You Can Keep Your Boots On

Boots provided courtesy of Mall of America. Left to right: spike-heeled
boots by Jessica Simpson, $128.95, at Nordstrom, thigh-high boots by
Aldo, $169.99, at Aldo, lace-up boots by BP. Shoes, $109.95, at
Nordstrom.

Anyone who likes watching women (which is pretty much everyone, including women) doesn’t like summer to end, for all the obvious reasons, but there is consolation. As the leaves turn and fall, as the temperatures drop, as the flesh gets covered back up, the FMBs return.

FMBs are women’s knee-length black boots. If you’re unfamiliar with this mostly British acronym, the “B” stands for boots, the “M” for me, and the “F” for something that makes the earth move and the world go round.

To put it bluntly: I’m a fan.

Beta versions of these boots, not quite so calf-hugging, with heels not quite so tall and deadly, were everywhere when I was a kid, often paired with miniskirts. I saw them on television (Lt Uhura on Star Trek, Catwoman on Batman) and in magazines (dark-haired models with sunglasses pushed up on their foreheads). These weren’t the shorter, whiter, go-go variety worn by Nancy Sinatra and others to dance their little pony steps to. FMBs had something dangerous (Catwoman) and militaristic (Lt Uhura) about them.

Still do. My friend Courtney, a twenty-nine-year-old editor, wears them, she said, “when I feel like kicking ass—mine or someone else’s.” She wears them not so much to attract, but not quite to repel, either. “A girl in a short skirt and tall boots,” she said, “drinking a Cuba Libre and kicking ass at pinball, is a girl to watch out for.” Another friend, Arlene, a grad student in her early thirties, said the boots “cause you to sway and stomp just enough to make people think twice about messing with you.” In this context, they are less FMBs than FYBs: the podiatric version of the rebel’s black-leather jacket.

Boots in general have a long military tradition, and the tall black variety has often been associated with officers. High heels once designated not the FM in FMBs, but rank and class. The higher up you were, the higher up they were. They designated power.

Still do. “They add height, and height equals power,” said Arlene, who at 5’1" is more aware of the height/power dynamic than the tall and obtuse. Kim, a forty-nine-year-old literary event planner, said her FMBs “are a mix of a power and sex thing. You just feel like you can do anything with them on.”

Ah, yes . . . the sex thing. “I just feel sassier wearing them,” my girlfriend Patricia, a fifty-two-year-old graphic designer, said. “I swing my hips more.”

Indeed, long before Lt Uhura and Julie Newmar filled my dreams with props, the German actor and director Erich von Stroheim used his own tall black boots to represent power and sex in silent films like The Wedding March. The son of a Jewish hatmaker, von Stroheim passed himself off as a German aristocrat and military officer after immigrating to the U.S. in 1909. He pretended in life to be what he pretended to be onscreen: a classic case of American self-invention. Which is exactly what the boots offer: a socially sanctioned way to be something you might not be. “They feel like an affectation,” Kim said, “as if you purposefully know what you are doing when you put them on. It’s like a Superman cape or something.” Patricia agrees—“You can’t pretend you don’t know what you’re doing when you put them on,” she said—but at the same time, she uses them less for transformation than for aspiration. “You have to be up to your boots,” she said. “You can’t wear them if you have bad hair. That’s not how the boots work.”

Arlene recalled the first day she wore her FMBs to work: “A male coworker peeped out of his office—and I mean peeped. He said, ‘Is that you? I heard that sound and thought something big and mean was coming.’ You might think that he saw me and adjusted ‘big and mean’ to ‘small and cute’ but actually, it’s the other way around. I swear that, subconsciously, he expanded his approach toward me to include Can be scary and make loud noises. Unpredictable. Proceed cautiously.”

I would argue that this young man wasn’t truly scared. He wanted to be scared in the way that Arlene wanted to be tough. That’s the game, the pretense, the sexual charge. If you be that woman, I’ll be that man.

Makes you wonder who the “me” in FMBs really refers to.