I have received some emails over the years from guys who describe puzzlement and concerns about not being able to wear boots that they enjoyed wearing for years. “Does boot leather harden with age?” or “do boots become uncomfortable when worn?” or (my favorite), “can I stretch 30-year-old boots because they’re tight on my legs?”
Hate to tell ya, folks, but it is more likely the human aging process that is causing these problems, not the boots. Here’s what is going on:
As a man ages, he naturally loses muscle tone in his lower legs. That does not mean, necessarily, that his legs are “getting fat,” but more likely, when muscle tone relaxes, the muscle mass relaxes and makes the legs, especially the lower legs, wider in circumference.
One way to deal with that is to buy and wear compression stockings, but most middle-aged men are loathe to admit that they need those things. There is a long-held belief that compression stockings are what “old people” wear.
However, boots that are older than about a year — and that includes a guy’s favored vintage Fryes, Sears Engineers, or other boots favored in the ’70s/’80s — cannot be stretched. When leather ages, it dries out. Natural bonds of collagen — the fibrous material that composes leather — become more fragile and those bonds break when stressed. That’s why sometimes you see cracks in the leather of older boots.
Stretching leather is only effective when the collagen fiber of leather is still somewhat flexible. But once the leather ages and dries out, then trying to stretch the leather will only cause it to break, crack, or become malformed.
Now, about the feet…
Two things are going on when once-comfortable boots feel less comfortable.
First, the footbed of most boots is made of leather, too. That thick leather also dries out and becomes less flexible. While the footbed conforms to the first wearer’s feet (the guy who broke in the boots), the leather in the sole (footbed) does not bend as easily. Thus, boots begin to feel less comfortable because the sole of the boot is not bending or flexing as much as it used to.
Second, the bottoms of the feet begin to lose their natural padding. With less natural padding, whatever a man walks on will feel less comfortable.
The best way that I have dealt with that matter is to install gel insoles in my boots, and replace those insoles about twice each year
For a guy with as many pairs of boots that I have and wear regularly, I pull the insoles out of the boots when I take them off and clean the boots at the end of the day. I spray the insoles with foot deodorant/anti-fungus spray, and then insert the insoles into the boots that I will wear next.
All of these leather-, feet-, and leg-aging processes occur over time. It is a natural progression. You can’t prevent it. No matter how often you go to the gym for a workout, you will still loose muscle tone in your legs and padding on your feet.
I have arrived at the point of life where I realize that I cannot wear certain boots any more, such as my vintage Fryes. I will have to overcome sentimentality and find those boots a new home. I’m sure there are other, younger guys who may appreciate vintage Fryes, even though it is very likely the boots were born before they were 🙂 [I just have to convince them that boots are better than silly sneakers or flip-flops.]
In summary — over time, older boots become more difficult to wear, or become less comfortable. Expect it. Mitigate it if you can with thick or compression socks, gel insoles, and a “re-spirited attitude.”
Life is short: understand the aging process and its effects on leather and wearing boots.