Iconic Footwear: The Red Wing 877 Irish Setters

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I confess, I come from a family of scavengers. Jumble sales, small ads and charity shops all get our blood pumping that little bit harder. My Saturday trip to town always includes a visit to the local Salvation Army charity shop for a quick look through their stock. 999 times out of a 1000 there is nothing worthwhile there, but on a rare occasion I will strike gold, like when I found my lucky brogues a few months back.

Although not quite in the same league, I recently had another lucky find. A pair of big red boots! Seemingly a little uncared for, scuffed and leather a bit stiff, a size smaller than I would have ordered for myself, and an odd label on them “Irish setter”. Though, surely they look just like Red Wings?

as found

And yes, the soles proudly display the Red Wing brand. Strange. Nominal wear on the sole though, and no damage other than scuffs. Laces complete and in order. Though the size has me concerned, so I put them back and continue my day.

Of course, within the hour I’m back. At the price I’d be a fool not to snap them up! The right foot fits ok, the left is a bit tight, but we’ll see what we can make of them. They at least deserve to be taken home and fed properly with some oil and polish, right?

initial cleanup

Further research shows that what I have lucked into is a pair of the Red Wing Irish Setters, the iconic 877 work boots, introduced in 1952 and in production ever since. Favourites of farmers, workers and film stars. True icons of footwear, in other words.

1994 877

And stamped into the leather of these is the date they were made, 05/1994. So a nice round 20 years old next month!

old red wing 877 ad

If we are to dwell on the historical aspect for a moment, the “Irish setter” name comes from the distinctive colour of the leather used, a colour obviously reminiscent of the fur of the breed of dog it’s named after.  The russet coloured leather was originally the result of the leather being tanned using the sap of sequoia bark.

beautiful-irish-setter

The actual colour of 877 boots has changed a bit over the years, so the 1994 colour is different to the standard 877 colour today, although you can buy the old colour as , then described as 10877 in Oro-riginal leather. Todays 877 is described as being made using Oro Legacy Leather. Or is it the other way round? Probably best to borrow an Irish Setter and take along when shopping if you are concerned about getting the truly classic style of boots. 

The main design characteristics of the 877 are the moc-toe (or really, moccasin toe) and the white crepe sole. Interestingly, Red Wing did this sole 60 years ago, so recent use by certain British gentlemans shoe brands is really a case of remixing past work-boot use with traditional leather shoes. Interesting how history keeps repeating itself, eh?

 

The crepe sole did have a decent utility value though, as the lack of deep thread underneath meant it was both easy to keep clean and wouldn’t catch on surfaces. The latter means it became popular with construction workers, while the former was appreciated by farmers that could easily rinse off their boot soles.

I find the soles can be quite hazardous on slippy surfaces though, so I’m not entirely buying into the myth that these are totally superior work-boots!

 

sole cleaning

The white crepe soles do tend to lose their crisp white look over time though, going a sort of murky grey. This does the look of the boot no favours at all. Luckily, it can be remedied with a good scrubbing. I used toothpaste and a scouring pad on my boots and found that with a bit of effort and elbow grease the colour was restored quite nicely.

cleaned soles

You will also come across these boots described as 8″, this refers to the height of the boot shank. They are also available in a slightly more practical 6″ variant, then referred to as the 875. The reason they are more practical is that the 8″ boot has 10 pairs of holes to lace up and the 6″ has 7 pairs. When putting them on you’ll typically have to re-insert the laces from holes 5 and up, so going withe the lower boots will save you doing up 3 pairs of holes each time. Over a lifetime this will mount up!

josh simms menswear

The 877 boots are included in Josh Sims book “Icons of Mens Style“, where the author speculates that they were designed to look “just so with jeans”. This would appear to be a valid point, as Red Wings are very commonly used in combination with selvedge denim in what is the essential hipster look these days.

I’m really rather surprised that Minoru Onozato didn’t include the 877 in his book of his “Rugged 211“! Then again, they may be a little too onvious to include.

stevemcqueen

I mentioned earlier that the 877 also found homes with celebrities and on the big screen. Hollywood bad-boy Steve McQueen could be seen wearing his rugged boots when blasting about his dirt-bike.

jack nicholson 877

Eagle-eyed viewers could also catch Jack Nicholson’s character in “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest” wearing a pair.

well oiled beauties

And where does all this leave me? Well, my pair has been oiled, and oiled, and oiled just a little more. Perhaps a bit much, but leather sorts this out itself given a little time. While it’s easy to destroy leather by drying it out, I don’t believe it can be destroyed by too much oil. It is a case of using decent products though, and years of experience with old leather in vintage cars has taught me that natural products are the only way to go.

oiled up and ready to fly

I mentioned at the start that the boots were a bit small for my feet, and they still are, but a little less so. I didn’t really have much hope of making them work, until I found this blog-post, where the following lines inspired me to fresh hope and courage:

“I almost had a hernia getting my feet into them and they were bloody uncomfortable… I was also told that the boots would take about a month to break in and that I should wear them everywhere and walk a lot… You can forget the four week break in period; I think that it took two months, maybe a little more before I felt that they were comfortable… I had blisters, the arch of my foot hurt and some other odd pain in the ankle.” 

Yet after what must have amounted to a long walk through hell, sun breaks through the clouds and a choir of angels pipes up…

“… after this break in what you get is a pair of boots that fit your feet ergonomically perfectly.”

So hopefully, some way down the road (literally, like), my boots will find the form of my feet and be wonderful. Softening them up with oil is part of my plan on making this arduous task just a little less taxing. One of the great lessons of life is not to make things harder on yourself than they have to be.

end of line 877 boots

And at some point in time, they may even become so well used that I can post them to Instagram as having reached the end of their life…

 

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14 Comments

  • Back to the future: Red Wing Supersoles | Well Dressed Dad 20/05/2014 at 12:26

    […] Iconic Footwear: The Red Wing 877 Irish Setters […]

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  • Favorite items: A boy and his Red Wings | Well Dressed Dad 20/05/2014 at 12:26

    […] Iconic Footwear: The Red Wing 877 Irish Setters […]

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  • freesurfer 29/07/2014 at 18:17

    Im a red wings man myself – brought into the fold by my dad. A couple of years ago he past on to me his red setter pair from 1978 and they are now my staple. This is the first i have seen of them other than mine (his)
    where would you recommend getting them resoled as most places seem to want a ridiculous amount

    Reply
    • Well Dressed Dad 29/07/2014 at 18:56

      Personally I think I’d return them to Red Wing for a resole. With the history your boots have for you, having the job done properly by the people that made them. There are Red Wing shops in London, Amsterdam and Berlin that can take care of this as well.

      I’m not sure where you are located, but if in the UK it could also be worth talking to Shoe Healer in Nottingham. They did a superb (and reasonably priced) job resoling a pair of brogues for me.

      Reply
      • Gordo 04/09/2014 at 00:31

        If possible, make sure they get sent back to Red Wing proper. Typically their satellite dealers use regional repair shops, which are just ma and pa shops certified by Red Wing. I have had bad experiences in the past and will only send mine back to the factory. It does take a bit longer though

        Reply
  • Gordo 04/09/2014 at 00:39

    Also, anyone reading this page would probably be pleased to know that the 877 tradition is alive and well! As a union Ironworker, 877’s are all I wear, all I ever have worn, and all I ever will wear. This sentiment is shared by many of my brothers and is manifested by a strong showing of 877’s on a union iron job. They are considered the quintessential ironworker’s boot and will be for some time to come I am sure.

    Reply
  • roy 08/01/2015 at 13:51

    Hello,

    I just read all your article and I find very fascinating specially your article with the Red Wing shoes. I’m a big fan of RW’s and quite frankly I own like six pairs of them (Beckmans, Iron Rangers, 875 and others). I’m from the Philippines but I discovered this wonderful shoes when I visited Hawaii for a scholarship. Since then I went into some serious buying which is really ridiculous considering the amount of this shoes. Well, I just would like to thank you for sharing some history about the boots.

    Reply
  • Kris 27/03/2016 at 01:16

    It wasn’t Redwing that first introduced the white crepe sole, it was in fact Sperry with his boat shoe in the 1930’s and from my research it’s pretty close to the same hard wearing material Redwing use. Where I live in the UK it is very common to have shoes for over 20 years and have them repaired, they become like second skin and any other shoe feels like an alien attacking your foot. I don’t know if this kind of company is unusual in the states but there are many bootmakers and shoe makers in the uk and europe that have been running since the 1800’s or even before. We have had an influx of rubbish shoes for people who don’t realise that buying 4 pairs of shoes a year is not economical but I find it strange that such bootmakers like Jones Bootmakers who have been running for 50 years before Redwing began are not renowned for the quality and the longevity they have provided to the footwear they supply. I congratulate Redwing and I own a couple of pairs of their boots but they are not the start of this trend to make shoes that lasts through generations they merely picked up the baton that was placed in their hands by generations of shoe and boot makers before them.

    Reply
  • Peter 19/08/2017 at 13:44

    I just bought a pair these IrishSetter 877s from an Op Shop myself. Am currently undergoing the break-in process.

    Reply
    • nick 19/08/2017 at 13:45

      Just use plenty of boot oil and shortcut all the needless pain!

      Reply
      • Peter 29/08/2017 at 15:28

        Well, I filled them with hot water, left them for 10 minutes, then put on thick socks and jammed my feet into them and started walking around. Two weeks later, wearing them every day, multiple Band-Aids and electrical tape to help heal two big blisters, and multiple applications of Renapur to the boots and they are now,very very comfortable. But I nearly gave up on them at least four times. Sooo painfull to start with! If I had not done some research, I would not have persevered. I now have a $480 pair of boots for $30 (Australian dollars)!

        Reply
        • nick 29/08/2017 at 16:26

          You certainly got a spendy pair of boots for a bargain price. I hope the result was worth the extreme level of pain you endured!

          Reply
  • Lawrence 26/10/2017 at 22:17

    Go to Wal Mart or anywhere that carries aerosol “Shoe Stretch” I have been buying Red Wings for years and have most still in good shape, my son is wearing three pairs now. Oil the boots well, put them on and spray a good coating of the spray on them, wear them til absorbed well and respray any area still tight. Break in time is usually three days maximum, it works on my bike leathers to, even in cars where the leather is shrinking. Normally soaking leather shrinks it.

    Reply
  • Kartturi 10/11/2017 at 10:27

    I’m a bit late to the party, but I’d like to offer my two cents on care and break-in.

    About oiling leather, I have a bit different experience: some years ago I bought a pair of Red Wings and I to believed it wasn’t possible to oil them too much, so used this oily balm on them every week or every other week to the point that they became oversaturated and you can see and feel the oil seeping to the rough side of leather. It’s also becoming apparent that soaking the leather with oil makes it too pliable and seems to almost dissolve the grain to a point. I’ve since switched almost exclusively to a bee’s wax -based product and apply it far less often, more like twice a year.

    Another about break-in: I purchased another pair relatively recently, and I had very little discomfort overall, because I started from wearing boots an hour at a time and as they were molding and becoming more comfortable just adding time, and taking them off when I felt chafing or hot spots, up to a point where I could wear them the whole day without problems. I’m sure you can speed up the process, but unless you want it to be a no pain no gain -experience or absolutely need to wear the boots, gradually chipping away at it seems to be the way to go.

    This post and discussion actually inspired me to jot down some of my own experiences about breaking in and caring for boots. (kartturi.wordpress.com/2017/11/09/these-boots-are-made-for-walking-breaking-in-leather-boots/)

    Reply

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