Soot, Dust, and Leather: Breaking Down the “Shoes of Brown"
In celebration of the upcoming National Aviation Day on Wednesday, August 19th, this week's Sunday Night Read pays homage to the 'brown shoes' of Naval aviators.
Setting foot on San Diego's North Island Airfield, the inaugural class of Naval aviator trainees encountered an issue of aesthetic practicality. Only a half dozen commission officers were chosen for the Navy's first foray into aviation shortly following the acquisition of a "Flying Machine" from the Wright Brothers in 1911. In their previous lives as members of the surface fleet they were accustomed to working within the soot- soaked realm of coal burning ships. Moving about the soft surface airfield, the trainees now found themselves enveloped in dust. In the past, their uniform issue low-quarter black leather shoes had appropriately concealed the dark detritus of ship life, but now the boots routinely became caked in tawny dust that the trainees were mandated to
remove as per uniform regulations. Already of the belief that their superior officers placed too great an emphasis on clothing appearance, these early trainees found the constant upkeep of their black shoes to be a tiresome practice and sought out an alternative more suited to their work on North Island. All six Naval aviator trainees concluded that brown high-top shoes and brown Ieggings, reminiscent of those worn as part of the khaki uniforms of their Marine counterparts, would fare best under the new conditions. According to LCDR William L. Estes USN (ret.), the trainees at this time were "often funding their own petrol expenses", and so "on a Saturday morning, the six located a cobbler shop on 32nd Street in San Diego, California whom they commissioned to produce [the] same [articles of clothing] at a time and price they could live with."
Quickly finding the new footwear sufficient in addressing both the issues of appearance and practicality they had been grappling with, the student aviators composed a petition to have brown shoes incorporated into the permanent Naval aviators uniform. The motion was backed by the student's superior officers and by November 1913 the Navy Bureau had officially accepted "The Shoes of Brown with Brown high top leggings" as a standard component of the Naval aerial aviator's uniform.
Since their North Island debut, the issuing of brown shoes as a component of the standard Naval aviator uniform has come in and out of official endorsement. In 1922, the khaki uniforms were eliminated as the Navy vastly reduced in size and looked to foster a sense of uniformity among the shrinking number of enlistees. The uniforms were reinstated in 1925 following renewed interest in a specialized uniform for aviators. Resource shortages during WWII caused brown shoes to briefly go out of production, but by 1945 they were once again reinstated and remained an element of the aviator's uniform for the next 30 years. In the mid-1970s, ADM Elmo Zumwalt, Jr. USN, a two term Chief of Naval Operations who had served as an Admiral for the surface Navy, championed the elimination of brown shoes as an official uniform element, and in 1976 their use was once again discontinued. In the fall of 1985, brown shoes would be reinstated into uniform code for the final time, but in this instance the shoes were now designated as an optional alternative available to be worn by all Navy personnel rank E-7 and above.
The difference in dress between Naval aviators and their surface fleet counterparts would ultimately become indicative of inner-branch divisions that went beyond mere delineation of service. The term "Brown Shoe" became shorthand to distinguish the elite perch held by the aviators, occasionally employed with mocking derisiveness by ground officers who did not receive such special treatment. The use of "brown shoe" as a colloquial term has persisted regardless of whether the shoes were actively uniform issue at the time. There is also evidence in the Navy's history to suggest that there is merit to connotations which suggest aviators were being provided more institutional favor. During World War II, senior aviators argued that the Navy move to a greater focus on air engagement to contend with the Japanese forces, which led the then Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, to implement a major change in Naval hierarchical relations in 1944:
"King also injected a major reform in the fleet which further entrenched aviation as the principle element of the U.S. Navy. He now ruled what the aviators had considered long overdue, that all non-aviator or fleet and task force commanders have aviators as chiefs of staff. Furthermore, these officers - like the existing non-air chiefs of staff to air admirals- should be upgraded in rank from captain to commodore or rear admiral. This came as a blow to many admirals of the 'Gun Club'."'
This moment signaled a systemic change within the Navy, providing the aviators with an elevated level of influence within the administrative authority. Contemporary reports support the notion that some cultural divisions between "black" and "brown" shoe still resonate. In a memo entitled "Breaking down the brown shoe-black shoe wall: a memo from the fleet", Lt. Ashley O' Keefe and Lt. Lindsey Beates make the case for fostering a sense of equal equity in the working conditions for air and ground officers, pointing out a number of discrepancies in how the two groups are treated. One example involves the difference of mentality surrounding sleep: "...on a ship with a helicopter detachment embarked, one highly visible difference is the priority placed on human factors like getting enough sleep. A pilot will work hard to achieve her mandatory 8-hour crew rest prior to a mission; a SWO might brag about how little sleep she got the night before. Both officers must conduct dangerous and technical missions, but only one has controlled for human factors."
What was once an act of refining sartorial function under rigid protocol has now become effectively symbolic of the distinction and, in some instances, tension within the Navy's service communities.
Estes, William L. "The Brown Shoes Project." Whence the Term "Brown Shoes" The Brown Shoes Project, 20 Jan. 2015, thebrownshoes.org/whence-term-brown-shoes. (Published from a letter to Pat Francis)
"Naval Uniform Questions and Answers." U.S. Navy Uniform Traditions and Origins, Bluejacket.com, 16 Jan. 2016, bluejacket.com/naval_uniform_b.htm.
Thompson, Roger. "Brown Shoes, Black Shoes, and Felt Slippers: Parochialism and the Evolution of the Post-War U.S. Navy." U.S. Naval War College Research Report , vol. 5, no. 95, 11 Sept. 1995, pp. 1-65.
O'Keefe, Ashley, and Lindsey Beates. "Breaking down the Brown Shoe - Black Shoe Wall: a Memo from the Fleet." The Navalist, The Navalist, 23 Sept. 2018, thenavalist.com/home/2018/9/23/breaking-down-the-brown-shoe-black shoe- wall-a-memo-from-the-fleet.
Dixon,Jerry."WhyAreThoseCovetedNavyPilot'sShoesBrown,NotBlack?"FirstAeroSquadronFoundation =,First Aero Squadron Foundation~, 4 Nov. 2018, firstaerosquadron.com/2018/11/03/why-are-those-coveted-navy pilots-shoes-brown-not-black/. (Photographic source)
“Description and Wear of Uniform ComponentsShoes, Dress (Black/Brown/White)Article 3501.54.” U.S. Navy Hosting, U.S. Navy, www.public.navy.mil/bupers-npc/support/uniforms/uniformregulations/uniformcomponents/Pages/3501_54.aspx. (Official USN resource for uniform components, photo source)