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A Brief History of the Unrivalled Duck Boot

Over 100 years after its creation, the duck boot is more alive than ever. The fabled design has stood the test of time and lent itself to consistent innovation throughout its continued lifespan.

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Over time, however, so many have reinterpreted the boots that it can be easy to lose sight of the immense history, importance, and persistence they carry. The first pair was cobbled together in 1911 after Maine fisherman and hunter Leon Leonwood Bean grew tired of getting his feet wet during outdoor excursions. The idea was simple yet innovative, joining a light, leather upper-ankle support to a rugged rubber galosh sole to create a singular pair of hyper-functional footwear. The Bean Boot or Maine Hunting Shoe, as it later became widely known as, offered the same benefits of a rain boot without the added weight or rigidity. Everything about the shoe was constructed with a pragmatic approach, giving careful consideration to the needs of a huntsman. Not only was the concept innovative, but the execution developed several new cobbling techniques including a triple stitch adjoining the two halves, a patented split backstay designed to limit wear and friction on the Achilles, five lines along the rubber meant to direct water flecking from the toe, and a thoughtful rubber lip to prevent debris from entering the top of the boot. While Bean’s first line suffered from quality control issues, they were soon perfected, making and breaking waves across Maine. The versatility and functionality were unmatched at the time, proving valuable to anyone from a casual hiker to an arctic explorer. By 1928, even Ernest Hemingway was buzzing about his newly acquired “rubber bottomed boots.”
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In the 1950s, the fabled boot had built a strong enough presence in the U.S. that imitations began cropping up from adjacent designers. It is at this point, 40 years later, that some began to wonder if they could improve on the perfectionists’ magnum opus. The first tweaks to the shoe were slight, creating a glossier finish on the toe, using a loden green rubber to adorn them, or even just adding a shearling lining was enough to differentiate themselves from the original design. Many chose to outsource production, sacrificing some of their quality control for a lower price point than their American-made counterparts. Despite being donned by many rugged celebrities over the years, the duck boot has spent most of its life in the shadows of fashion. For so long it was seen as a utilitarian choice, the footwear for someone that only wanted to buy one pair of boots in their life, or even to hand them down to their children. They were most commonly seen squishing down the halls of an Ivy League university, a legacy item passed down as solemnly as admittance to one of those same institutions. They just about came standard with a trust fund and were a necessity for anyone hunting waterfowl in the Hamptons. However, the rise of heightened-utilitarian ‘Ivy-style’ fashion in the 80s was quick to adopt the no-nonsense footwear choice, proving the perfect sartorial pairing with the conservative political wave spreading over the country. If you were living every day in existential dread at the thought of nuclear war, at least you knew your feet would stay dry.
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After being seen for so long on the feet of the elite, it is no wonder that they eventually found themselves invited into the broader world of fashion as a status symbol. In 1979 the New York Times heralded the boot as officially fashionable, picturing actor Tony Aylward, seen stomping through the slushy streets of NYC in his duck boots, who favored them for being ”practical and prestigious.” While the functionality was undeniable, the design began to grow boring to a younger audience that associated them with their father’s old work boots. The prospect of improving the aesthetic value while maintaining their perfectionistic functionality has drawn in almost every designer. The definition of the duck boot in 2020 has become skewed, many shedding the moniker, instead falling under the title of a “weatherized” addition of a pre-existing model. They are no longer restricted to boots either, with the concept being applied to everything from sneakers to heels. Some have been able to avoid the pitfalls, successfully bring new life to the concept, improving the function and style of the heralded classics.
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The duck boot, a timeless amalgamation of prep and gorp style, is set to see a huge year as priorities shift back towards longevity. People everywhere are re-examining their shopping habits and the classic design codes of the boot perfectly align with the new paradigm of quality, longevity, usefulness, and ethical implications. Though the American designed boots have become a house-hold staple -- returning every year alongside pumpkin-spice lattes -- the slurry of global issues shouldered by the simple footwear appreciator has opened the door for duck boots, and their many children, to keep lots of new feet warm with timeless, quality construction from old-fashioned techniques. Text: Samuel Trotman Collage: Jahved Crockett