Military uniforms, fame and fashion have always been closely linked. Regimental dress uniforms were designed to stand out and impress young men into joining up – with the added bonus of attracting the opposite sex in the process. LOL!
When the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars (1792–1815) brought much of Europe into battle, it is hardly surprising that they also introduced many military fashions into civilian life.
In the 1790s officers in the British Army wore boots called ‘Hessians’, which were named after the German mercenaries who fought alongside the British in the American War of Independence (1775–83). Made of soft, highly polished calfskin, they were knee-high with a curved top, similar to a riding boot, but with a ‘V’ shape, decorated with a tassel, cut into the front.
Ordinary soldiers stationed in hot climates began to wear lightweight linen trousers instead of their normal woolen breeches. In England the fashion for wearing these tight-fitting trousers caught on in the 1800s, particularly associated with Beau Brummell, the style icon of his day.
Unfortunately, the tassel on ‘Hessian’ boots–which were designed to be worn with traditional breeches–made them difficult to wear with these newly fashionable trousers.
Enter Arthur Wellesley, then Viscount Wellington, who asked his shoemaker, Mr Hoby of St James’s Street, London, to cut his boots lower and remove the tassel, thus making them easier to wear with the new trousers. When he won his great victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the new Duke of Wellington became a patriotic role model, and subsequent fashion icon. By 1817 his new style of boots had achieved the status of must-have fashionable footwear, and duly became known as ‘Wellingtons’.
Wellingtons remained fashionable past the Duke’s death in 1853, but declined in popularity when the ankle boot finally superseded them in the 1860s. Nonetheless they continued to be worn by senior officers in the British Army, seeing service in the Crimea and the First World War.