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Shoes Make the Man: Regency Footwear

Perhaps no image so thoroughly denotes the Regency Hero as that of a Gentleman elegantly, yet casually dressed in dark coat, buff troussers and tall boots. Who could resist a Mr. Darcy or Knightley presented in such a favorable light? And yet– those boots that so epitomize the time were still a new fashion only just becoming popular during Jane Austen’s day.

Jessamyn Reeves Brown is an historian of Regency Fashion. Her research into Regency footwear shows that ‘prior to the Regency, both women and men wore what we now call “court shoes”: high-throated pumps with curved heels and side pieces that tied or buckled elaborately at the throat. As dresses became less structured and suits less elaborate, shoes did too. Heels dropped rapidly through the 1790s and by 1800 were very small indeed, while material was pared away to a minimum from the uppers. Men’s dress shoes lost their heels even before women’s did, but some retained the fine buckles of the 18th century for the most formal of occasions. Men’s shoes also became basic black quite early in the century – almost no other color is seen after 1800.

Both men’s and women’s shoes of the 18th century had flaps attached at the instep and outstep that came up over the throat and were held in place with a buckle (most commonly) or were tied in place with bows. These flaps were called latchets, and they did not entirely disappear in the Regency.’

Discover more fascinating details of men’s footwear on her Regency Companion Page.

“Polished” Hessians

Hessian (from Hesse in Germany) refers to a style of boot that became popular in the 18th century. Initially used as standard issue footwear for the military, especially officers, it would become widely worn by civilians as well. The boots had a low heel, and a semi-pointed toe that made them practical for mounted troops as they allowed easy use of stirrups. They would reach to the knee and had a decorative tassel at the top of each shaft. The Hessian boot would evolve into the rubber work boots known as “wellies” and the cowboy boot.

When describing the appearance of Marley’s Ghost in A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens mentions the tassels on his boots, indicating that they were Hessian style.

The Wellington Boot

The Wellington boot, also known as a willy, a wellie, a topboot, a gumboot or a rubber boot, is a type of boot based upon Hessian boots. It was worn and popularised by Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington and fashionable among the British aristocracy in the early 19th century.

The first Duke of Wellington instructed his shoemaker, Hoby of St. James’ Street, London, to modify the 18th century Hessian boot. The resulting new boot designed in soft calfskin leather had the trim removed and was cut closer around the leg. The heels were low cut, stacked around an inch, and stopped at mid-calf. It was hard wearing for battle yet comfortable for the evening. The Iron Duke didn’t know what he’d started—the boot was dubbed the Wellington and the name has stuck ever since. (The Duke can be seen wearing the boots, which are tasseled, in this 1815 portrait by James Lonsdale.) These boots quickly caught on with patriotic British gentlemen eager to emulate their war hero. Considered fashionable and foppish in the best circles, and worn by dandies, such as Beau Brummell, they remained the main fashion for men through the 1840s. In the 1850s they were more commonly made in the calf high version and in the 1860s they were both superseded by the ankle boot, except for riding.

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Further information from Wikipedia. The Online Encyclopedia.

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Regency Shoes

“Yes, I know exactly what you will say: Friday, went to the Lower Rooms; wore my sprigged muslin robe with blue trimmings — plain black shoes — appeared to much advantage; but was strangely harassed by a queer, half-witted man, who would make me dance with him, and distressed me by his nonsense.”
Northanger Abbey

Regency Footwear

Jane Austen mentions shoes more often than purses in her work and as any woman knows, the shoes make the outfit! It may come as a surprise to many readers to discover that shoes worn during the Regency did not differ much from what is worn today. Previously, both men and women wore what are now know as Court Shoes—high heeled pumps made of leather or brocade fastened with a large buckle. These elaborate shoes were in keeping with the highly stiffened and embroidered fashions of the day. As dress styles changed, however, shoes did as well.

In the year 1800, any sensible young lady of fashion would have had at least three pair of shoes—one for everyday wear, slippers for dancing in and boots for walking. This is a minimum, of course– Empress Josephine of France owned 520 pairs of shoes!

Jessamyn Reeves-Brown, a Regency fashion enthusiast, has done careful research in this area. A glimpse of her page on shoes reveals a fascinating walk through fashion history, outlining the decline of the pointed toes and heels of the early Regency and a progression towards a more ballet slipper style of shoe. Ribbon rosettes and satin ties that criss-crossed up the leg added feminine charm to shoes that were otherwise much simpler than their earlier counterparts. As in previous years, shoes were made with no difference between left and right shoes. It would be up to the owner to wear them in comfortably.

Black was a common color, but by no means standard. Pastel pink, lavender, blue and yellow also made an appearance in colored leather and satin. Stripes were also popular for a time.

According to Jessamyn, “wedding gowns were often worn to the point of being worn out. After the wedding, brides had to cherish something else. Often this was one of her wedding shoes, a natural choice given the lucky connotations of shoes in this context. Many carefully preserved satin slippers remain with notes inscribed in the instep attesting to the wearer’s wedding.”

Around 1810, half boots, ankle length boots made of cotton or kid leather, became popular as walking shoes. One can easily imagine Elizabeth Bennet donning a pair for a tramp across the fields, or Emma Woodhouse stooping to break her lace in order to contrive a reason to visit Mr. Elton’s parsonage.

Unfortunately, all such delicate fashion comes at a price and shoes of the Regency were no exception. Notoriously thin and prone to scuffs, tears and soaking in even the slightest weather; they needed constant protection and replacement. One Georgian innovation that was slow to be replaced was the patten. These lifts, as it were, fastened to one’s shoes and kept the wearer out of the snow, mud or puddles. By this time they were most often worn by servants and lower classes and made of wood or metal. They did create a racket when walked in, but to Jane Austen, it was one of the sounds of Bath.

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When Lady Russell not long afterwards, was entering Bath on a wet afternoon,
and driving through the long course of streets from the Old Bridge to Camden Place, amidst the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newspapermen, muffin-men and milkmen,
and the ceaseless clink of pattens, she made no complaint.
Persuasion, 1818

Austentation: Custom Made Regency Hats and Accessories
Laura Boyle is a fan of all things Austen. She runs Austentation: Regency Accessories, creating custom made hats, bonnets, reticules and more for customers around the globe.