The Goods: Wellington Boots

When I turned seven, I asked my mom for a pair of Spiderman “rain boots” to match the raincoat I received for my birthday. I remember they were navy blue with a thick, red tread. The spring showers that year had nothing on my Spidey skills. Countless puddles emptied, left trembling in the wake of my endless traipsing, I was a puddle-seeking missile. No pool was too large for these crushers.

Until this fall, the comic book-inspired pair was my only connection to the tall rubber boots often associated with the Scottish Highlands. Whether you call them rain boots, gum boots, or wellies, the Wellington has made quite a splash of late, and it looks as though it’s here to stay – and with good reason. They’re as functional as they are fashionable. In the wettest of weather they manage to keep the foot bone dry, and if the dashing blokes at the muddy Glastonbury Music Festival have any say, they do so with panache.

Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, was known to be as fearless as he was fashionable. In 1815, upon returning to London after a decisive victory over Napolean at Waterloo, “the Beau” commissioned shoemaker Hoby of St. James Street to alter his leather Hessian boots. They featured a tasseled shin and pointed toe which made mounting the stirrups easier.

The Iron Duke’s cobbler dropped the heel to one inch, removed the lining, and cropped the boot closer to the calf. The foppish war hero’s style was quickly imitated amongst the country’s dandies, and the boots’ popularity never dwindled.

Reading about Wellington’s affect on his compatriots, I couldn’t help but draw a connection to the fervor surrounding our new first family’s style choices. The president’s penchant for HSM, his footwear, and his wristwatch have received loads of attention (Bryant Gumbel claims the only way he was able to convince a sweaty and tired Obama to talk after his pick-up basketball game was to steal the prized watch and use it as bait). Throughout history, our country’s leaders have been known to set off fashion trends. The stories of Lincoln’s trips to Brooks Brothers or Kennedy’s swearing-in sans fedora are legendary.

In the 1850s, after learning of the vulcanization process from American tire-maker Charles Goodyear, Hiram Hutchinson took the idea to France where he formed the first rubber Wellington. L’Aigle became the boot of choice amongst French farmers, who previously trudged the fields in wooden clogs.
Their popularity wasn’t solidified, however, until the British government commissioned Hunter Boot, Ltd. to produce over a million pairs to protect its soldiers’ feet in the soggy trenches of WWI. Hunter continued producing the boots throughout the years of The Great War, and from then on the boots were synonymous with the wet conditions of Great Britain.
In a contest at this year’s Farm Aid, I won a pair of Swedish company Tretorn’s Skerry (on sale at the moment). Scandinavians, known for their sleek, modern designs, would probably laugh at my trepidation, but at first, I hesitated to wear them for fear of looking “silly.” From first wear, the fleece-lined boot won me over with just how dry and warm my dogs felt after slogging through Prospect Park on a rainy Saturday. At the season’s first sign of snowfall, unlike in years past where I’d lace up my favorite pair of Gore-Tex hiking boots, my morning commute was made complete when I grabbed my stately wellies. Whether you’re a superhero, a Duke, or just a guy swishing through fresh powder on his way to grab The Sunday Times, you’ll weather the weather whatever the weather if you’re wearing a weatherproof Wellington.

Thanks for checking out the first installment of The Goods. Tune in next week when I’ll feature the timeliest of materials: down! That’s it for now, I’m all plaid out.

For more on Arthur Wellesley consult your local library for the following titles:
Wellington: The Iron Duke, by Richard Holmes
Wellington: A Personal History, by Christopher Hibbert
Architects of Empire: The Duke of Wellington and His Brothers, by John Severn
or see the following:
Waterloo (1970), starring Christopher Plummer as Wellington, Rod Steiger as Napolean Bonaparte, and Orson Welles as King Louis XVIII
“Sharpe’s Waterloo” (1997), starring Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe