Liberation Shoes: China’s Revolutionary Footwear

You pay a steep price for being first. You put in the effort and expense of inventing something, only for interlopers to copy your invention, improve it, and net better results on the back of your effort. In the 20th century, China’s People’s Liberation Army has usually been the parvenu who wisely refines others’ innovations on the cheap.

When they did pioneer something zany and new, you could expect two things for certain: it would be ingeniously economical, and it would lean heavily on the PLA’s genius for putting the “light” back in “light infantry.”

But that combination could go either of two ways, “cost-effective and nimble” or “cheap and flimsy.” They mean exactly the same thing, except one is brilliant and the other is merely good enough.

When the PLA invented its awesome chest rig, it was quickly recognized as China’s greatest invention since paper, printing, gunpowder, and compasses and spread to all the armies of the earth. But when the PLA invented the “liberation shoe,” it gave a fifth of humanity foot fungus.

The shoes ran me about $10, because I blew a little extra on the de luxe package, which included shoe laces.

Still, I had to try liberation shoes. Lean Solid Dogs is a laboratory not just of surplus gear but also of the human spirit! We do not shy away from a momentous and outrageously cheap item of Communist Bloc outdoor gear, even at the cost of discomfort and skin disease. (Besides, I’m already afflicted with a wicked foot fungus from my misspent youth in Red China. There’s nothing more they can do to me.)

Liberation shoes are as bound up with the founding of the People’s Republic as Betsy Ross, muskets, and sticking a feather in your hat and calling it macaroni. In 1950, China marched off to war in Korea just a year after completing their Communist revolution. As befit a New China, they shod their “volunteer” soldiers in a revolutionary new footwear that symbolized perfectly the difference between the Western way of war and the new Maoist way–cheap, flexible, expendable, and nimble.

The PLA turned its back on over a century of modern military science, wherein quartermasters sought to shod their infantry in a strong pair of boots. High or low, jackboots or lace-ups, leather or ersatz, with socks or foot wraps, puttees or gaiters or nothing–this was as far as they differed. Each infantryman represented just a rifle with feet, and the army meant to protect their investment with something stout.

But the leaders of China’s light infantry were not as concerned with protecting their feet as moving them, as quickly as possible and over terrain so broken that the UN troops would think it impassable.

They were equipped accordingly with New China’s first great military invention: the combat sneaker. Technically the “Type 50” shoes, but no one calls them that. They are known as “liberation shoes.”

“The American and South Korean armies wore … American-style combat boots, which were warm and durable but also cloddishly heavy,” reads a typical Chinese account. “… In contrast, the [Chinese] soldiers had grown up wearing grass or cloth shoes and were unaccustomed to heavy combat boots. … For summer wear, Liberation Shoes proved themselves light and well suited to long-distance marches” and climbing the Korean peninsula’s rocky terrain. In fact, the sneakers worked so well for climbing that the Chinese stuck with the sneakers even in the howling Korean winters!

The PLA was so thrilled with the performance of the liberation sneakers that it kept them in service for six decades. Just as you might expect of a country where “the army and the people were as close as fish and water” and the military enjoyed terrific prestige, the liberation shoe became a standard item for civilian laborers and farmers, appreciated for their affordability, comfort, and nice, grippy rubber sole.

What Rhymes With “Jungle?” (Hint: Think Ringworm)

But apparently some People’s Republics are never happy. (Yes, Vietnam, that side-eye is for you.) China started sending their “socialist younger brothers” in Hanoi tons of gear even before the French were driven out, including liberation shoes. Mao was sending trainloads of aid long before Stalin even condescended to like Ho Chi Minh’s new Facebook profile photo.

The Vietnamese disliked the Chinese, and if the two sides could only have been brought together on the Dr. Phil Show, they might have been able to talk out their toxic relationship. China played the patronizing and controlling philanthropist, and Vietnam was the sullen beneficiary who resented the strings attached but still wanted the gifts. And PLA leaders felt hurt by the favoritism shown by Mao, who was acting like a stingy old woman who neglects her own family only to lavish love on a hissing feral cat.

China annoyed the Soviets and Czechs with their whinging entitlement, only to complain about mooching, ungrateful Albanians and Vietnamese. 

So it must have stung that Vietnam didn’t like China’s remarkable liberation shoes. Sure, they stank. And the more you wore them, the funkier they got. But don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Vietnam, especially when your war economy can’t even make its own toothpaste! And OK, the liberation shoes weren’t so durable either. If you worked hard and played hard, the shoes wore in just two months. But who cares? They’re cheap and replaceable. Heck, in the Communist world, “shoddy and expendable” is almost a feature, not a bug!

The problem was that liberation shoes were waterproof…but only kinda waterproof.

For long-distance running or walking, your prime directive is “keep your feet dry.” That means that shoes can choose from two basic strategies: (1) keep water out completely, like a jackboot, or (2) admit water and then expel it, like US jungle boots or French pataugas.

The Chinese liberation shoe tried half-heartedly to split the difference and failed. It floods and then traps water in the sealed, rubber bottom. Then your foot stews all day in a hot, soggy package that breeds malodorous funk and ringworm. And even when you take the liberation shoes off, they take a long time to dry. Too often, the shoes wouldn’t be completely dry before the soldiers had to put them back on.

So imagine that you go hiking for a couple days, and you carry a hunk of cheese in a damp Ziploc bag. That’s your foot.

I lived in China many a long year, and I’ve smelled a few things. So I know that when a Chinese infantry soldier, a man who can march for days on 1000 calories without complaint and link arms to walk through a field acting as a human mine detector–when that man admits that a shoe “smells terrible,” it means that “dogs would faint.”

In China that was still just a minor shortcoming–God bless the morale of the Chinese squaddie. But in the unremitting murk of the Laotian jungle, it was a deal-breaker. For the North Vietnamese draftee sent on the one-way journey down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the only blessing of his Chinese combat sneakers was that they would probably fall apart before they could give him trench foot. At the first opportunity, he would exchange them for the famous “Ho Chi Minh sandals” made from old tires.

Still, since the PLA saw fit to keep liberation shoes until just a decade ago, and they’re still bought and sold, I tried them out. Ten dollars and a day of sweaty feet are a small price to pay for Science.

My conclusion was that, unless you’re especially attracted to the color, you can ALL the benefits–the light weight, flexible sole, and low cost–with none of the athlete’s foot and odor just by buying a $10 pair of water shoes. If you’ve got actual capitalist money, try Palladiums or the imitations thereof. You’ll get the liberation shoe concept–light, flexible, and fleet of foot–just executed better, and “debugged” to keep you fungus free.

From Fourth Republic to Banana Republic: France’s Bush Hat

A further installment in our series on Hats of Defeat and the charms of French surplus gear.

Not even a quagmire. France’s Fourth Republic didn’t survive this, but its bush hat became a favorite with American yuppies.
(AP, 1951. CC)

It’s 1949. France grasps at torn shreds of empire like a gut-shot man clutches spilled entrails. In Hanoi, a French quartermaster designs the hat that will go on to symbolize this war. Someone needs to tell him gently, “This war might go aubergine-shaped and abandon thousands to death or slavery, so I’d avoid the whole ‘icon of infamous military incompetence and betrayal’ vibe.” 

Legionnaire of the 2e BEP keeping the Hanoi-Haiphong road open (1954).

But such is French exceptionalism that even though their empire dried and shriveled in Vietnam and Algeria, its hat lived on. For once in history, the losing side’s hat didn’t get chucked into ignominy but survived, spread its wings, and arose into an American yuppy fashion phenom. Yes, it was clunky, impractical, and kind of ugly, but so were go-go boots, and France made those a hit too. How does France always pull this off?

The Beret For the Bush Hat

In 1954, moments the French defenders were overrun at Dien Bien Phu, Col. Pierre Langlais burned the “hallowed red beret” of the paratroopers, to save it from desecration, and met his Viet Minh captors in the French colonial infantry’s plain old bush hat. 

Pierre Langlais (right), de facto commander at Dien Bien Phu, and his bush hat.
https://www.mofo-fdc.com/t53-le-general-marcel-bigeard

The berets had always been a problem, to tell the truth.

Hats are mostly symbolic, as we’ve noted before. That’s especially true of a red beret in a tropical war zone. It’s not protecting you from heat or sun, and it sure isn’t hiding you from the enemy. French paratroops actually wore these things in combat, which struck journalist Bernard Fall as fool-hardy because, well, what’s the French for “target on your head?” But that is how much the paratroops treasured the status conferred by their hard-won beret. 

The chapeau de brousse in Algeria.
The ANZACs’ famous slouch hat debuted at Gallipoli. A bad omen for France’s new hat, like naming it “bush hat, modèle de disaster of military incompetence that haunts a nation for generations.”
(Note that the brim is turned up on the left side. We’ll come to that in a moment.)

But on days when soldiers didn’t want their heads blown off, France needed practical headgear that wasn’t bright red. That was how the French Army developed the “chapeau de brousse, modèle 1949.” They were trying to improve on the wide-brimmed Australian slouch hats worn by their WWII allies in Burma, those famous ones that are pinned up on one side. 

Be Careful What You Wish For

The Australians were absolute hell on wheels in both world wars, fighting alongside France on the western front, in North Africa, and in Burma. I can see why the French command looked to their tropical headgear expertise.

But symbols are tricky, and the French generals got their jobs by escaping from German POW camps and driving tanks for de Gaulle, not PR. Otherwise they might have thought it a bad omen to model the hat for their underfunded, half-hearted national effort in Vietnam on an icon of the infamous Gallipoli campaign, remembered as a national betrayal in which Britain abandoned the troops of its Australian dominion to fend for themselves against an underestimated enemy, unsupported by the mother country. The French Union troops who wore the hat–many of them Moroccan, Algerian, Senegalese, central and eastern European, Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, Tai, and Hmong–would be able to say similar things later.

Two future Banana Republic catalog favorites in a French colonial outpost near Hanoi. The man on the right is wearing the French Army bush hat. The seated officer is wearing the awesome chaussures de brousse that Banana Republic would later reproduce as “Foreign Legion boots.” (Jean-Philippe Charbonnier, 1951. CC)

For its time, the modèle 1949 was innovative. It took the old slouch hat–hardly a new invention–and tried making it from cotton. (The Ozzie versions are felt.) With plain old cotton, the hat endured rougher handling in the field than felt, which deserves to be maintained nicely.

Legionnaires in Indochina.

Of course, the hat still needed some stiffness, or else it would droop in your face. And there’s no point in trading out your bright red “shoot me” beret for a hat that blinds you. At least in berets you might see your assassin! 

So the French did something clever: they stiffened the cotton cloth with lots of extra seams. (We’ll see them do that again later.) Now you had an inexpensive semi-stiff cotton hat that you could shape like more expensive felt or leather. 

The incredible profusion of stitching is how you can tell the French bush hat from the boonie hats that Americans started improvising in Vietnam. See that fingerprint pattern on the crown of the hat? That’s what the French hats do to give body to the material (though it also adds weight). American boonie hats have a flat tops instead of the “dented dome” of the French hat.

Importantly, it was cheap: in the whole Indochina theater, France barely had two helicopters to rub together. They had lots of men to clothe but little materiel except what they could get from the Americans.

Americans know this is the South Vietnamese army’s “cowboy hat.” To store away the obnoxiously long neck strap, you could secure it on top of the hat. This pulled up both sides of the hat and made it look something like a cowboy hat. (Photo Carl Evers, 1967-68. CC)

After the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the French Army left remnants of its presence in Southeast Asian material culture, including their bush hat, for American arrivals to puzzle over years later. The hats were worn by South Vietnamese and Laotian forces (both of which originated as French colonial forces) and seemed to American incongruously like attempts at cowboy hats.

New inductees into the South Vietnamese army! They look thrilled.
Note their hats are turned up on the right, not the left (as on the Australian officer above). Like its French founders, the South Vietnamese army used French drill and slung the rifle on the right shoulder, rather than on the left as in British and Commonwealth drill.
If you’re American and you recognize the French bush hat, you probably know it from American war-time pictures of South Vietnamese soldiers. Other than a képi and an Inspector Clouseau mustache, it’s the French Army’s deepest imprint on the late modern American visual imaginaire.
American advisor talking to South Vietnamese Regional Forces soldiers, who are a virtual exhibit of the broad range of ARVN headwear. From left to right, the French bush hat, the ARVN fatigue cap, the ARVN camo fedora (yes!!), and a pith helmet. To that man’s right is someone wearing a beret.

Then Americans began to wear the French hats.

Pilots at US air base in Thailand during Vietnam war. The two on the right and left are Americans wearing the French bush hats. The Anzac in the middle is wearing the original slouch hat on which they’re based. (Military Times) (Why is his hat turned up on the right, not the left? From what I’ve read, units from different states had different drill and uniform standards, with some turning up the left, for the rifle, and others the right, for the “eyes right” command.)

USAF personnel based in Thailand adopted them as regional uniform items and tricked them out with unit bling. 

USAF in Thailand. (Military Times)

They’ve even made a comeback recently. The American 25th Fighter Squadron attended joint war games in Thailand, where their unit was based during the war, and they marked the occasion with retro “Saigon Cowboy” hats as a nod to tradition.

In addition to turning up both sides, many Americans in Thailand furthered the “cowboy” look by creasing down the crown all the way around (instead of denting it in a lengthwise furrow, as was common with the French.) The man in the foreground has done that with his; the man behind him has left his au naturel.

Once even the Americans got hip to French bush hats, it was time for France to move on to something cooler.

Supposedly the paratroop battalions found the standard bush hat too heavy and too clumsy in, well, actual bush; what’s the point of a bush hat if it keeps getting knocked off your head by branches when you’re whacking through the jungle? So the paratroopers developed their own, alternate jungle hat (stay tuned for that), which only they were allowed to wear.

I kind of wondered whether that wasn’t really the main point all along. The paratroopers were the big swinging you-know-whats of the French Army, and if they were vain enough to want their own proprietary, elite berets, even if it meant a bullet in the old melon, maybe they would just invent reasons why they absolutely, positively had to have special hats.

Turns out, I was wrong. First, the paratroopers were totally NOT shy about their vanity. They flat-out admitted they wanted special hats, pardieu!

Second, I tried this hat out myself and, though I really wanted to like it, I hated it too. First, it really is heavy. At 170g, it’s 70% heavier than a baseball cap or boonie hat. And that’s just its dry weight. Add rainwater and you’ll be wearing well over one pound on top of your head.

I’ll keep the nifty chèche, thanks, but this hat is pour les oiseaux.

And it sits annoyingly *high* on your head, with little purchase. Up there, it really is begging to come off in wind or foliage.

And though I don’t think it’s downright ugly, it’s at least “overbuilt.” I’d rather saw off the top of an umbrella, attach a chin strap, and be done with it. 

Again With the French Exceptionalism

If this were any other empire, that would be the end of the story. We would say, “They had a good run, they invented a couple hats that were decent for their time, and then they were left behind by history.” And that would be all for the clunky bush hat. But French colonial headwear wasn’t finished just yet! It just migrated, shape-shifted, and found a new role in…

… American consumerism! I won’t try to settle a weighty question like whether American commerce deserves to be called “Coca Cola colonialism” or “cultural imperialism.” I’ll just say that, where we must apologize for sins of cultural commission, omission, transmission, or superimposition, sometimes we were led astray. Specifically, France made us do it! 

For around 1981, as Ronald Reagan was settling into the White House, the old French bush hat found a new outpost of empire at a new store in San Francisco called Banana Republic. Originally just a couple of intellectuals with witty, hand-drawn catalog, they took exotic-looking military surplus, gave it a good wash and a really cool story, and made it a sensation. (Abandoned Republic has an awesome FB page and blog that is a kind of cultural archive and museum of the phenomenon that was Banana Republic in its zany startup years.)

Banana Republic’s catalog boasts the hat “100% water repellant cotton,” but that sounds as likely as “weight-loss birthday cake,” which is just the sort of cheek that you used to find in Banana Republic catalogs. (Photo courtesy of Abandoned Republic)

I checked, and the catalog was actually telling the truth about Jerusalem: none other than the Israeli army thought well enough of the French bush hat to adopt it. Maybe it was a sweetener in some arms negotiation: “I’ll make you deal, monsieur le ministre,” said a French official. “I’ll throw in a nuclear reactor with those Mirage fighter jets if you’ll take these clunky hats off our hands. Make your guys wear them.”

Because I can’t see what anyone wants with these antiquated hats. I tried to fob mine off on Lean Solid Wife. It looks fairly unisex, as Banana Republic advertised, and I hoped maybe madame would be intrigued by the “piece of Eighties material culture history” angle. But the instant I placed it on her head, she shook her head non: “Too heavy, too clumsy and unstable. And it’s kind of ugly.” I’m disappointed, but at least I’m vindicated!

The GAO Shirt

A repost as part of our current series, “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus.” See our previous installments on French design idiosyncrasies, French day packs, and bush shoes. Amusez-vous bien!

The débardeur GAO or chemise GAO. Quintessentially French, this man’s expression says it all: “With shirts like these, we are the masters of every hot climate we deign to visit. En fait, we would be the envy of the world if only we had ditched these hats, which apparently were designed as a team-building exercise between a Soviet puppet government and Japanese war criminals.”

The French really understand parched, roasting climates. From 200 years of walking around North Africa, they figured out what to wear for brain-boiling heat.

Call me an insufferable American chauvinist, but I rejoice that my ancestors left Strasbourg for a new land where they would be free to have short shorts with proper back pockets.

If you’re a regular reader of Lean, Solid Dogs, you already know that I love short shorts. And my favorites are surplus French Army shorts. Cheap, durable, and comfortable, they would be 100% perfect if not for the tragic European aversion to back pockets.

But my French cousins absolutely aced one other piece of hot weather gear: the GAO shirt. Think of it as an optimized tank top. Its most distinctive feature is that it doesn’t have sides, just straps that hold the front and back together while ventilating your body. For even more ventilation, there’s a deep V-neck that leaves about half your chest exposed to the air. Only the shoulders get extra coverage to protect them from the sun and the chafing of pack straps or other loads. And the designers even compensated for the lack of back pockets on their shorts but putting a sort of dump pouch across the small of the back, like some cycling jerseys have.

The GAO shirt’s origins are somewhat mysterious and people are unsure where the name comes from. It might be named after the Gao region of Niger, or it could be an acronym for “Operational Support Group” (Groupe d’Appui Opérationnel). What we do know is that it appeared in 1983 in Chad, when the French Army helped repel a Libyan invasion.

Beau travail (1999)

To my surprise, I’ve never seen a GAO shirt on anyone else in the United States. Peerless for hot, dry weather, they deserve to be better known. I first saw them years ago in Claire Denis’ film Beau travail and instantly saw how comfortable they would be.

French surplus GAO shirts are cheap but very difficult to buy from within the US for some reason, even in the age of Ebay and FedEx. However, they are easy to make. If you get hold a French specimen to copy, a sewing machine, and some 33% polyester ripstop fabric, you’re in business. If readers are dying for a pattern, drop us a line and I’ll do my best to provide you with one.

Let’s Sing the Surplus Song!

To the tune of “My Favorite Things”*

East German jackboots and green Czech suspenders,
Norwegian trousers for snowy weekenders,
Bundeswehr base layer, Steppentarn scarf,
On French army snow shoes I’ll hike til I barf!

Finnish boot grease!
Swedish rucksack!
From your grandfather’s day.
For ten lousy bucks you can buy it all up
And head for the hills to play!

*Acknowledgement to Tam at View From the Porch, who inspired me with her Gun Show Song. And additional thanks to Varusteleka and Surplus City—they are world class!–and to the Hungarian armed forces, the Austrian Bundesheer, British Army, and above all the Swedish Air Force for making awesome gear and then deciding they don’t want it!