Monday, October 09, 2017

A short history of Ugg Boots

Like me and many others you might believe a ploughman's lunch was the traditional fare of land laborers. Well the truth of the matter is the plate of bread, cheese and pickle was an invention of marketing executive in the sixties, commissioned to sell, relish.

Somewhat in a similar manner the Ugg Boot seems to be thought as the traditional Australian and New Zealand footwear since the beginning of time. Of course this is not the case and the term Uggs is thought to be in common venacular since the early 1950s. Many believe the surfing fraternity started wearing makeshift sheepskin leg covers in the nineteen sixties. Legend has it a group of surfing jackeroos working on a West Australian sheep ranch wrapped their legs in pure merino fleece after taking their daily dip in the chilly surf.

Traditionally people working with sheep used the discarded fleece in the form of felt as clothing. Felt is a fabric made from wool but the fibres are not woven or knitted. Instead they are matted caused when small scales on the outside surface of the fibre rub and inter-lock when wet. These then bind tightly together or matt when dried. No one can be quiet sure when felt was discovered but it is considered to be one of the oldest textiles. Sandals and felt boots (valenki) are thought to be the original sheep skin shoes and were worn from prehistory. Initially they took on a decorative rather than protective function and were prized by the influential and powerful within the society. In the 4th century BCE felt caps and boots were worn by Northern and Central Eurasian peoples (the Turkics) providing them with ideal protection from the biting frost. Felting technology became highly developed and Roman soldiers wore felt breastplates (for protection from arrows), tunics, boots and even socks. Chinese Emperors sat on felt mats and invading armies slept in felt tents. By the Middle Ages. At least one Pope plagued with foot problems used some animal wool to felt his shoes.

The feel of pure merino wool next to their skin felt good after a dip in the cold water. The lads began sewing sheepskin fleece together as leg protectors before attaching linoleum soles on the bottom to make the shoes last longer. Not surprising the makeshift boots were called "ugly, " then abbreviated to "ughs' or uggs. The fad caught on and soon spread to early morning Gold Coast surfies and there the crude linoleum was replaced with rubber soles. In 1975 an Australian surfer (Brian Smith) went to the US and discovered the Ugg boot had not migrated to West Coast America. He started to import boots and distributed them through surf shops. In no time up and down the west coast from California to Mexico cottage industries were set up to make ugg boots for surfers. Smith registered the name ‘ugg boot’ as a trademark in the early 70s and by the mid-eighties ‘uggs; were established as a West Coast surfie cult. Smith eventually sold his interests to Deckers in 1995.

The ugg reached celebrity status when Pamela Anderson (Lee) of Baywatch was snapped strolling through the sets wearing only her scarlet bikini and ugg boots. Later Uggs or Himalayan Boots formed part of the subplot in "Seinfeld."

The best ugg boots are made from Merino sheepskin because of the good insulation properties provided by the strength and tenacity of the fibres. The thick fleecy inner of merino sheepskin ugg boots are constructed from millions of microscopic fibres which give the linings strength and elasticity. Ounce for ounce, wool is stronger than steel and can withstand being bent over 30,000 times. In addition to strength, merino sheepskin possesses the ability to wick moisture and odour away. Merino sheepskin captures more air in its fibres than traditional sheepskin, the presence of air pockets creates the natural thermostatic qualities that keep feet warm during very chilly days (down to minus 30C) and cool during warmer days by circulating air. The ugg book can be worn anywhere and is comfortable both on the beach and in the snow. Wool fleece moulds to fit the shape of the foot preventing peak pressures under foot and lanoline moisturises skin as well as absorbing excess water. Improved manufacturing techniques make the footwear waterproof and more durable. Among sheepskin there is a vast difference in comfort levels. Thicker fibres are scratchy more fragile and offer less insulation whilst the finer grading of fibres of Merino wool give superior comfort and feel. Merino sheepskin is rarely used by ugg boot manufacturers with the vast majority of manufacturers preferring inferior sheepskins or combination with synthetic mixtures to keep the costs down. Cheaper boots wear more quickly and can harbour bacteria which may cause foul foot odour and/or fungal infections.

Hoping to capitalize, Deckers Deckers Outdoor Corporation systematically bought out all the small entities making sheepskin ugg boots. Realising the potential for fashion crossover, they acquired the name UGG® Australia in 1995, but when the company tried to protect their interest overseas problems arose in Australia and New Zealand.

In 2000, Oprah Winfrey was given pair of Ugg boots and taken with their comfort featured them on "Oprah's Favorite Things" show which caught the attention the program’s demographic. As a result, the much have fleece line boots flew off the shelves and suppliers could not keep up with demand at a time when most of North America was experiencing an extended cold spell. The spike in demand and shortage of boots for sale in America meant consumers everywhere reached for the internet and bought Australian uggs over the internet. Desperate to safeguard exclusivity Deckers (US) in 2003, took legal action to prevent other companies using the name ‘ugg’ including those in OZ. The term ‘ugg’ in Australia is considered a generic term for sheepskin footwear and used by almost 70 sheepskin footwear makers. Australian ugg boot makers responded by trying to legally challenge the protected term. After long court battles, in 2006 it was finally accepted 'ugg’ was a generic term in common Australian use and hence, unfair to restrict it. Now fashion Australian ‘uggs’ can be found from Dog Town to the slopes of Vancouver; from the streets of Essex to the Paris Catwalks.

In the spirit of zeitgeist, the rise in popularity of slip-on footwear was determined by global events such as 9/11 (2001), changing global climate and downturn in the economy. Increased security necessitated travelers wore shoes that could be removed at airports and other security posts; the pressing need to dress fashionably for changing weather conditions; and the availability of cheaper shoes. The fashion industry sought out styles that were fit for purpose and hence, Uggs, flip flops ( Havaianas ) and plastic clogs (Crocs) all enjoyed high vogue. Discerning travelers could now skip effortlessly through even the most stringent security checks unhindered by buckles and laces without compromise to the beauty of their feet and legs. Uggs could be worn in warm and cold condition with ease and comfort.

In times of hardship and economical decline shoe styles take on a utilitarian or unisex bravura. Predictably this is met with a tirade of abuse from traditional fashionista and the foot police who zealously guard their right to be well healed and foot healthy. Uggs, flip flops and plastic clogs have all came in for their share of criticism. When Ugg boots became the footwear of choice of Chavs and "looting chic, " the fleecy lined footwear dipped in high fashion popularity among the well-heeled as alternatives such as the Mukluk wee sought out.

Meantime there was a ready market for the cheaper clones among the lower socio-economical group demographic. Despite a complete absence of supporting evidence, podiatrists soon were claiming Uggs failed to the foot station, forecasting all manner of nasties to everyone who dares wear them. Foot strain has always been a focal point for medicalization, in part because there is no known cause in at least half the cases; and more importantly the temptation to demonize footwear is an easy cop out.

Here in Australia, despite their international appeal Ugg boots are socially tarnished and thought by many (quite wrongly) to be inferior footwear worn by Bogans (uncouth blaggard). Availability of cheaper and inferior quality boots ensure high sales but the shelf life is short and the boots are rarely maintained in good quality. By stark contrast expensive high fashion Uggs still enjoy patronage of the gliteratti and at the 2016 SAG Awards, luminary Carol Burnett complemented her super-glam green two-piece outfit with her favourite grey Uggs to receive her 2016 SAG Life Award.


Admistrators at Pottsdam Middle School in Pottsdam, Pa. banned pupils from wearing ugg boots to school. Apparently authorities were alarmed at the number of girls hiding mobile phones in their uggs. The school has a strict policy on cell phones prohibiting their use during class hours. Students were using the phones for texting and posting on Facebook. Students now only wear their winter boots to school but then must change out of them into sneakers or another shoes that lace at the ankle and cannot conceal a cell phone. Most parents were incredulous that the school thought that banning boots would solve the problem of sneaking cell phones. In day of old sailors turned their long (thigh length) boots over their knees and used the concealed panel to hide contraband rum (bootlegs).

Further Reading
Cormack L 2016 Australian ugg boot manufacturers fighting to use the word 'ugg' The Sydney Morning Herald
Nguyen D. (2016) Tracking: The Rise and Fall of the Ugg Boot in Recent Fashion History E Style Collective

Reviewed 2/02/2016

1 comment:

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