Modern menswear has a lot to thank the military for. Mostly, it’s the outerwear silhouettes that have evolved from functional combat kit to become everyday essentials – think trench coats, pea coats, safari jackets and bomber jackets.
But military footwear has also jumped the trenches and made a march for our collective wardrobes, with the likes of the summer desert boot being one such example. However, the style that has courted the most cachet with modern style is of course the combat boot, which has brought an edge to the luxury streetwear aesthetic.
These are not the direct descendants of tough leather hobnail boots, but rather a more technically-savvy piece of kit, lightweight and minimalist – the perfect adjunct to a refined modernist look.
A Brief History of Combat Boots
As you might imagine, the design of combat boots has largely followed the undulating terrain of the battlefields they were imagined for ever since the early 1800s, when US Army troops were issued with purpose-made ‘Jefferson’ boots that, bizarrely, didn’t differentiate between left and right.
Trench boots followed in World War I, reinforced with a metal plate in the heel and cowhide in the sole. Unfortunately, they had little to no waterproofing qualities, which given the nature of muddy trenches, led to the widespread affliction known as ‘trench foot’.
Efforts to make them more waterproof towards the end of the campaign resulted in a boot colloquially known as the ‘little tank’ on account of its weight when wet.
Combat boots got progressively better throughout the 20th century, tailor made for the military zones they found themselves in. Conflict in the tropics of Vietnam facilitated the invention of a jungle boot for example, featuring a nylon mesh reinforcement in the neck of the boot as well as ventilating insoles.
The Gulf War saw the arrival of the light tan or ‘coyote’ combat boot, on account of the desert terrain, and it’s these boots that became the blueprint for most military footwear designed for action today.
Key Types Of Modern Combat Boots
While there are not different ‘types’ of combat boot per se, there are certainly two well-defined camps that the genre splits into: those with a classic vintage aesthetic, and those with a discernibly contemporary aesthetic.
Handcrafted production processes will almost always be involved in the vintage style, since they tend to be constructed with leather uppers and sometimes come Goodyear welted, so you can expect a lot of the Northamptonshire heritage bootmakers to specialise in this style.
That doesn’t mean that more contemporary designs are not sometimes handcrafted, it’s just that the majority of these will take on a more streetwear aesthetic, incorporating elements of sneaker construction.
Chunky rubber soles are the norm across both categories, and as for eyelets, you can expect at least six pairs in most cases. The height of combat boots vary quite substantially, going all the way up to mid-calf, but generally speaking, expect the boot to finish three-to-four inches above the ankle.
Black leather styles make up the vast majority of today’s military boot options, ranging from smooth calf leather to high-shine patent leather. Of course, desert styles typically come in the ‘coyote’ tan colourway via brushed leather and suede.
The Best Designer Military Boot Brands
It goes without saying that almost all of the specialist bootmakers produce combat boots of some description so we’ve curated our favourites below.
But given its popularity in recent seasons, a vast number of both luxury fashion houses and sneaker brands have also got in on the act, so think of this as an eclectic selection of the very best on the market today.
Prada was always the modernist darling of the fashion world but now that Raf Simons has joined Miuccia Prada at the design table, things have started to get real interesting.
With the brand’s predilection for the colour black permeating just about every collection, it should come as no surprise that military boots are a regular feature, offering an edgy adjunct to the slick minimalist garments.
This season’s stomper offering presents a number of different combat styles, some leaning on classic military styles while others look to push a more futuristic agenda.
Top of our list is the chunky soled Monolith style in brushed leather and nylon, which features an ankle pouch for any post-apocalyptic trinkets you might need to hide away.
Rick Owens is the dark lord of fashion, regularly applying his penchant for futuristic minimalism across his brooding menswear collections.
Naturally, this makes for a great backdrop for combat boots, and Owens never fails to deliver interesting iterations. Recently, Owens did a sell-out combat boot collaboration with Dr. Martens (you’ll need to dig around resale sites if you want to snag a pair) so keep your eyes well-peeled for any follow ups.
Otherwise, Owens’ iconic high tops make for a great sneaker interpretation of the military style, featuring padded ankles and oversized tongues.
Northampton-based, British heritage shoemaker Church’s might now be owned by Prada, but normal service has continued at this legacy brand. Church’s meticulous approach to shoemaking has served it well ever since the company was founded in 1873, and today it still produces all the classic styles.
Its military boots reference the traditional styles of old, with the Coalport 2 style being our favourite option, constructed from beautifully-soft grain calf leather with a Goodyear build and storm welt.
Valentino’s resurgence in recent years has come on the back of a long history of stunning womenswear, but now the Italian icon’s menswear has closed the gap thanks to some excellent collections combining a logo-heavy streetwear aesthetic with the house’s couture heritage.
Edgy combat boots have played their part, and this season is no different, with two fashion iterations in soft calfskin. The Vlogo version more closely resembles the traditional paratrooper boot, while the red-laced boot features a row of ruthenium-finished studs down the back.
The masters of the modern lo-fi sneaker, Common Projects’ devotion to minimalism has never wavered since it was first launched in 2004, despite expanding its offer into a number of different shoe styles.
Naturally, the New York brand eventually swung its gaze around to the combat boot, after having much success with the Chelsea boot.
It’s produced a fine version too: a technical lace-up style crafted in Italy from soft leather and a matte-finish upper, punctuated with the now instantly-recognisable gold-tone numbering at the heel.
Now under the direction of Ib Kamara since Virgil Abloh sadly passed away, Off-White has maintained its cult brand momentum to remain one of the most sought-after luxury streetwear labels in the world.
But labelling it ‘streetwear’ is a little unfair, since Off-White specialises in mashing up genres, something it does with aplomb.
While statement sneakers are its bread and butter, the label always produces some solid combat boots with quirky details, such as this season’s excellent offering with two-tone sponge soles.
It’s fair to say that Balenciaga has positioned itself as the enfant terrible of contemporary luxury fashion, with avant-garde collections that rip up the rule book.
There’s something innately combative about Balenciaga’s aesthetic, which makes it the perfect creative territory for modern combat boots. The brand has duly obliged with some cracking styles this season, all of which seem to hark from a post-apocalyptic landscape with names like Bulldozer, Rhino, Strike, Trooper and Hummer.
Our pick is the Rhino, a bona-fide calfskin military style right until you get to the toe of the boot, which contorts into a pyramidal rhino horn.
Founded in Northamptonshire in 1866, shoemaker Grenson’s longevity comes down to both its supreme commitment to quality and its ability to adapt with the times. The latter is evidenced by its excellent ‘Tech Pack’, a beefed-up waterproof collection of shoes and boots that have been designed to stand up to extreme rigours. Plus they look awesome, too.
Of the military style, the Goodyear-welted Brady Tech boot in black oiled suede and Cordura is the pick of the bunch, with a black rubberised bumper, speed lacing, padded tongue and collar, and a breathable and water-resistant mesh lining.
Joseph Cheaney & Sons
Another of the heritage British bootmakers, Joseph Cheaney’s reputation has been undimmed ever since it was founded in 1886 thanks to a meticulous approach to handmade footwear.
It specialises in dress shoe styles so you won’t see anything too avant garde here, but what it does, it does exceedingly well. Of the military options, our favourite is the Hurricane II Derby Boot in black Kudu leather. Originally released in 2015 as part of Cheaney’s 142 Aviator Collection, it is based on a flight boot that once belonged to the founder’s grandson.
The exotic Kudu leather is a nice touch, as is the full leather lining and commando rubber sole.