The History of Boots
Boots today are typically characterized by chic over-the-knee styles or classic riding boots that make an appearance every fall. Boots are so fashionable and on-trend right now that it’s easy to forget they were once a strictly utilitarian piece of clothing. Rugged and ready to take on tough terrain, these durable pieces of footwear were about far more than just looking stylish. There is perhaps no other piece of footwear that has a history that is as long or as captivating as the boot. From its prehistoric origins to our contemporary take on this trend, boots have been a constant throughout human history. In this post, we’ll take a brief look at the history of boots and learn how they became the fashion accessory we consider them to be today.
Boots and Early Peoples
When many people think of early civilizations, they picture people walking around barefoot or wearing thin sandals. Because early people were constantly traversing hazardous terrain, however, it is much more likely that they protected their feet and ankles from damage by wearing items that closely resemble boots. The earliest evidence of this comes from Spanish cave paintings. These images date from 15,000 BC and depict a man and a woman wearing fur-lined boots made of animal skin.
Images from funeral jars suggest that the people of Persia wore boots as far back as 7,000 BC. Boots were also found buried in the Egyptian tomb of Khnumhotep, who lived around the time of 2140 BC. Ancient Greek soldiers were also known for wearing baggy pieces of leather that were tied to their foot and leg with pieces of raw twine. All over the world – in cultures ranging from the Asiatic and the Arctic – there is evidence that people have been wearing boots for centuries.
As society developed, leather was a costly material that average people couldn’t afford. That’s why leather boots were mostly worn by soldiers and other members of the military. Ruling classes were also wealthy enough to afford leather boots during this early period of history. It’s said that their styles were much more ornate than those worn by militia. Some early kings and emperors had decadent boots that were covered in jewels and featured intricate embroidered accents.
Footwear During the Roman Empire
The Roman empire was incredibly expansive and spanned most of what we now consider Europe. This long period of success and expansion is partly due to their intelligent footwear choices. Hobnail footwear – or boots that were held together with metal tacks – were durable, rugged, and allowed soldiers to repair their shoes then they started to wear. This revolutionary footwear was first invented by the Etruscans, but was eventually adopted and perfected by the Romans. Many historians consider these boots the reason that Romans were able to travel by foot for long periods of time, which aided in their expansion from the Mediterranean to northern parts of the continent.
Footwear called “Caligae” was another popular boot-like shoe that was worn during the reign of the Romans. This hobnail style of durable thick-soled boots featured an open top that closely resembles a gladiator sandal. Worn by Roman cavalrymen and foot-soldiers, they were the perfect boot to wear in the warm, humid climates of the Mediterranean. Eventually, these versatile boots were sold to everyone – not just soldiers or members of the Roman military. Documents from 301 AD prove that Caligae were eventually sold to everyday women, men, and children who lived within the bounds of the Roman empire.
Eventually, the prosperous Romans added a little flair to their footwear. It’s been said that when legions of troops returned home to Rome from a victorious battle, they swapped out their copper hobnails with ones made of gold, silver, or other precious, lustrous metals. Roman senators and Emperors also wore boots, but the footwear worn by the ruling classes were slightly flashier than those worn by everyday civilians or soldiers. Upper-class men were known for wearing boots made of black or white leather that extended to the knee. These were often adorned with gold or silver laces that were wound in the front in an elaborate or decorative pattern.
The Middle Ages
During Roman times, boot-making was a carefully considered craft. After the fall of Rome, however, many of the time-honored techniques used by Roman cobblers were lost. That doesn’t mean that people stopped wearing boots altogether. On the contrary, boots of different kinds remained prevalent throughout the Middle Ages. Many of the boots made during this time period were crafted from durable pieces of leather that were stitched together using thick thread or leather strands. It’s also been suggested that Goodyear welting was used to create boots as far back as the Middle Ages.
In Europe during this time, many civilians wore short, ankle-style boots that protected their feet from disease and unsanitary city conditions. These popular styles nearly all featured tips that tapered to a point and some sort of stacked heel. Boots with an extremely long pointed toe – called the “poulaine” or “crackow” – also became popular in parts Europe during the 14th and 15th centuries. Notably, the length of the pointed toe would indicate the wearer’s social status. Peasants and farmers could wear shoes with a toe length of no more than 6-inches, whereas ruling classes wore shoes with points that sometimes reached 2-feet in length.
Members of the military during this time, however, stuck with tall, simple boots that extended to the knee and beyond. Made of fine, durable leathers, these boots were worn all the way up the thigh when riding on horses. They could also be folded down to a shorter length when the rider dismounted. Boots with folded tops eventually turned into “Funnel Flap” boots – a style of footwear made of soft, pliable leather that was worn folded down in a dramatic fashion. These boots closely resemble the ones we would associate with the traditional pirate, and perhaps for good reason. Smugglers could easily hide stolen goods inside of their Funnel Flap boots, which is where the term “bootlegging” originates.
Boots during the 1800s
In the 1800s, boots started to closely resemble the styles that are still worn today. During the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s, the Duke of Wellington modified the popular style of boots at the time to better fit his preferences. Instead of a baggy leather style that could be folded down, he desired a tightfitting leather boot that extended to the middle of the calf. Made of shiny leather and boasting a slight 1-inch heel, these boots eventually became popular among the masses. Not long after, men began wearing similarly styled boots to evening events with their trousers tucked into the tops. These “Wellington” boots eventually became the standard footwear worn by the United States Calvary during the Civil War.
During the Victorian Era, men and women alike wore boots on a daily basis. Women during the Victorian era – who were especially fashion conscious – typically wore formfitting leather boots that extended up the calf. These fashionable boots also featured lace-up details and a feminine stacked heel. This type of footwear offered extra stability while walking cobblestone streets and other uneven terrain. With that said, they were also lauded for their modesty, as they kept a woman’s ankles properly covered while out in public.
Men during the Victorian era also wore boots when out in the public realm. Men’s boots were tall leather styles that were fastened to the calf and leg with buttons, hooks, or laces. Victorian men wore these tall, heavy leather boots over their trousers or breeches while walking around town, especially in poor weather conditions. Another type of men’s boots worn during this era were called “spats.” These casual ankle boots were made of more flexible materials, featured thin soles, and often were adhered to the wearer’s sock wearing a special clip. Interestingly enough, these boots eventually transformed into the modern athletic shoe or sneaker.
Westward expansion in America during the 1800s also gave rise to one of the world’s most iconic pieces of footwear – the Cowboy Boot. Riders on the open range in the 1880’s needed durable leather footwear that could keep up with their active lifestyles. An adaptation of the Wellington Boot worn by American soldiers during the Civil War, the Cowboy Boot also takes influence from the Mexican riding boot, which is known as the “Vaquero.” Other than a pair of attached spurs, authentic Cowboy Boots had no decoration or ornamentation whatsoever.
Boots during the 20th Century
During the 20th century, many adaptations of these historic boots became popular among the public. Western films were incredibly prevalent during the 1940s and 1950s, which added flash and style to the once rugged and utilitarian cowboy boot. Hollywood costumers enlisted the help of popular footwear designer Salvatore Ferragamo to make cowboy boots more exciting onscreen, which is where the colorful and highly decorated cowboy boots we wear today stem from.
Riding boots also have roots in the original Wellington Boot from the early 1800s. In the last few decades, the classic riding boot has risen to popularity in women’s fashion. Now, women often pair their tight, knee-length leather boots with skinny jeans when creating casual cold-weather outfits. Although these types of boots are worn purely for fashion now, they are rooted in the functional styles of footwear worn by our ancestors.