THESE BOOTS ARE MADE NOT ONLY FOR WALKING but for working in all kinds of weather—and looking smart, too. They were introduced in 1817 by Hoby of St. James’s Street, London, the personal shoemaker of Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, famous for defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. Wellingtons were initially designed to look good with the newfangled men’s fashion of wearing long trousers instead of knee breeches.
The boot’s predecessor, the Hessian, had a curvy folded-down top and heavy braid.The duke wanted something simpler, made from soft calfskin and cut closer to the leg. Sturdy enough to be battle-hardy yet stylish enough to be worn in the evening, the Wellington allowed the British gentry to look like their favorite war hero while standing tall in polished boots.
However, it was an American named Henry Lee Norris who came up with the idea of producing the Wellington in rubber. (Charles Goodyear had recently patented the process of vulcanizing.) The British Isles had a wet, muddy climate, so Norris headed to Scotland and, in 1856, founded the North British Rubber Company to produce the weather-resistant boots that were to become famous.
The Wellington has gone through many changes since its schizoid days as a foppish combat boot. In the 1860s, it was worn by soldiers in the American Civil War. And the cowboy boot was modeled after the full V- Wellington, so called because the whole front and whole Q£ back are each made from a single piece.
Production took off during both World Wars, when the military requested sturdy rubber footwear that would keep soldiers’ feet dry in the flooded trenches and provide civilians with long-lasting boots during wartime rationing. Introduced to Wellingtons in a time of great hardship, British men, women, and children have never given them up, and their appeal has spread far beyond the home turf.
In New Zealand,Wellies—or gumboots, as they’re known Down Under—come in white for doctors and nurses in rural hospitals. Green is a favorite with the Brits (Lady Diana Spencer was a green girl long before she married her prince), while black ones with brick-red soles can often be seen on fishermen up and down the U.S. East Coast and into Canada’s Maritime Provinces.
Today, children the world over splash through puddles in Wellies styled to look like ladybugs, ducks, and frogs. And, thanks to designers such as Paul Smith and Karl Lagerfeld, the streets of many a rainy fashion capital are a riot of Wellies decorated in candy colors, wild stripes, and funky prints.