bootblacking and beyond

Raise your hand if you think bootblacking is hot.

Hm. Okay, so I can’t actually see how many of you that is, but I’ll presume if you keep reading it’s either because you already see and possibly feel the appeal, or because you have no idea what I’m talking about and you’re curious. For the latter group, the short version is: bootblacking is the practice in which a person eroticizes or otherwise enjoys caring for shoes and boots in a manner or setting acknowledged to be kinky. As in, this does not apply to the shoeshine guy at the airport, or at least it’s not fair to assume that it does, though who knows – anything is possible.

I am not equipped to give a cultural history of kinky bootblacking. I’m honestly not sure where it comes from or how it achieved the status it has in leather/kink circles – though I’d love to know. Something tells me there’s a link to early gay male leather groups that came out of the Army; it just seems logical given military culture’s emphasis on having the perfect bootshine. If someone out there has info to share or a book to recommend, please comment and let me know!

I’m also not entirely sure I can explain why the practice speaks so strongly to me as a kinky person. I appreciate care and respect for property, and proper maintenance, but I’ve never found myself particularly drawn to doing shoe care myself; rather, I am a fervent appreciator of those who make it their specialty. There’s some combination of my appreciation for good service (especially the detail-oriented, high-standards kind), the erotic thrill of seeing someone kneel at my feet to perform such service, my long-lasting love (and mild fetish) for high-quality footwear and the resulting practical need for the maintenance of my collection, and the curious fact that the vast majority of bootblacks are of the masculine variety, where my attractions tend to lie. Of course in gay male leather culture there’s not much room for anything outside the masculine (and I do mean masculine, not simply male), so necessarily that would transfer to its bootblacks; but even in dyke/trans culture, bootblacks are overwhelmingly of the butch or FTM persuasion, and because that’s the gender range that most often appeals to me, it all seems to fit together. The happy package deal of a service-oriented masculine female-bodied person kneeling to both erotically appreciate and competently maintain my footwear just kinda works for me. Yum.
There’s a whole other sub-question here about why the femmes are so few and far between in bootblacking culture. You’d think that there’s a sufficiently high number of  submissive femme gals out there, and a sufficiently high number of tops (and non-tops) with boots that need maintaining, that girly-gals would be drawn to the practice as well. But it just ain’t so. Not that I’ve never seen a femme polish a boot… but it’s a rarity. I began to notice this a couple of years ago, and started to ask around as to why that might be the case. The asking involved me having conversations with numerous butch and FTM bootblacks over the course of many months in several different cities, and interestingly, they almost all kinda scratched their heads and agreed that the gender balance is indeed skewed but couldn’t really say why. And every last one of them said, “You should talk to Elegant!” … who is apparently rather well known for being a femme bootblack. Perhaps I should say the femme bootblack. While most of the folks I spoke to could think of a few not-quite-butch bootblacks, Elegant’s was the only name that came up in the realm of strongly identified femme.

So I did, in fact, talk to Elegant, by e-mail at least, and it was delightful. I have been remiss in my follow-up, so I don’t currently know what her thoughts are on the gender skew and its reasons per se, but she definitely made me grin in her description of how she works her gender into her bootblacking:

“I usually bootblack in dresses and skirts also but I sometimes wear a variation on the traditional boy attire: black velvet tap pants, white tank top with rhinestone trim, black high-heeled ‘combat height’ boots with pink laces, white lace socks and pink lacing on my bodice style leather vest. It’s a hoot! I find I can be more sensually erotic when bootblacking while dressed high-femme. The feel of soft cloth hem caressing my own legs adds to my heightened senses and a low cut top offers intriguing places to rest a booted foot.  The only problem I have is when I have long nails…the wax gets imbedded deep. Ahh, the things a high femme has to deal with.”

Neato. Interestingly, while I totally get that femme presentation has its own sensual appeal and just generally works for her, it strikes me that in addition to personal taste, she seems to enjoy her gendered approach to the practice in part precisely because it’s outside the realm of what’s usually seen in bootblacking culture. Again – kinda fascinating. I would muchly appreciate comments from anyone who has observations or thoughts on the gender question here, particularly from those who are bootblacks themselves!

Like many (perhaps most) things in kink and leather culture, bootblacking is under-studied and there is very little written about it. So when I came across Andrew McDiarmid’s book Bootblacking 101: A Handbook last fall at Little Sisters in Vancouver, I snapped it up, thinking it would fill the gap. Unfortunately, it’s… well, not so great. It’s published by the Nazca Plains Corporation based in Las Vegas, under the moniker Boner Books; we can now add that name to the list of kink-oriented publishers who seem to think copy editing is optional. Gah. It’s painful, my friends. Downright cringe-inducing. Terrible grammar, hopelessly confusing structure, excessive repetition… oy. Not only that, but less than half the already-short book is actually devoted to the art of bootblacking; the rest is made up of poorly written boot-themed erotic fiction. There are a few pages on basic technique, but if I were interested in taking up the art of bootblacking, I would find them woefully inadequate as far as educational merit goes, especially given the obsession for detail that most bootblacks I know tend to evidence.

McDiarmid does provide some good insight into his attraction to bootblacking, with his seven points on “the Tao of bootblacking” outlining his spiritual approach – highly service-oriented and focused on submission regardless of the gender or kink identity of the person in the chair. Very interesting; in some ways this piece is the strongest element of the book.

But the problem is that every person who bootblacks does so for their own reasons, and not all of them line up with McDiarmid’s. For example, Eli, Bootblack Toronto 2007, flipped the book open, took one look at McDiarmid’s statement “Bootblacking is becoming submissive to the leather person who sits upon your chair,” and sniffed in disdain. Apparently for Eli, bootblacking isn’t a submissive act at all; Eli flags left with a bootprint hanky, not right. Sure, that might be somewhat an exception to the rule, but clearly submission is not a necessary ingredient for good bootblacking or Eli wouldn’t have won a title.

Now, McDiarmid isn’t trying to say everyone has to do things his way… but nonetheless, the only book out there on the topic conveys this one specific idea of what the discipline is all about, and conveys it consistently and in no uncertain terms. So we are left without a work that gives us a historical view of bootblacking, or a sense of the range of motivations and styles in the current scene.

And bootblacking is indeed a distinct scene, with its own titleholding contests and politics and traditions. The practice of bootblacking is not to be confused with the general idea of boot and shoe worship, which is incredibly wide-ranging in nature and motivation and pansexual in its appeal. Midori wrote a short but really excellent guide on the topic, The Toybag Guide to Foot and Shoe Worship, from Greenery Press, which is just jam-packed with excellent suggestions and ideas about the how and what of foot and shoe appreciation. In 101 very small pages, she manages to provide a vast overview of the approaches one can take to foot and shoe enjoyment, covering everything from how to inflict sadistic pain on a foot to how to properly receive sensual worship.

This opens up a whole other range of discussion for me – I could muse for days on why I’ve got such a thing for owning and wearing good footwear and why I’m so into having attention paid to my feet and shoes, but I’ll spare you. Suffice it to say that if I had to list my lifetime top ten most memorable erotic experiences, quite a chunk of those would include some element of foot or shoe play, from the first time I ever set foot (ha!) in a fetish club to the most intimate scenes I’ve done with longtime partners, with plenty of pedicures and shoe-shopping expeditions along the way. And in the realm of D/s, one of the first rituals that evolved between me and Boi M was his tender and careful putting-on and removal of my shoes when we leave the house or get home – a ritual that has extended to other relationships and interactions since then. Really I could go on… the list of shoe- and foot-related pleasures I’ve enjoyed is very, very long. But I digress.
I guess if anything, this whole post is an extended question: why do we have so little literature about such a widespread kinky practice? If foot and shoe fetishism is so common, and the sub-interest in bootblacking so popular as to warrant its own entire subculture with attendant rituals, contests and celebrities, why is there not a single solid, thick, meaty book bringing together everything there is to know about the sensual pleasuring of and care for the foot and footwear? I find it relentlessly puzzling that we’ve got an abundance – perhaps even an excess – of intro-to-BDSM books out there that all say more or less the same thing, but so very little written about one of the most widespread areas of kinky enjoyment. The 200 pages I’ve found – half of them badly written by McDiarmid, half of them wonderfully written by Midori – barely scratch the surface of what’s out there. What’s the deal?

We need literature that covers the how-to of foot and shoe care in detail, taking into account the many varieties of shoes and boots out there; that discusses how to choose quality footwear that suits your body, your purpose and your kink, with questions of fashion and subcultural specificity; that includes much more in-depth information about the history and current state of foot- and footwear-related communities, from hetero stocking-lover groups to leather-culture bootblacking societies; that features personal accounts from foot and footwear appreciators across a broad spectrum of orientations and specific kinks to help illustrate the incredible variety out there; that presents any scientific information out there about the eroticization of feet and footwear, framed in a properly critical light; and that examines the psychology and experience of the many varieties of foot and footwear lovers within a thoughtful, analytical framework. And all of this needs to come from within the kink community – there’s plenty of work out there about footwear from a historical or fashion-related perspective, lots of foot massage and pedicure how-to books, entire institutions (like Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum – yum!) devoted to the items with which human beings shod ourselves, and certainly medical literature that pathologizes those who love the lower digits. But there is a disturbing absence of thoughtful, informative, and explicitly kink-positive or kink-oriented writing on these topics.

I know, I know. I’ll add it to the list of books I’ll get around to writing one day. In the meantime, just let me gripe. I’m allowed to be grumpy. It’s been three weeks since my last pedicure.

14 Responses

  1. How about an anthology of boot and shoe care and feeding (and all the wonderfulness that goes along with it)??! I reckon there are folks out there who have a wealth of knowledge on the subject…..
    Just a thought.

  2. Elegant’s comment goes along the lines of what I was thinking: It’s greasy, dirty, gets caught in nails, and can stain clothing. Most of the femmes I know wouldn’t want that if they’re out, even if others think it’s hot. It could be comparable to changing a car’s oil, thus not falling into an area most femmes enjoy. If you hear any other thoughts on that outside of here, please share.

    I was tending leathers years before coming into the fet scene. Aside from being necessary at times, it was a way of showing my equine friends that I cared. I enjoy bootblacking for the same reason.

    Saddle soap, dubbin, polish…is it suddenly hot in here? ;)

  3. I don’t know if this is actually true, or just my confirmation bias talking, but when I first started hanging out in trans and kinky circles, I was struck by how much of gender performance and sexual performance were drawn, basically unaltered, from existing roles and archetypes in society.

    So it might not be any more complicated than bootblack as a fetish being masculinised because non-fetish bootblacks tend to be men.

  4. Motobootboy: Yep. You’re definitely on to something.

    Mish: Y’know, on the surface that makes a certain amount of sense, because femme gender presentation is generally seen to be fairly pristine and possibly even fussy. But at the same time I know tons of femmes who aren’t the least bit shy about getting dirty – one hottie of Motobootboy’s acquaintance posted a very sexy photo spread of herself on Facebook working on her car, for instance, and I know femme girls who garden, renovate, box (and bleed), make art, cook, and do scads of other things that aren’t so kind to the manicure. And I know plenty of butch folks who spend way more time on their hair or agonizing about the exact cut of their shirts or jeans than you might think – a butch friend of mine is apparently legendary for vehemently forbidding anyone to touch her hair once it’s perfectly coifed, and she’s not the only one such creature I’ve encountered. So I don’t think it’s quite as simple as butch = messy and femme = clean. But I’d definitely be interested in hearing other perspectives on the question…

    Jake: Interesting thought… simple but it has a ring of truth!

  5. Well, in a rather unofficial sort of comment, here’s what I know:

    Bootblacking in leather communities has been largely an oral tradition, so finding its history is rather difficult, but what we do know is that you are correct. It came out of WWII veterans returning and seeking the company of other men, forming the first leather clubs. Bootblacking became a rite of passage – with potential pledges doing the leathers of members until they became members themselves and the next pledges did theirs etc. I would imagine that a particular club’s night at a given bar could be a good parlay into blacking for GDIs and club members in a bar setting. When the bar leather contests started to move international etc, it made sense for the bootblacks to follow suit. IML’s Bootblack Contest was founded in 1993 by Harry Shattuck, I believe out of that very thought.

    Many of us still carry on an oral tradition to this day. I learned first via oral tradition from my dad then from two other bootblacks in a formal apprenticeship. Someday, I will pass on the knowledge I have gained in a similar way.

    I have searched the LA&M for information about bootblacking, and most of it is either purely erotic (found in the pages of Drummer) or is related to specific titles and specific titleholders. My goal has been to donate tangible artifacts of bootblacking for display at the LA&M. The best how-to manual I have found have been the words of other bootblacks (either in person or on the Forum) and my personal experience. I have since created a how-to manual for the technical aspects of bootblacking – at least the way I do it – so that I can present things to the general public, and once I have some time, I’ll likely try and put it out into the world in a book form along with aspects of service (giving and receiving), foot and ankle anatomy and physiology, etc.

    Lately, I’ve been having fun topping a certain friend while I do his boots in public. It fucks with people’s heads in a good way and gives me a chance to have reason to use blindfolds, gas masks, and restraints while blacking. :)

  6. Ah, Riley. Leave it to you to give such a thoughtful comment on the topic. Thanks so much for all the cool info! Of course a bootblack who’s enough of a leather geek to be working for the LA&M would be the best person to produce such a book. Really, honey, get on it! The world needs what you got!

  7. When I first looked myself for some reference or How-To on bootblacking, I found – nothing. I had to take what I learnt in the Army, and talk to other bootblacks and go to classes on leathercare to pick stuff up. I’ve only been publicly blacking for just over a year.

    I like the oral tradition of bootblacking, but its definately better if you are _doing_ it, rather than reading about it. Nothing will be a better teacher than seeing a type of leather, and feeling it. Smelling it and rubbing it between your hands and the polish. I know Andrew, and his technique does not work for me. But I totally get his Tao point.

    Doing it is hot. Watching it is hot. Talking about it, or reading about it, is not to me. If someone is interested in learning, I’ll let them practice on my boots. :)

  8. boy nick – thanks for the comment. Always nice to know there are more of you wonderful creatures out there. :)

    Lolita – nice to see you here! Thanks for the link. I have this book at home and it comes highly recommended by many kinksters, but I haven’t looked through it in detail yet. From a cursory glance I got the impression it was a general guide to leather and latex care, though I am guessing by the fact that you left this link here that you know it contains footwear-specific info too. It’s such a thin little book I imagine it doesn’t have tons of detail on footwear – or does it? Can you or anyone else confirm that? I’m off in SF right now and nowhere near my bookshelf to go have a look…

  9. mmMmmmMmmmMm. what a delicious topic. (insert long daydreaming pause here).

    But, bootblacking transcends the leather itself for me: it’s all about focused love, devotion, service, discipline, detail,shoes, boots — all sorts of good things. As a vegan cabana boi, perhaps i will start working on my contribution to the literature: A Manual of Vegan Bootblacking. Break out the vegan polishes, soaps, dubbin, and soft rags! And the specially modified Q-Tips …

    Damn! I have to return to my alt.computer screen (i.e., work).

  10. A vegan cabana boi bootblack?

    Hot damn.

  11. Haha! I guess it *does* sound a bit outrageous. Nevertheless … yes. The shoe fits (although I’m not necessarily the one wearing it).

  12. [...] [...]

  13. Why *do* we have so little literature? That’s certainly the question plaguing me this week. I’m working on a paper on bootblacking as an aesthetic and erotic practice that is seen as the ethical center of the leather community. I’m arguing that bootblacking helps convey authority within the community; if the statement “Your boots look like shit” is not just about appearance, but about one’s character, then bootblacking can be a source of aesthetic authority. Or something. Anyway, I am tearing my hair out over the paucity of source material of any kind, other than the couple of small-press or self-published books out there. Not that they’re not good resources, but I can only cite them so many times.

    Anyway, my ongoing search for more materials led me to this post, which while several years old, points to a problem that hasn’t changed in the interim.

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