Footwear Facts: The Little Known History of 5 Iconic Women's Boots
While most shoe types tend to play a specific and well-established role in our lives (for instance, no one would confuse the various functionalities of platform heels, sneakers, and flip flops), boots are one type of footwear that refuse to be confined to a specific setting or use.
Over the course of hundreds of years, boots have provided a mix of comfort, function, and style for their wearers. Bootmakers from around the world have perfected the art of designing boots that are both practical and fashion-forward. From edgy lace-up boots to chic wedge boots, and from sturdy cowboy boots to sleek heeled boots, there's a boot designed to suit every lifestyle.
But where and when did these various types of boots originate, and how did they evolve into the modern styles women around the world know and love today? There have been so many changes in fashion trends over the past several hundred years - that means the very earliest versions of each type of boot can't be exactly the same as the modern day versions, right?
These aren't questions that many boot-wearers know the answers to, but we think that these popular boot styles have pretty interesting histories! From riding boots to cowboy boots, here's the little known history of how 5 iconic women's boots got their start.
1. Rain Boots
Unlike most of the other boots on this list, the modern day rain boot is quite different in use and appearance than its earliest ancestor. In fact, the very first version of this boot was actually made of leather, not rubber!
It all began when Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, was gifted a pair of Hessian boots in the early 1800s. These boots were made of calfskin leather and featured low cut heels and a boot shaft that reached mid-calf. Legend has it that the Duke of Wellington was so enthralled with his new boots that he instructed his bootmaker to modify the boots to better suit his personal style and needs.
The bootmaker reconstructed the boot to make it more form-fitting, and also removed the decorative leather tassels. The Duke also requested that the boot shaft be extended towards the knee to cover more of the leg, offering more protection in the battlefield. Eventually, the Duke's beloved boots caught on among his countrymen, and the boots were dubbed "the Wellington boot." They became popular among aristocrats who could afford their own versions of the Duke's leather boots.
In 1853, the industrialist Hiram Hutchinson gave the Wellington a practical makeover by manufacturing the boot with a rubber exterior, rather than a leather one. He later moved his production to France, where the new rubber boot quickly became popular among French farmers. For the first time ever, farmers had access to a boot that would keep their feet warm and dry while working in the wet, muddy fields.
The revised rubber Wellington boot was used by soldiers during both World Wars, and also became popular among laborers and regular consumers during this time. Sometime during the mid-1900s, Wellington boots made their way "across the pond" to the United States, where they were simply renamed "the rain boot."
2. Heeled Boots
Close your eyes and imagine that it's sometime during the 10th century in Europe. You see a person wearing high heels. Did you a picture a woman? If so, think again!
High heels were originally worn by men, especially those who were part of Europe's elite class. Eventually upper-class European women began wearing heels as well, though it wasn't until the 17th century that heels became a staple for middle-class women too.
Bootmakers began adding a high heel to their boots sometime in the mid-1600s, especially when they were manufacturing boots for horseback riders and cavalrymen. As the years went on and high heels grew to be associated with women's fashion more than men's fashion, bootmakers began to adapt their boots to reflect the current feminine trends and styles. For instance, during the 1800s many heeled boots featured exposed button closures, which were popular among fashion-conscious Victorian era women.
Modern heeled boots provide length, height, and sophistication, and have been modeled after a number of other boot types including the Wellington boot and riding boots. Heeled boots may feature stiletto heels, chunky heels, or anything in between, and their boot shaft lengths may range from ankle-high to over-the-knee.
A stylish type of footwear that's a hybrid between a shoe and a boot, "booties" (also called "ankle boots" or "shooties") have the general shape of a boot, but end right at or just above the ankle. Booties are sleek, understated, and modern in appearance - which makes it all the more surprising that these boot-hybrids actually originated in the 1800s!
Booties were popular among both men and women throughout most of the 1800s, and often had elastic siding - a look that still remains popular today. Many 19th century booties featured laces along the front of the boot or buttons along the side of the boot, although these types of embellishments varied greatly depending on the specific fashion trends of the decade.
During the 20th century, booties were adapted to serve a more practical purpose during the cold, wet winter months. This updated style of bootie featured a rubber sole to prevent slips on wet or icy sidewalks, as well as a layer of warm wool lining inside the shoe to help keep the wearer warm. Modern booties feature a wide array of materials and styles. While some booties have remained true to the "rubber craze" of the 1900s, others are made of leather or even suede. Some modern booties also contain laces, metal clasps, zippers, cutouts, or other decorative additions.
Throughout history, booties and ankle boots have remained a popular choice for women, particularly for those who need a comfortable yet attractive shoe for running daily errands. Today, booties are often paired with sleek, casual clothing items like skinny jeans, leggings, and pencil skirts.
4. Riding Boots
Sporting the oldest history of any boot type on this list, leather riding boots were first worn by horseback riders in the 10th century. Riding boots were developed to make horseback riding more comfortable, and have a number of design features that are rooted in functionality, practicality, and even safety.
The knee-high boot shaft was designed to protect the rider's leg from the stiff leather saddle, and the sturdy, rigid toe was intended to protect their foot in case it was stepped on by a horse. Additionally, the prominent heel was used to help keep the foot secure in the stirrup.
Thanks in part to their association with prestigious equestrian sports like polo, racing, and English riding, riding boots have become an icon of luxury and style. While traditional riding boots are still used by horseback riders today, non-riders have also taken notice of riding boots and have incorporated them into their wardrobes.
Modern riding boots have been redesigned to feature a lower a heel, and may contain a number of additional decorative features like straps and buckles. However, most knee-high boots have retained their classic and understated appearance, contributing to their timelessness.
5. Cowboy Boots
A variation of the popular Wellington boot, cowboy boots were first worn by - yep, you guessed it! - 19th century American cowboys. The Wellington had been the go-to boot choice for cowboys since the start of the Industrial Revolution, but the cattle drive era of 1866–1884 gave way to a more decorative and stylish type of boot that was still suitable for farm and ranch environments.
Bootmakers in key cattle ranching areas like Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas eagerly adopted the growing "cowboy boot" trend, and cowboys began wearing them during their long-haul cattle drives. Because they were developed with cowboys in mind, cowboy boots have a number of features and design elements that are unique from any other boot type.
Cowboy boots are most commonly made from cowhide leather, and are built with a tall, mid-calf boot shaft and underslung heel. Not only does this style help protect the leg and keep the boot in place in the absence of laces, but it's also ideal for keeping the foot secure in horse stirrups. Most cowboy boots also contain some form of decorative stitching, although the colors and complexity can vary greatly.
The cowboy boot first made its move from purely practical to fashionable when Hollywood filmmakers began featuring the boot in Western movies. These films grew in popularity between the early and mid-1900s, and featured captivating scenery and images from the mysterious "Wild West," including ghost towns, saloons, ranches, trains, and stereotypical cowboy attire...including cowboy boots.
Today, you don't have to be a cattle rancher to own a sturdy and stylish pair of cowboy boots - but it's still fun to reminisce on their history and see how far they've come over the years!
Did we cover your favorite type of boot in this list? Maybe you prefer wedge boots, lace-up boots, duck boots, chelsea boots, or even hiking boots? Whichever type of boot you love to wear the most, chances are that is has a story that's as unique and unexpected as all of the other boots on this list.