Clarks Originals: Britain’s Sole Music

Life inside the uniform

For a boot that wouldn’t look out of place on an assistant teacher taking Year Ten’s Geography field trip around Cardiganshire, the desert boot and its associates have brushed ankles with a few characters in UK music culture.

Known affectionately among mod circles as the staple of the ‘wee mod’, the desert boot has been known to be worn by fake ID-fumbling junior members of the scene, due to its instantly recognizable mod qualities and the fact that they could be afforded the most meagrely-remunerated paper boy. High-flying mods bizarrely opted for the waffle-resembling ‘basket-weaves’.

The gear to wear with a ‘dessie’ – wee mods are you listening – is a Gabbicci polo shirt and parka [hood regulation unzipped to resemble fish tail]. There is furious debate on mod forums as to the suitable trousers to wear with desert boots; some say jeans with half an inch turns ups, others say one inch, some say Sta-Press is acceptable, but consensus is universal: desert boots with a suit will make you look like a right ned.

Clarks aren’t just for mods, however – in a rare wrong move for the brand it was appropriated by dodgy Franco-Australian prog rock group Gong, who released the 1975 song Cats in Clarks Shoes.

The desert boot was made in Cairo’s Old Bazaar during the Second World War, prompting the British Eight Army to pick up some pairs and gad about London in them on their leave. The trend for plummy colonial types in Clarks persisted. In 1967 Lord Shackleton, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords came back from Aden in some desert boots, prompting orders from several Government ministers for some dessies. “Was Wilson’s cabinet going mod?” asked one current observer.

Two years later, Abbey Road came out, with George Harrison traversing the zebras in a sturdy pair of dessies on the album sleeve; Bob Dylan in an interview in Playboy in 1966 is described: “With his leather cap, blue jeans and battered desert boots – his unvarying costume…look[ing] like an updated, undernourished Huck Finn”.

According to mod legend John Hellier, Clarks and the desert boot went underground in the 1980s, to enjoy a resurgence slightly after the Madchester Kickers fad expired. The Gallagher brothers, perhaps searching for even more Abbey Road fairy-dust, would don the Clarks, as, famously, did Richard Ashcroft on the Urban Hymns album cover and Bittersweet Symphony video. That particular album cover and its massive popularity at the time sparked a huge uptake in Clarks Wallabies.

The 1969 tagline for the Clarks Desert Boot in the New Yorker reads: “The off-beat casual for up-beat intellectuals”. More like “I’m mates with Casuals and I beat up intellectuals” for certain dessie wearers, but forget the rude boy tag – Clarks – from Jarvis to Weller, Harrison and Liam, have been part of a very British rock aesthetic since crepe-soled boots of the Old Bazaar.

Words by Miguel Cullen

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.