Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Them Boots, Them Boots

I was rather impressed, and pleasantly surprised, when I first saw photographs of Tommy Hilfiger’s Fall collection. In an aptly chosen, if somewhat uninspiring autumnal woodland landscape, men and women are wearing (generally) slim-fitting boots in beautiful shades of brown leather. Men in Biker boots, steel-capped boots and Wellington boots are, somewhat regrettably, reasonably common sites these days, but I cannot remember the last time I saw a non-military man wearing funnel boots; in fact, I don’t think I ever have. Ever since I was boy and first studied the reign of Charles I with the flamboyant cavaliers and their plumed hats, I have bemoaned the fact that the knee-high boot, which made such an elegant and avant-garde contribution to a seventeenth-century man’s raiment, should have been purloined by the opposite sex. So I began to ponder, how is it that an item of clothing so strongly associated with men could be adopted, and subsequently monopolised, by women?[i]

 Cavaliers & Musketeers

It was during the sixteenth century, owing to newly developed leather-working techniques in Spain, that boots began to be worn by men on a more frequent basis; previously, they had mainly been worn for riding.[ii] The fashion for wearing boots as part of a man’s general costume appears to have originated in France, which was so frequently the trendsetter for clothing innovations during this period; or at least, boot wearing was more popular among Frenchmen and thus more consistently documented. James Laver refers to the ‘martial swagger’ of men who donned ‘breeches and doublet, its short cloak hanging from one shoulder, its wide-brimmed hat adorned with plume and, above all, its boots.’[iii] The English cavaliers, who are typically associated with the material excesses of the reign of Charles I (1625-1649), adopted this new style with gusto.

 Sartorial Simplicity under Charles II

This strident sartorial statement, preserved in royal and comital portraits, has become somewhat iconic – the image of the foppish, long-haired gent is near ubiquitous: think autumn television dramas on the BBC or alternative Christmas tree decorations from the National Portrait gallery – but the heyday of the boot seems to have been rather short-lived. It is difficult to identify the precise moment when men refrained from wearing the boot with their daily garb and returned, en masse, to shoes, but a clothing decree of Charles II seems to have been a turning point. In October 1666, Charles II and his court adopted a much simpler form of raiment, which favoured a long coat and vest cut closely to the body. Philip Mansel has linked the clothing change to the Danish War and a deliberate desire to create a national dress free of French influence.[iv] An improvement in Anglo-French relations by 1672 meant the newly instituted vest passed out of fashion, but as Eric Musgrave’s observes:

Although the court did not long remain out of its usual finery … costume historians recognise this period as the starting point for the evolution of the three-piece suit.[v]

 Out with the old…

The development of professional armies and the popularity for wearing uniforms during the eighteenth century did much to promote a simpler form of dress, which had a profound impact on court costume.[vi] This trend did not necessarily make the boot less fashionable – the riding boot was an essential item of military costume – however, a more spartan costume did make the silk-laced funnel boat increasingly incongruous in what was becoming a very different social and political climate. The collapse of the Ançien Regime in France and the malaise that followed it meant London now eclipsed Paris as Europe’s fashion capital. The collapse of the monarchy had a devastating effect on French tailors and cloth makers. Following the death of Robespierre in 1794 and the ending of la Terreur, Laver notes that the boot become increasingly popular among Frenchmen, who took to wearing ‘a fantasticated version of English country clothes.’[vii] As the reputation of English tailors grew during the eighteenth century, so the influence of Englishmen’s costume increased.

 … & in with the new

A longer-term consequence of Charles II’s dress reform of 1666 was the adoption of the trouser. Trousers had been worn by men (and women) since the sixth century BC, but they were frequently associated with barbarians.[viii] The widespread wearing of trousers in place of breeches within eighteenth-century England, combined with a new emphasis on close-fitting garments à la George ‘Beau’ Brummell, encouraged the wearing of shoes rather than boots.[ix] If the framework of today’s men’s suit was nearly in place by the end of the eighteenth century, it was more or less fully defined during the course of the following century, chiefly because of the advent of industrialisation.

 The boots gets … the boot

The impact of the industrial revolution on men and women’s clothing was profound. On the one hand, it demanded a new type of practical costume that men could wear to work in the factories. On the other hand, it created new markets for sport and leisure garments, as men and women took advantage of the travel opportunities afforded by the harnessing of steam and pursued new sports, made possible through novel manufacturing processes. Cycling, for example, demanded an entirely new wardrobe, as James Laver has shown.[x] The creation of clothes for specific activities seems to have removed the boot from a man’s general attire; it was now something to be worn when the occasion, usually related to (heavy) labour, demanded. It is possible the boot also suffered from a bad public image. The boot wearing man was surely now an anachronism. He belonged to a world of excess and frivolity, with feathers and cloaks, which had long since passed. Boot wearing men were seen hunting, as they are today, but their splendid raiment and participation in a sport that had long been associated with the most privileged in society may well have seemed at odds with the dawning industrial age, despite its apparent popularity. Oscar Wilde referred to the sport as ‘the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable’.[xi] To talk of a cavalier today, the man who wore the boot so gloriously in the seventeenth century, is to speak of somebody being offhand or lacking due concern; it is also to think of an effete. Much more recently in our past, the funnel boot (or jack boot), which is omnipresent in Fascist propaganda of the twentieth century, has become associated with misguided militarism of the most heinous kind. Considering the general trend in men’s clothing over the past three centuries has been to strive for a simple masculinity, the absence of the boot from a man’s general wardrobe and the sight of men in biker boots, steel-capped boots and Wellington boots becomes explicable, if still no less excusable.

 The boot is on the other foot[xii]

In the sixteenth century, when men were beginning to incorporate the boot into their daily wardrobe, women’s footwear was simple, owing to the fact that the skirt invariably covered their feet.[xiii] Skirts became shorter in the mid-eighteenth century, to facilitate horse riding, and on such occasions boots could be worn. The social upheavals that followed in the wake of the French Revolution meant that women’s clothing became plainer, as was the case with men. Slippers without heels would not have been an uncommon sight.[xiv] Under Queen Victoria, Laver suggests that women may have continued to wear heel-less slippers ‘in deference [to a monarch], who was of diminutive stature.’[xv] That maybe, but it was during the final decades of the Victorian era that women started to wear boots. The popularity of crinoline skirts, which were…

 …rather like a restless balloon, and not at all, except in shape, like the igloo of the Eskimos. It swayed now to one side, now to the other, tipped up a little, swung forward and backward.[xvi]

Laver suggests that this freedom of motion, which revealed a woman’s slipper-shod feet, caused men to form a ‘complex about ankles’ that precipitated the new fashion in boots, laced halfway up the calf.[xvii] There is a certain irony that women should have adopted an element of male costume at a time when their clothing was perhaps at its most feminine, but this reveals much about the gender equalities of the period. In the nineteenth century, women adopted clothes similar to those worn by men to participate in the new range of sports, despite the scandal and occasional ridicule this provoked.[xviii] Male clothing tended to be more practical for leisure pursuits; their adoption by women was not, I think, an overt political gesture about female suffrage, although clearly this sartorial development did blur gender boundaries.

As the hemlines on women’s skirts (generally) rose, so did the opportunity to wear boots. Twentieth-century fashion designer Paul Poiret made a variety of ‘Russian boots’ for his wife, sparking a demand that has not since waned.[xix] Scores of fashion designers, most notably Beth Levine, have done much to persuade women that boots are not solely winter or work-wear clothing.

The story of the boot; its adoption by women and near-total rejection by men, is in a roundabout way linked to the most important themes in European history from the sixteenth century through to the present. In some respects, it is a sorrowful story of male clothing become ever more plain. But though the past may have been gloomy, the fact that I am writing an article about the male boot in response to Tommy Hilfiger’s new Fall campaign, indicates that male boot may yet come back. If men can adopt the ‘man bag’, I see no reason why we cannot reclaim an element of costume that made our seventeenth-century forebears so dashing.[xx]

[i] In no way is this article conceived to be a misogynistic rant. Promise.

[ii] J. Laver, A Concise History of Costume (Norwich, 1969), 102.

[iii] Ibid., 106-7.

[iv] P. Mansel, Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II (New Haven and London, 2005), 49-50. In contrast, Eric Musgrave suggests the new court fashion was largely the result of a cost-cutting exercise during a time of war. E. Musgrave, Sharp Suits (London, 2009), 17. Also see, A. Mansfield, Ceremonial Costume: Court, civil and civic costume from 1660 to the present day (London, 1980),138-40.

[v] Musgrave, Sharp Suits, 17.

[vi] Mansel, Dressed to Rule, 1-17.

[vii] Laver, History of Costume, 151.

[viii] Ibid., 15.

[ix] Ibid., 158-61.

[x] Ibid., 204.

[xii] I did wonder whether the origin of this expression referred to the women’s adoption of the boot, but I found no support for this.

[xiii] Laver, History of Costume, 106.

[xiv] Ibid., 152.

[xv] Ibid., 175.

[xvi] Ibid., 184, quoting from Taste and Fashion.

[xvii] Ibid., 184.

[xviii] Ibid., 207-9.

[xix] ‘Fashion Boot’. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashion_boot. Accessed: 21-x-2012. This well researched article provides a good overview of the women’s boot from the twentieth century through to the present.

[xx] G. Opulanzia, ‘Bags for Men – what is a tote, clutch or man bag?’. www.menstylefashion.com/bags-for-men-what-is-a-tote-clutch-or-man-bag/. Accessed: 21-x-12.

3 Responses to “Them Boots, Them Boots”

  1. Yvonne Slim

    great post, very informative. I wonder why the other experts of this sector do not notice this. You should continue your writing. I’m confident, you’ve a great readers’ base already!

  2. Kathleen Neal

    Hear, hear. Rise up and reclaim the boot! Very dashing. There’s more than enough to go around, so I can’t see why we women should keep them to ourselves…


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