Posted: May 01 2014
Boat shoes have become associated with frivolity and playfulness, yet the story of how the shoe came to be suggests that the product was anything but unnecessary.
The boat shoe was inspired by Prince. Yes, Prince, but no, not this Prince. You see, Prince was also the name of a cocker spaniel owned by Paul Sperry, the creator of the boat shoe, and in 1935, when Sperry watched his dog slide across a patch of ice without losing traction, Sperry was struck with curiosity.
After all, for years, Sperry, an accomplished sailor, had risked bodily harm while walking along the slippery deck of his boat, relying only on his sense of balance to keep him from injury, but moments earlier, Prince made it look so easy. How?
Interestingly, the secret sauce was in the grooves of Prince's feet and because Sperry had no intention of altering the grooves of his feet, he instead decided to create a shoe that would mirror the pattern, and hopefully replicate the success, of Prince's feet. When Perry went to work, he utilized a process patented in the 1920s by John Sipe called siping and cut into the soles of the shoe a pattern of grooves that would maximize traction and grip on wet surfaces.
Sperry took a similarly deliberate approach in crafting the rest of the shoe. He decided to craft the upper part of the shoe from leather for comfort, but applied oil and water repellent to assure that the shoe would be able to withstand wetness. Furthermore, he selected rawhide laces, anodized eyelets, and durable stitching so the shoe could truly endure the rough and harsh waters for years to come. Finally, he chose white soles for his shoes as doing so prevented marks from being left on boat decks.
In 1939, the U.S. Navy negotiated rights to manufacture boat shoes for sailors and soon after, Sperry's boat shoe business was purchased by the U.S. Rubber Company, who, by taking boat shoes nationwide, transformed the product from a utilitarian good to a fashion good.
Even when offered nationwide, boat shoes remained nichey and were often worn by and associated with privileged, Northeastern prep school types, particularly because many of these types were also the ones who sailed and boated in the summers. Over time, the boat shoe has become less associated with class and more with certain types of styles, though you can find people ranging from rappers to Republicans in them these days.
And, don't you worry, Prince's efforts weren't all for naught. Boat shoes continue to be popular among those they were initially intended to serve - sailors - and remain a must have for sailors across the world.
So, the next time you see boat shoes and poo them off as an unnecessary evil, take a step back and remember where they came from. Also, maybe even give them a try. Someone almost literally busted their ass to bring them to market.