When and When Not to Wear Boots in the Regency Era

Admittedly, several fashion illustrations for men of the Regency era show the man wearing a blue coat, beige pantaloons and boots. This has been described as the fashionable look for gentlemen. Because of this, many authors seem to think such an outfit was suitable for all occasions.

Boots were not meant to be worn everywhere. The aristocrats might have been boors, or oppressive landlords, or deaf to the cries of the poor, but they knew how to dress for the occasion.

Most would not wear boots to a ball or to church or to dinner. They generally would not wear boots to call on a lady unless to take her riding or driving. It may be we authors feel boots are more period or we do not like the idea of saying a man wore “pumps.”

H. Eldridge’s 1802 painting of Thomas, Earl of Haddington.
Painting of George, Duke of Argyll, by H. Eldridge, 1801.

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.

I previously read a book (cannot recall its name) where there was an interruption of the wedding ceremony, and the narrative remarked on the sound of boots of wedding guests. The polite gentleman wore shoes as a guest or a groom at a wedding. He wore shoes to a ball, to dinner, and to call on a lady.

He would not ride a horse to any of these occasions except, as noted above, if he was to go riding with a lady. Then boots would be appropriate.

I think it was the House of Lords that said no visitors were allowed in wearing boots. Boots were not allowed at Almacks’. Even military officers had dress shoes.

There are one or two paintings of public assemblies in which military men are shown wearing boots. I do not know if those were painted from life or imagination. At most local assemblies attendance was by payment of a fee, and all manner of people could join. One of the reasons Almacks was founded was to restrict attendance at the assembly to vetted people so the sons and daughters could meet eligible people to marry. Most officers wore shoes as part of their dress uniform. One reason was it was thought boots would be harder on dance floors. They also hurt more if they landed on a lady’s foot clad only in a slight evening slipper (something similar to a ballet shoe). Most evening shoes were soft soled, Boots were hard soled and hard on floors.

There are those stories which say the Duke of Wellington was refused admittance to Almacks because he was NOT DRESS properly. Some say His Grace showed up wearing boots and was turned away. There are also stories he arrived a few seconds after 11:00 P. M. and was turned away. In Gronow’s account the problem was Wellington was wearing trousers instead of breeches. In this account, when he is turned away, he says this is very proper, that he, above all persons, understands the importance of correct uniform.

I love Gronow, but we do have to consider he was writing his Reminiscences decades after the fact, and it was unlikely he was standing by the door and had heard the exchange at the time. So we’ll probably never know exactly what happened.

That being said, Gronow does get other details wrong. For example, according to one account of his life, Gronow was only stationed in Town for 1814. The women he lists as patronesses of Almacks for 1814 were incorrect. Also, one edition of his book was published with an illustration of  dancing from France and ever since it has been used to illustrate the fashions and the dance in England.

The Napoleon Series tells us something of Gronow. “Gronow, what can I say? Approach him with caution, even with Christopher Hibbert’s very helpful editing and annotations. R. H. Gronow (1794-1865) was one of those shadowy figures that drifted through the Regency and Victorian times. He rarely features in letters and diaries — but his memoirs, written in the 1860’s, seem to indicate he knew all the right people. Perhaps this was because he spent much of his time observing life around him, a commentator rather than a participant in events himself.

“There are three problems I have with Gronow. He wrote up to 40 years after events; he clearly wrote entirely for money; and there is no way of knowing if he was actually present at events that he writes about, or merely heard about them later. All in all, Gronow published four volumes of his reminiscences between 1862 and 1866, and they cover his life from 1810 to 1860. By the end of it he was rather scraping the barrel for suitably gossipy tittle-tattle to share with an avid public. Yes, the audience of the day lapped them up, and there lies some of the problems I have with Gronow. Clearly much of what he said is inaccurate, misdated, or just plain salacious gossip garnered from other sources such as Captain Jesse.”

Jane Austen’s World tells us: “The Patronesses of Almack’s guarded entry to the club like Valkeries prepared to do battle. No one, not even the Duke of Wellington, would dare to step a foot inside the establishment without a proper voucher, and, indeed, he was turned away once for wearing *gasp* trousers instead of knee breeches. But is this true? Please keep on reading.

“This passage from Social England Under the Regency by John Ashton (p 383) is quite telling:

The Duke of Wellington

Of course the Creme de la creme went to Almack’s, but numberless were the Peris who sighed to enter that Paradise, and could not. Capt. Gronow, writing of 1814, says: “At the present time one can hardly conceive the importance which was attached to getting admission to Almack’s, the seventh heaven of the fashionable world. Of the three hundred officers of the Foot Guards, not more than half a dozen were honoured with vouchers of admission to this exclusive temple of the beau monde, the gates of which were guarded by lady patronesses whose smiles or frowns consigned men and women to happiness or despair. These lady patronesses were the Ladies Castlereagh, Jersey, Cowper, and Sefton; … and the Countess Lieven.” (Note: At that time, two other patronesses included Lady Downshire and Lady Bathurst.) from Jane Austen’s World

Two major points on the issue of Boots: (1) So many of us are accustomed to informal clothes in practically any milieu, it is difficult for us to remember how boots were the sneakers of the day. (2) Also, when one is wealthy, one can afford to have different outfits for different activities. The ladies were said to have changed at least 3 times in a day, even if they never left the house.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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1 Response to When and When Not to Wear Boots in the Regency Era

  1. Andrew says:

    Fascinating blog post and summary of this topic. Oddly its the second time recently I’ve come across men’s fashion in the Regency. The other was a podcast, The Rest Is History if you know it. Podcast 238. The Regency Revolution. Took them a while to get to men’s fashion, but I’d never realised how quickly Men’s fashion changed into what we’d recognise as ‘modern’ dress, just 20 years or so.

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