Saturday, June 20, 2009

Nineteenth Century Boots

The Napoleonic Wars dominated the early part of this century and shoe makers became dedicated to making the military boots but as the war passed they soon adapted their skills to civilian wear. First men, then women took to wearing boots for everyday wear and this remained the vogue until the end of the 1800's when shoes became popular again.

Men's boots had high heels until the middle of the nineteenth century when the design of coaches was improved and the development of railways meant less need for horses.

According to McDowell (1989) the height of heels worn by women were equally a reflection of their preferred mode of transport i,e a coach. During the seventeenth century ladies traveled by sedan chair. In Versailles, sedan chairs were carried into the public rooms so ladies might alight on clean dry floors. The fight against dirt was everyone's concern until the introduction of metalled roads.

The slap sole was a fashionable extension added to high heeled shoes and boots. Working on a similar principle to the Eskimo's snow shoe with a bar between the heel and forefoot to increase surface contact thus preventing the shoe from sinking into the mud. The outdoor extension was called after the sound made when the sole 'slapped' the mud to the side.

Nineteenth century Dandys like Beau Brummell paid much attention to their appearance. Although there was less emphasis on ostentatious styles for men by the beginning of the twentieth century. Men’s' fashions had virtually become a uniform. This is especially true of shoes.

Until 1820, women generally wore soft flat heeled slippers for all occasions but after that, day shoes or ankle boots were widely favoured. (Black J and Anderson and Garland M, 1975)

By 1830 fashions for non-working women included boots. There was a return of the heel and the boots were worn short to the ankle, or just above. To give the appearance of daintiness, the boots were made on narrow lasts. The introduction of heelless shoes brought an end to the straight shoe. Closely buttoned or tightly laced to the mid-calf, the boot supported the ankle, presumably to reduce risk of sprains. Ladies boots were made from silk, fabric or kid leather.

A change of lacing style to side lacing proved very popular and the ankle boots were called "Adelaides" after the Queen Consort of William IV. The style highlighted the gentle contours of the female foot, presenting a vulnerable and delicate extension. Primarily the boot was to encase the female foot and ankle from temptation but probably had the opposite effect.

Bootmakers embellished their wares with silk fabrics and metallic thread embroidery. Button closures were used instead of laces to reveal shapely ankles. Cut-outs in the leather were sometimes included a playful view of colourful stockings. These boots were called Barrettes.

Heels did make a return by the middle of the nineteenth century and close fitting high button boots became the predominant fashion.

Charles Goodyear's discovery of vulcanised rubber enabled Sparkes-Hall, bootmaker to Queen Victoria in 1837 to invent the elastic gusset boot. The advantage of elasticated boots meant they could be easily removed and put on again which appealed to busier and more demanding life style of Victorian women. Although there were several teething problems by the late 1840's the fashion began to catch on. This became a prominent style in the West until the onset of World War One.

The Balmoral boot (or Bal) was originally designed for Prince Albert and consisted of a close fitting lace up boot, similar to those worn by today's wrestlers. They could be front or side lacing and acted as a galosh to protect the feet from the wet gorse. The upper section of the toe box was treated with water proofing. Queen Victoria must have approved because she had several pairs made and wore them regularly. Possibly because Prince Albert expressed a liking for the style because it had a slendering effect. Balmoral boots became popular with both men and women. After the Royal family bought Balmoral in Scotland, the Queen took to walking and this required sturdy footwear for women. This freedom reflected the growing movement for women to enter the workforce.

Well-bred women could not be acknowledged to possess anything as base and potentially carnal as legs. Indeed, it was during the Victorian period that legs were referred to as lower limbs. Crinoline as a material may have looked ridiculous but at the same time was very seductive. The steel hops that buoyed the skirt kept the material in a permanent state of motion. The slightest pressure at one point raised it correspondingly at the opposite point. This often revealed a titillating and tantalising glimpse of the forbidden flesh i.e. the female ankle.

Partly worn in honour of Wellington (1769-1852), the boot complemented the crinoline dresses and provided a foot corset enjoyed by men and understood by women.

The nineteenth century was dominated by dancing and the craze for public balls affected the dress and costume of the day. Jane Austin's novels illustrate the importance of dances to nineteenth century social life. Fancy costume balls were all the rage in America and women would create their own design themes.

Fashionable boots came in many forms including Opera boots which were highly decorated footwear. These were popular with opera goers and hence the name.

Juliets were quilted boots worn by lady's travelling in carriages. Once they arrived at their destination they would change into other shoes more suited to the occasion.

In the cold winters earthenware boot warmers were used to heat up the footwear. The piece is hollowed with a hole in the top and like a hot water bottle warm water can be added before the device is inserted into a boot.

Hi low boots or half boots were first worn as fashionable boots in the early 1800s. Made from silk or wool they laced to above the ankle. Women began to wear low, “half” boots as a practical alternative to delicate slippers in the early nineteenth century but silk hi lows were a popular choice with brides.

Victorian children wore miniature adult shoes and gaiter boots were popular.

By the middle of the century mass production meant the cost of boots became affordable to more people. No longer were they a reliable sign of status, the boot become a symbol of emerging equality not just between the sexes, but also among the social groups (O'Keeffe, 1996). The workboot started to appear and waterproofed boots designed to give women greater mobility with freedom outdoors became available.

Patent leather boots and shoes became fashionable for both men and women between 1850 and 1860.

John Lobb trained as a bootmaker in London before moving to Australia to try his luck in the goldfields. He never found his fortune in gold but instead came up with the brainwave of making hollow heeled boots for prospectors to hide their gold. The idea caught on and John Lobb set himself up in business in Sydney in 1858. When the Great Exhibition came along in 1862 he sent a pair of his boots along and won a gold medal for their quality. Twelve months later he sent a pair of his riding boots to the Prince of Wales and was awarded a Royal Warrant. He returned to London and established a business " John Lobb, Bootmaker" which continues to trade as the world's most famous bespoke shoemaking establishment.

Boots for women became more elaborate from 1850s onwards partly due to the introduction of machinery. The Bustle dress allowed more opportunity to reveal the feet. Shoes became more fanciful and elasticised boots were worn for daytime wear where at night leather slippers were preferred for formal wear. Men’s slippers were usually black and trimmed with black flat bows or black ribbon rosettes. (Bigelow, 1970,).

Carriage (overshoe or boot) shoe were made of kid leather and lined with fur. Worm by women in winter in horse drawn carriages and in early automobiles. (Rossi 2000)

In 1890, the low shoe or laced oxford was introduced. These were often worn with gaiters in colder weather or for sporting occasions. Toe shapes changed over this period but otherwise shoes and boots styles remain unchanged.

Toe shapes changed over the last three decades of the 19th century. In 1870 the square toe eas the fashion; 1880 rounded began to appear; then during the 1890s boot and shoe toes became more pointed. In 1890 rubber soled shoes were introduced. (Bigelow, 1970)

Bigelow MS 1970 Fashion in history apparel in the western world Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Co
McDowell C (ed) 1998 Fashion: the Pimlico companion to fashion Random House London
Black, J. Anderson and Garland, Madge A History of Fashion. Orbis Publishing, Ltd., 1975.
O'Keeffe L 1996 Shoes: a celebration of pumps, sandals, slippers and more New York: Workman Publishing Company.
Warren G 1987 Fashion accessories since 15000 Unwin Hyman London

Reviewed 10/03/2016


  1. Hello I am looking for informatiom regarding Thomas and sons 36 st.james's street London trading as military boot and spur makers in the 1800's are you able to help.

    Kind Regards


  2. I love the design of mens boots during nineteenth century they look gorgeous.