Creepers: The Long Journey of a Subversive Footwear Staple
For over 60 years, creepers have been the preferred footwear of British style tribes. In the 1950s, the suede shoes were sported by dapperly suited Teddy Boys. Later, in the 1970s, punks claimed the platforms as their own. Ironic, then, that a shoe so synonymous with rebelliousness finds its origins in the military.
British soldiers fighting in the North African deserts during World War II were issued thick rubber-soled boots. Made from layered sheets of coagulated latex, these crepe soles were inexpensive to produce. They yielded a soft foot strike, and were considered optimal for warmer weather work. According to contemporary creeper manufacturer T.U.K., thick, durable crepe soles “were ideal for helping deal with the extremities of the heat and the sandy terrain [of North Africa].”
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When the troops returned to England after the war’s end, they were ready to have a little fun. They’d left the desert battlefields behind, but didn’t want to part with their comfortable, flexible footwear. It soon became common to spot crepe soles on the dance floors of London night clubs. In 1949, George Cox Footwear launched the first crepe-soled style on the commercial market, branded as The Hamilton. (In her book Windsor Style, Suzy Menkes includes a passage describing a pair of creepers the Duke of Windsor wore in 1924. It’s unclear whether Menkes applied an anachronism to describe a similar shoe, or whether creepers actually pre-date their widely accepted WWII origins. George Cox opened in 1906, so perhaps it was one of the company’s earlier models). Thanks to the burgeoning Teddy Boy subculture of the 1950s, Cox’s creeper quickly became the company’s signature shoe.
Teddy Boys were England’s original youth style tribe. Though Teds emerged during the early 1950s rock ‘n’ roll era, their sartorial codes dated back to the Edwardian period—the first decade of the 20th century. This style of dress blended dandyism with rockabilly rebellion. A typical Ted uniform: a neatly tailored drape jacket paired with cropped drainpipe pants. Skinny ties, exposed socks, quiffed hairstyles and crepe-soled shoes or brogues finished the look.
These days, George Cox’s creepers will likely set you back a bit more than ones you’ll score at a Hot Topic. This is in part because, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the company still employs a production technique called Goodyear welting: “Whilst many modern manufactured shoes have their soles simply glued on, the Goodyear welting process involves several stages of sealing with each shoe individually finished by a skilled craftsman.”
Creepers are said to have earned their spooky moniker thanks to a song and dance popular among Teds of the early 1950s: “The Creep,” by Ken Mackintosh. Another variation of the name, “brothel creeper,” referenced the shoe’s new home in nocturnal party hangouts (which, yes, may have included actual brothels). Either way, creepers shed their military associations, and became a subversive staple.
As the first group of Brits to create a distinctive subculture out of their adolescence, Teds became style touch-points for the generations that followed. “To style yourself like a Ted became a rite of passage for virtually every anti-establishment musician in Britain, from John Lennon in his Quarrymen days to the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten before safety pins were in,” reported The New York Times.
The people who made safety pins ‘in’ are the same ones who transformed John Lydon into Johnny Rotten: Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. The creeper owes an important chapter in its evolution to these punk pioneers, too. “Rejecting the dominant hippie look, McLaren wore Teddy Boy clothes and collected rock 'n' roll,” according to an article on the Victoria and Albert Museum's site. McLaren met Westwood in 1965. Six years later, the pair opened their first London shop, Let It Rock. “He sold 'brothel creeper' shoes, and drape coats which he designed and had made up by an East End tailor. The mohair jumpers and drainpipe trousers were made by a local seamstress.”
In the following decade, the massively influential Kings Road outpost adopted new names, and new identities. In 1975, the pair’s focus shifted to latex and fetishwear, so they called the shop SEX. During the apex of the punk explosion—which McLaren catalyzed by managing The Sex Pistols—it was re-christened Seditionaries: Clothes for Heroes. The store’s final iteration, World’s End, debuted in 1981. This time, McLaren and Westwood moved from anarchic avant-gardism towards a more romantic exploration of buccaneering history. World’s End saluted pirates, highwaymen and nomadic dandies. Though Westwood and McLaren’s shop concepts shifted dramatically, creepers remained a constant fixture at 430 Kings Road.
During the pre-punk period, SEX and its creepers united the would-be Pistols. The band’s original bassist and SEX employee, Glen Matlock, remembered waiting for weekly George Cox shipments to arrive, only for them to sell out the next morning. Creepers, “the very things which had enticed me into the shop in the first place,” also drew Matlock’s future bandmate, John Lydon. “In came a very, very obstreperous creature looking for a pair of brothel creepers in white suede,” McLaren told George Cox. He had to special order the shoes, but he auditioned Lydon for the band on the spot.
Today, creepers maintain their simultaneous specificity and adaptability. Variations of the crepe-soled shoes have recently appeared on runways as different as Saint Laurent (by Hedi Slimane, naturally) and Chanel. Prada started the resurgence with its mega-popular Spring-Summer 2011 collection, which featured stacked platforms. Rihanna took up this interpretive torch when launching her first Puma collaboration in late 2015. Reimagining the traditional platform style with a bold sportswear sensibility, the Bad Gal broadened the possibilities of what creepers could be (and in the process, nabbed herself Footwear News’s Shoe of the Year award.)
We’re excited to see which new direction the creeper—with one foot firmly planted in the history of subversive British fashion—takes next.