anything that I thought was cool. He began narrowing in on a look (more lumberjack than Dylan) and (I think) picking up a little about how boots are built. And then he bought a pair of cheap, cemented wedge-sole boots at a thrift store that he seems quite happy with. The cycle had concluded. 

Except: even after he had his boots, I kept sending him other pairs I thought were cool, and he kept telling me what he thought about them. Somewhere along the way, he’d acquired preferences and opinions. He fell desperately in love with a pair of White’s (quote: “the perfect boot”) that were absolutely not in the budget.

I’m still not totally sure he knows what a Goodyear welt is, and he’s definitely not going to be boot shopping again for a while. But the irrational, uneconomical seed of excitement? Of enjoyment? It’s definitely there. And he seems really, really happy about that. 

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