When I was a teenager I had a pair of sandy-suede Desert boots, a.k.a. Chukkas. I regretted for a long time not having those boots any longer, but now I have a new pair: *The Hawthorne Chukka by Soft Star Shoes.
I consulted Wikipedia on the difference between a Desert boot and a Chukka. Both the Desert and the Chukka are an unlined, ankle high boot, with open lacing and 2-3 eyelets. The upper is made in two parts. The main difference is that Desert boots are always suede uppers with a crepe sole. A Chukka can be a suede or leather upper, with either a leather or rubber sole. There is a vague connection with the game of polo. (If you, like me, are interested in the history of names, you may enjoy this site.
So, now we are all clear on what a Chukka boot is, yes? Let me tell you about this particular Chukka.
There is so much to love about this boot. First they are, of course, by Soft Star Shoes, which if you didn’t know, means handcrafted – by actual elves who dwell in Oregon – or so they claim. Soft Star Shoes makes minimalist footwear and you can read more about what makes a minimalist shoe, in my words, here.
The Hawthorne Chukka (like all Soft Star Shoes) are zero rise (no heel at all) and are totally flexible, like so:
The sole is made up of two layers: the first is a 4mm leather midsole, which is the tan layer you see. The outer sole is by Vibrams: an 8mm Geo sole, for a total of 12mm, which makes them the most ‘padded’ minimal shoes I own.
For fall-into-winter footwear this is a good thing: It is extra insulation from the cold and damp.
(I must confess that I have worn Soft Star Merry Janes for 3 winters with wool socks, but even then, my feet got cold – and sometimes wet. I looked for a minimal boot that would cover the top of my foot completely last winter but my local search was unsuccessful: I was really happy to hear Soft Star Shoes was making one!).
The back of the boot has some nice detailing with contrast stitching on the heel strip and a loop for pulling them on.
They are very comfortable and I didn’t need any break in time, I suspect because the leather is so deliciously soft.
They attach to the foot snugly with no pressure spots. The laces seemed overly long but they have become more supple as I have worn them a few times and I have decided they are fine.
I was told (by one of the elves) that they run small and weren’t available in my usual Women’s 6 so I decided to try the 7. They are a great fit width-wise, and only a tiny bit too long; my foot slips ever so slightly into the toe box with each step (I suspect this is not going to be an issue as the weather gets colder and I transition into thick socks).
I was slightly disappointed to see that they do not have a suede foot bed like my other Soft Star Shoes, but smooth leather. The leather is admittedly lovely, but I suspect it contributes to the foot slip. This is an easy fix by wearing a thicker sock or an innersole. Soft Star Shoes make a nice sheepskin pair and since I already had them on hand I tried them out; for putting the boots on my bare feet sans socks, I prefer it – but it may be a matter of taste.
I wore the boots all day – only an hour of steady walking – but I felt like I could walk in them all day. They also provided great traction: see the Vibram’s sole?
The charm of Chukkas is that they look good with jeans and casual pants, and if you follow fashion at all, you’ll be aware that women are wearing short boots with skirts. So naturally, I tried them out with a few choices.
I am pretty conservative about shoes: most of the ones I own are neutrals but I loved them in this red that Soft Star is calling Currant. It is such a happy colour.
They also come in Oxyx and Chicory which I also like, though in my opinion the Chicory is not that far from the red. I also love the over stitching around the upper. In a minimalist boot (on my foot at least) I find it gives the sole more structure.
- Zero rise and minimalist (full flex of feet).
- Good traction with a Vibrams sole.
- Plenty of room in the toe box.
- 12 mm between your foot and the ground – for warmth, dryness and cushioning on hard ground.
- Wear-out-of-the-box comfortable.
- Very light weight (9 oz.) and great for packing because you can fold them.
- Smart enough to take you from the trail to … anywhere … just about.
- An investment piece. Who knew Chukkas were ‘old school cool’?
- Small make – you may have to size up.
- Slippery foot bed.
- Price point: $190USD.
Since I own 5 pairs of Soft Star shoes, I am obviously a fan, but seriously I tried to come up with more negatives for a balanced review. But – unless you don’t like flats – I can’t think of more to add except a discussion of the price point: Only the Soft Star boots are priced higher.
But taking into consideration the value, I think this is a fair price. For one thing, they can be re-soled. I am anticipating several years of service from these boots at least, and to back this up, my first Soft Star purchase – Merry Janes, will be seeing their 4th winter this year and are still in mint condition. I wear them through all seasons – except in heavy rain and snow – and I am anticipating the Hawthorne Chukkas will be the same. Even if you get three years from them, it works out to $65 a year. I have bought quite a few shoes at that price that barely saw me through a season.
I am also looking forward to seeing new colours in this boot. I would really enjoy having the look of my old sand Desert boots but a high quality, which to me means a minimalist design.
*This addition to my footwear collection was a generous and most welcome gift from Soft Star Shoes.
Also called Barefoot Shoes, minimalist shoes are a special category of minimalism because they have a different meaning than what we usually mean by minimalism.
With minimalism the goal is to have fewer material things. Minimalist footwear could mean owning fewer pairs of shoes, or owning shoes that were as small as possible.
But in this case, minimalist shoes means minimal interference with the natural function of the feet. It refers to footwear that allows as much free movement of your natural, unshod foot as possible, while offering protection from injury (stepping on sharp things and having something heavy dropped on your foot) as well as protection from extreme heat and cold.
Minimal footwear allows your feet to behave as feet while still offering a buffer between the unnatural detritus found in the modern world that can cause injury.
Katy Bowman, Whole Body Barefoot: Transitioning Well to Minimal Footwear.
There are 4 main components of minimalist shoes: the sole, the heel, the toe box and the upper.
1. The Sole
Regular shoes are generally rigid and, sometimes, thick. Minimalist shoes have flexible soles and are usually thin enough to feel the contours of the ground through them and allows the foot to respond to the terrain. Ideally the soles are flexible so you can fold it.
2. The Heel
The next important thing about minimalist shoes is that the heel is non-existent. Just calling them ‘flats’ is misleading because many ‘flats’ have a very small rise. Minimalist shoes have a zero drop or a neutral heel. This is important because it allows your body to initiate movements from neutral, or an aligned position. A heel, even a small one, pitches the body weight forward and small adjustments are made in the joints to counteract it. These compensations have a physiological cost.
3. The Toe Box
Minimalist Shoes also have a larger toe box than traditional shoes, because toes are meant to move in all directions while moving, but most traditional shoes shape the toes into some fashionable shape that is considered attractive.
4. The Upper
The upper part of the shoe is why flip flops and slip-ons do not make good minimalist shoes. The upper must secure the shoe to the foot without requiring the wearer to grip their toes or tense the shin to keep the shoe on while walking.
3 More Reasons to Wear Minimalists Shoes.
- To regain foot mobility. The greater the mobility in your feet, the less likely you are to have knee, hip, lower back, pelvic floor, and psoas pain/problems.
- To regain lost calf and hamstring length. Your muscles adapt to whatever position you put them in most often. Wearing a positive heeled shoe (and also prolonged sitting) shortens the sarcomeres in the hamstrings and calves. There are a number of reasons why a person might want to reverse this, such as performing better on the ‘sit and rise test’ (how easily can you get to the floor or even touch your toes?), you want to squat, you have urinary incontinence or pelvic floor pain.
- To get a better booty. When you don’t use the back of your legs much there usually a corresponding lack of development in the gluteal muscles, and you end up with a flat butt.
Transitioning to Minimalist
If you’ve worn rigid soled shoes with a narrow toe box and a heel (even a small one) all your life, make your transition slowly.
1. Begin by lowering the height of your heel a bit and get used to that.
2. Don’t trade in your shoes for flip flops (or any other shoe that requires toe grip to keep them on your feet, because you are just trading in one problem for another.
3. Be aware that your walking gait pattern will probably change so be mindful of doing hard hiking, pounding on city pavement or running while wearing minimal shoes until you build up more mobility (and strength) in your feet.
Some Brands of Minimalist Shoes
Soft Star Shoes
Also, stop by my Pinterest page on minimalist shoes I own and ones I admire.
I’m doing a shoe purge. It sounds like I’ve got a huge shoe closet (maybe I do) but the reason I do is because it takes a long time for me to acknowledge that shoes I’ve spent good money on hurt my feet. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking my shoes will stretch. And leather shoes do stretch but when the toe box is so small – well sometimes I wonder who the manufacturers think have feet like that.
These shoes seem reasonable, don’t they? Sensible, even. So here is an outline of my foot and here are the shoes (The blue line is from the Newport loafers on the right). Apart from being way too long (and a good thing too because look what my toes would have to do to fit all the way down that pointy toe box) the width doesn’t look all that too small. But even without any socks on the metatarsal bones in my forefoot are squeezed. I can hear a little popping sound with every step. With socks on they feel like compression shoes.
The next photo shows what happens when we wear shoes with a too-small toe box, forever. We’ve been told that bunions are genetic. They are: you inherited your mother and grandmother’s taste in a smart shoe that unfortunately has a small toe box. Wearing the shoes does the rest.
So these shoes have to go because of the small toe box, but there is another consideration in my purge: heel height.
Heel height is contentious. Fashion people tell us to choose heel height to ‘fix our proportions’:
- If you’ve got short legs and a long torso, high heels will make you seem proportioned.
- The shorter the skirt the lower the heel.
- If you’ve got long legs you can wear flats.
- Heels go with dressy boot legged pants.
So to be healthy we should only wear short skirts and/or get longer legs.
But seriously, your skeletal frame and muscles don’t give a hoot about fashion or your proportions. We are finely engineered machines made up of levers, pulleys, joints and angles and while we have some individual differences, the skeletal frame and attachments are pretty much the same for everyone. What is different is the way individuals use their body and this is a mixture of cultural influences and the type of work and play someone does. But even if you’ve never done anything too extreme with your body, putting on a heeled shoe changes the stable structure that supports your frame.
Still most of us are surprised that wearing shoes with heels causes pain and deformity. Sadly the pain from wearing heeled shoes doesn’t end at the feet. It affects the length of the muscles in your lower legs, thighs, pelvis and lower back, middle back, shoulders, and neck. ALL the bones and joints in your body have to change in order to compensate for the unnatural angle we’ve put our feet into.
And I should add here, the shoes do not have to be high to cause problems. I am at a point where I can feel what is happening to my body when I wear my sensible under 2″ heels. I feel it primarily in my lower back. They have to go. And by this measure, most ‘walking’ shoes and athletic shoes have the same problem.
In the line drawing below, looks what happens if you add a ‘sensible’ heeled-shoe under a straight object – the object being the female form. But of course you can’t stand like that because you’d fall forward (middle illustration.) Our body makes a tuck here and a curve there so that it can stand upright and presto! You’ve got your third image. Fair enough when you are wearing the shoes, but here’s the rub: your muscles retrain themselves to be in that position even when you are barefoot.
By drawing a line, or hanging a weight from hip to ankle, we can see how the body has adjusted. In the photo on the right, which is my model’s regular stance, you can see how her knees are back and the thighs forward over the ball of the foot. To be aligned correctly a vertical line should extend from the middle of the hip, mid-knee and outer ankle. To correct her posture she needs to bring her weight back over the heels by backing her hips up. In the photo on the right the hips are backed up and there is more alignment, but this was the first time she’s consciously felt the difference between where she was before and after. She had to bend her knees a little to maintain it but as she practices it will become easier and her alignment will continue to improve.
Since most of us now look like the photo on the left to some degree, it doesn’t look unusual, BUT most of us are walking around with some degree of foot, knee, hip and lower back pain. Wearing heels isn’t the sole cause of these problems (you might have been in a car accident for example), but retraining the muscles to get the body back into alignment IS:
- a) difficult to do while still wearing even a sensible heeled shoe and
- b) can offer a very inexpensive solution of reducing or even eliminating pain – as long as you don’t take into consideration the expense of having to buy new shoes.
Ideally we need a toe box wide enough to allow toe wiggle room, a zero heel (zero-rise), and flexibility in the sole so that the shoes are as close to being barefoot as possible. Otherwise wearing shoes is like having your feet bound. Our feet are similar in terms of flexibility as our hands and fingers are, and they are designed to have a similar range of motion. Can you lift your toes and widen the space between them? Can you lift each toe individually? Take off your shoes and start practicing!
Which leads me to one last point: when I was younger I used to hear women say they didn’t want to go barefoot or wear flip-flops because their feet would spread and they’d need a larger (or wider) shoe. I can remember being warned against this! Which isn’t much different from foot binding mentality. We still believe small feet are pretty and sexy.
The guy below (Viggo Mortensen) goes around barefoot much of the time, which doesn’t have much to do with this article except I just thought about him.
Some of you will ask: don’t we need shoes for stability?
Thinking around this is changing (i.e. barefoot running) but yes, if you’ve always worn heeled shoes or boots, it will probably be quite uncomfortable to make the transition to a flatter or totally flat shoe all at once. A gradual lowering of the heel is usually a better choice as your feet regain some mobility and strength and the muscles in your calves and hamstrings begin to lengthen. Your feet will have to be conditioned either a little or a lot before going completely to Vibram’s Five Finger shoes.
And it doesn’t mean you have to swear off your heels forever. I have two pairs of relatively high-heeled shoes which are practically new and which I’m keeping, but they are strictly ‘date’ shoes. In other words my dear date, don’t expect me to walk any further than the car to the restaurant or movie theatre in them. They are both platforms and somehow when I bought them I thought the sole thickness took away some of the height (doesn’t it?) It looks that way if you subtract the sole from the heel but look at the angle of the mid sole. That’s how much my weight is thrown to the ball of my foot. That’s what you have to measure with wedges and platforms. They are sneaky. So by my standards theses are pretty high and it is why I can’t walk in them without pain. Oh, cruel shoes, you are so cute!
Now that I am retraining my muscles and undoing the damage, these are pretty uncomfortable to wear. And yes, I should get rid of them too, but – not yet. So,what are the alternatives? Katy Bowman, founder of Restorative Exercise(tm) shares some lists on her blog “Katy Says”:
Here is a minimal shoe list I keep on Pinterest.