How Hip-Hop Coopted a Boot Made for Construction Workers
Tracking the rise of the Timberland 6".
Biggie Smalls playing dice in the '90s.
This article is supported by Timberland. We look at the 6" boot's journey through hip-hop history from blue-collar staple to coveted urban wear.
Hip-hop has seen some unpredictable fashion trends over the years. There was that blip in the mid-80s when grown men started wearing plastic shower caps. Then there was the one-pant-leg-rolled-up thing, popularised by either LL Cool J or Bobby Brown depending on who you ask. But one trend that always seemed pretty logical was the adoption of a sturdy yellow boot.
If you were born around 1990, you're forgiven for thinking the Timberland 6" was designed specifically with the hip-hop community in mind. But the boot was actually made to be worn by New England construction workers, and for a few decades they exclusively were.
Released in 1973, the Timberland 6" came with a guarantee to keep its wearer's feet dry. Thanks to rigorous testing (including immersing prototypes in the factory toilets overnight), it worked. The boot's popularity with workmen grew from there.
But how did Timberlands make their way from America's rural heartland to Kanye West's shoe humidor?
There's a strong case for the boot's popularity on the street starting with New York's drug dealers. "While the oversize parka and wool cap has been a hip-hop cultural artifact for most of its history, the heavy winter boots as year-round attire flowed out of their use by crack dealers clocking corners," writes hip-hop historian George Nelson in Hip Hop America. "These young dealers, many with romanticised views of themselves as outlaws, not simple crooks, became tastemakers directing both their customers and neighbours toward new merchandise."
By the late '80s to the early '90s the war on drugs—which was widely seen as America's war on black youth—was in full swing. Crack-cocaine had taken a stronghold in poor neighbourhoods and the gangsta rap genre was glamorising the street credibility that came with being a dealer.
In 1993, a group called Boot Camp Clik emerged from Brownsville, Brooklyn as part of the hardcore hip-hop scene. They were among the first artists to make a point of wearing the Timberland 6" as part of their uniform. Boot Camp might have fizzled out before achieving mainstream success, but their east coast contemporaries Wu-Tang Clan picked up where they left off and wore Timberland boots in their early videos.
This unauthorised endorsement by rappers opened up Timberland to a new urban, black market. "Timberland is being adopted by a consumer that we didn't know existed relative to our target audience," Jeffrey Swartz, executive vice president and grandson of the company's founder, told The New York Times in 1993.
Timberland even began limiting its stockists in an attempt to bring the boot back to the hardworking lumberjack-types they originally had in mind. Some took this as a sign that the brand were actively trying to distance themselves from any association with hip-hop culture, but it just meant that their unexpected customers were venturing out of New York's boroughs to buy a pair.
As Justin Monroe writes in a 2005 article for Vibe magazine, "the tree-stamped shit-kickers stood up beautifully to urban elements like concrete, barbed wire, and broken glass." While they proved to be a utilitarian choice for the streets, an unscuffed pair became a status symbol at the club. Apparently in the mid-90s, Jay-Z was buying a new pair every week.
It's been more than thirty years since Timbs clomped onto the hip-hop stage, and they're still here. When the company's executives realised that their hip-hop fan base wasn't fleeting (and wouldn't come at the cost of their traditional buyers), Timberland began to embrace this fan base. They developed new styles and colourways, and launched collaborations with brands like Supreme, Stussy, and Billionaire Boys Club.
But the key to their lasting success is pretty simple: in essence, the boot's design hasn't changed since the '70s even though it was co-opted by generation Y's hip-hop community, who made it their own.
This article is supported by Timberland. You can find out more about the 6" inch boot here.