Jane Seymour

As we saw in an earlier post, 1974 saw a big resurgence in the popularity of fashion boots. The department stores were filled with an incredible variety in height, detailing, and colors. But there was one style that was conspicuous by its absence, as Enid Nemy pointed out in a New York Times article from September of that year. “Few [boots] are carrying the exaggerated platforms so popular in shoes this summer.”

That’s not to say that the platform boot was completely missing from the US. Nemy goes on to describe how “the higher than high heels and platforms that seem to stretch into infinity have been translated into boots at a number of specialized shoe stores throughout the city. They particularly line West 34th St between 5th and 6th Avenues, and the color range is impressive.”

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So the platform boots were there, but were strictly the preserve of specialist stores. Compare this situation to what you see in the UK. First appearing in 1972/73, by the following year they are easily the most popular style of boot, making up more than 60% of the pairs on sale. From 1973 to 1975 the platform ruled supreme, and if you include the mid-seventies knee boot, with its somewhat lower sole in the same category, then the platform sole was the dominant feature of footwear for most of the decade.

Meanwhile, the U.S. had its own distinctive style of boot.“This winter,” Ann Roiphe wrote in the New York Times in January 1976, “in the cold climates, every boy and girl from 13 to 22 will be wearing a down jacket and Frye boots.” The Frye boot had first become popular in the winter of 1974/75, but it had taken time for the word to filter through to the buyers in the big stores. Now they were everywhere.

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The Frye boot had to be bought a size small, so they could stretch out. As Roiphe described it, “young people of both sexes have blistered and bled, limped and suffered until at last the stiff thick leather has given in and stretched – and then it doesn’t stretch, it sags. Frye boots – and they are everywhere around you – bag at the ankles so the wearer looks like a basset hound with old legs, wrinkled from the hard life it’s known.”

By now, you’ll have realized that Ann Roiphe was not a fan of the Frye, which she contrasted unfavorably with the ultra-feminine fashions of her youth.“Why are they being worn to and from classes in some of our elitist institutions? Why are our young people living as if they expect a horse to step on their toes?”

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If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you’ll have realized that the transgressive thrill of adopting a previously male-dominated mode of fashion was one of the main drivers for the evolution of the women’s fashion boot, and that was certainly the case for the Frye, which was very much a unisex boot in its seventies incarnation.As Roiphe notes, unisex dressing invariably tends to move in the direction of becoming more masculine. Women used to want their feet to look dainty, but in the mid-1970s this was apparently no longer the case.

So here we have the big split in the evolution of the boot during the 1970s. Close-fitting, ultra high platform-soled boots in the UK (and the rest of Europe); heavy, baggy Frye boots in the US. I first noticed this with prompting from Bruce some months back, and I’ve been chewing it over ever since then. What was the reason behind these differences?

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At first, I wondered if we were looking at some fundamental difference between the U.S. and the U.K. I (semi-jokingly) suggested on Bruce’s blog that it was all to do with reaction to the societal malaise at the end of the Sixties. The U.K. chose to escape into the 1930s nostalgia of Biba and the platform-soled shoe, while in the U.S. they tried to recover the simplicity of life on the land, through a resurgence of interest in things like country & western music and western-themed fashions.

But to do this, you’d have to assume that there’s some measure of equivalency between the Frye boot and the platform boot, and the more I read Ann Roiphe’s article on the Frye, the more sure I became that they were not really reflections of the same phenomenon at all.

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The UK platform boot – at least in its female incarnation – is closely linked to the equivalent, close-fitting fashion boots found in the U.S. during the same period. There are certainly some differences, but while many of the U.S. boots look similar to Frye boots, they are not actually Frye boots. They are fashion boots that incorporate Western themes.

The actual Frye boot and its derivatives, of which the Campus boot is probably the best known example, was a unisex working boot, co-opted for the purposes of fashion, and worn primarily by the young – teens and co-eds. When women wore it, the boot was an outright rejection of feminine footwear in favor of something distinctly masculine – as Ann Roiphe pointed out, this unisex fashion was a distinctly one-way affair.

So if you look for the equivalent boot in the UK, I would argue it is not one of the regular women’s boots, platform soled or otherwise. A unisex, but mostly masculine working boot worn almost exclusively by the young… surely we’re talking about the Doc Marten boot?

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Docs are probably the last style that would come to mind when you think of the term fashion boot… but plainly Roiphe (and many of her contemporaries, one assumes) thought the same about Frye boots. And Docs were most definitely a big part of two of the biggest youth cults of Seventies Britain, the punks and the skinheads, where both men and women wore them.

When I first thought of this, it seemed crazy. The worlds of punk and – say – country are about far apart as you can get. Except that there’s a case to be made that both were a reaction to the slick, stagflated world of the 1970s.

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Punk was anti-authoritarian, stressed individualism, non-conformism, and self-reliance. It was also left wing and progressive. In the US, by contrast, the 70s saw the rise of the conservative right, which adopted country as one of its cultural touchstones. But while it was at the other spectrum, politically, this movement shared some value with the punks; it was also individualistic, anti-establishment (in the sense of the old, East Coast ascendancy), and self-reliant, with an engrained suspicion of government. Fryes started out with the post Woodstock college kids, but they gradually became part of the mid-late seventies resurgence of fashion rooted in Americana – denim, gingham, country music, God, and the American flag.

So instead of a simple U.S./U.K split, we have an establishment/radical split. The fashion boot grew up in the mid 1970s and left its original, “youthquake” audience behind. Or, rather, they grew old and their boots matured with them as they joined the comfortable middle classes. In their place, a younger generation of boot wearers looked for something that was more challenging, either because it presented an extreme version of female fashion (the platform boot), or because it abandoned female fashion altogether in favor of a more defiantly unisex (or masculine) look. In the UK, the Doc Marten represented this latter trend: in the U.S. it was the Frye boot.

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This is not to say that because the Frye boot started out as unisex, it always remained that way. Just as the wider story of the fashion boot is one of the co-option of masculine working dress as female fashion, the Frye, in its feminized version, was one of the earliest examples of the whole range of “casual boots” that are so popular with women today. We looked at this last year as part of the comparison of boot styles and we’ll discuss more when we get into the 1980s.

Image Sources:

  • Jane Seymour: Puella Sapiens
  • Platform soles: Janet Frazer Catalogue, Autumn/Winter 1975/76
  • 1970s Frye Ad: Tumblr
  • 1970s Frye Ad: Tumbr
  • 1983 Frye Ad: Flickr.com
  • Mid-70s American boots: Montgomery Ward Catalog, Fall 1976
  • Dr Martens: Luxury Activist
  • Skinhead girl: Pinterest
  • Vintage 1970s Frye Campus boots: Ebay

Selected References:

  • Nemy, Enid, 1974. Boots have changed – especially in price: droopy look. New York Times, Sept 20, 1974; p.47.
  • Roiphe, Anne, 1976. Tweedledum and Tweedledee. New York Times, Jan 26, 1976; p.256.
  • Sandbrook, Dominic, 2012. Seasons in the Sun: the Battle for Britain, 1974-1979. London, Allen Lane; 992pp.
  • Schulman, Bruce J. 2001. The Seventies: the Great Shift in American Culture, Society, and Politics. New York, The Free Press; 334pp.

See also:

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