During the Regency period, men’s fashion underwent a change as knee breeches were exchanged for trousers. Although trousers had been entering fashion since 1800, they only became appropriate casual and semi-casual wear for men between 1810 and 1820. In America, James Madision (in office 1809-1817) was the first President to wear trousers instead of knee breeches, and the future Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, had been turned away from a fashionable London social club in 1800 both for tardiness and for wearing trousers, which were against the strict dress code.
Hessian boots, which had begun as standard issue military footwear but became widely worn, accompanied knee breeches. With a semi-pointed toe and a low heel, Hessians also included decorative tassels. In fact, Dickens’ famous character Jacob Marley likely wore Hessian boots in A Christmas Carol:
“The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head.”
But Hessian boots were unsuitable for wearing under the newly acceptable trousers, so Wellington instructed his shoemaker Hoby of St. James Street, London to modify the popular boot. The result was cut higher in front to cover and protect the knee and had the back cut away, in order to make it easier to bend the leg. It was also cut closer to the leg. They quickly gained a reputation as hard wearing in battle yet comfortable for evening wear. After Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon, “Wellington boots” became extremely popular as stylish footwear that could be worn with trousers.
In an 1839 letter from his residence at Walmer Castle, the Duke instructed his shoemaker on how to make a pair of his boots:
I beg that you will make for me two pairs of Boots, of the usual form only four (or the thin of an hand) lines longer in the foot than usual. Send with new false soles that will fit this new size. If needed make them broader. If these boots should suit me I will send another [pair] of galoshes. If I fit them; and [a pair] of shoes of the same size. I beg to have these boots as soon as possible, as I am pained by those which I wear at present.
Your obedient Servant
The boot evolved again when Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization process for rubber. In 1852 Goodyear met American Hiram Hutchinson, who bought the patent to manufacture footwear and established his company A L’Aigle in France. The footwear was an immediate success, replacing wooden clogs among farmers. Four years later, entrepreneur Henry Lee Norris established the North British Rubber Company (which would later become the Hunter Rubber Company) in Scotland.
Initially produced in limited quantities, the popularity of the rubber Wellington boot skyrocketed during World War One. The United Kingdom Office of War hired the North British Rubber Company to produce a boot suitable for the trenches in France and Belgium, and during the course of the war nearly two million Wellington boots were sold to the army.
Wellingtons remain popular today and come in assorted colours and patterns to suit your fashion needs, although it’s hard to picture the Iron Duke wearing a pair of these!
A pair of the Duke of Wellington’s boots is on display at Walmer Castle, where he lived for 23 years.
For more information on changing men’s fashions in the Regency, visit Jessamyn’s Regency Costume Companion.