Soldiers of the British 8th Army wearing Desert Boots in North Africa, 1942.
Similar to that of the modern day polo shirts, the Chukka Boot also has its origins seated in the game of polo. It's history is bound in both military heritage and sport.
The term "chukka" is a term used by polo players that refers to a 7 minute period of the game. The term derives from the Hindi term 'chukkar' which is often translated as 'a casual stroll.' So goes the characteristic of the Chukka Boot, it was designed to be casual in nature during an era where sneakers did not exist. In modern times however, where tucking in your shirt is considered "dressed up", the Chukka has a far more versatile role in the EveryMan's wardrobe then could have been conceived 50 years ago.
The modern Chukka Boot are said to have been given its name due to it's visually similar appearance to the boots worn by polo players called Jodhpur boots. Although there is no concrete evidence that proves what we now call as Chukka Boots having been worn by polo players during actual matches, they were likely worn by polo players after games.
A pair of Jodhpur boots similar to those worn by polo players.
As British soldiers stationed in India began to favor the local sport of polo, so too did they adapt the clothing. Among those clothing items would be the Chukka Boot. These soldiers would bring back this shoe design in a East/West cultural exchange. As far as the apparel surfacing in the United States, it is largely owed to the Duke of Windsor, Prince Edward VIII (known for his rebellious fashion apparel). He made a visit to the States sporting the Chukka in the early 20th century.
The appeal of this shoes design to the Duke and others was easily apparent. Chukka Boots were comfortable compared to Oxford and Derby shoes of the era making it favorable to young men of the time whom wanted to step away from tradition. Besides civilians, the military would pick up on the trend during WWII. During the time, arguably the most dreaded station a British soldier could be assigned was in North Africa. The weather was stifling hot, sandstorms were a commonality, water was scarce and the sun was unforgiving.
Standard issue boots of the time were characterized as being heavy and unbreathable. To combat this, soldiers purchased ankle high boots with rubber soles for traction. These would be known as desert boots. The main difference between the Chukka and the desert boot would be the rubber sole which offered more traction than leather soles.
Shoemaker Nathan Clark showing his wares.
The desert boot would later be produced by Nathan Clark, a son of a prominent shoemaking company and soldier in the British Army. After his family rejected his designs, he took it to the US after the war. It would be known as the Clarks Desert Boot. The public loved it as the design offered a more comfortable option compared to the vast array of stiff leather shoes that were available.
An early ad for Clarks Desert Boots. 'Desert Fox' refers to the highly decorated WWII German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.
And the rest is history, the design would remain popular throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. Many variations would pop up, but the Chukka Boot would remain essentially the same.
A Handsome Pair of Chukka Boots
The Takeaway: Born in the sport and leisure of British India and popularized in battle during harsh conditions in the cruel deserts of North Africa during WWII, the Chukka Boot has withstood the test of time. It's comfort, style and functionality has made it a mainstay in the modern man's wardrobe.
Note: Chukka Boots are, generally speaking, ankle height boots with 2-3 eyelets. Desert Boots are Chukka Boots characterized by rubber soles and light leather (think suede). In other words, all Desert Boots are Chukka Boots, but not all Chukka Boots are Desert Boots. If you want to learn how to wear chukka boots, check out this article.