The official April rainy season is here, and most of us have a raincoat, an umbrella, and our trusty pair of Wellies ready by the door. The popular boot has been around for nearly 200 years, and just like sandwiches and afternoon tea, Wellingtons are a still-practical mainstay that we can thank the British aristocracy for.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, German Hessian boots, with their low heels and high knees, were both fashionable and practical military garb. The raised knee gave extra protection to cavalry men on horses, and the decorative tassels gave them a daytime-to-eveningwear look. But, they were meant to be worn with knee breeches, and when those pants went out of style, the Hessian boot needed to be modified.
Enter Arthur Wellesley, the 1st Duke of Wellington, a highly decorated war hero who commanded the army that defeated Napoleon at Waterloo (Wellington would later go on to become Prime Minister). Often noted as an extremely practical man, in 1817 he asked his St. James's Street shoemaker to modify his current Hessians. The lining was removed so that the boot would more easily fit over the popular long trousers, and, rather than the polished leather that had made Hessians all the rage, the shoemaker crafted the Duke's boots out of a more durable calfskin.
The look quickly caught on. Not only were the boots still fitted in the fashionable style, they now accommodated the new long pant and had the added benefit of being fairly waterproof (a boon in Britain's famously rainy climate). The fops and dandies of High Street—including the fashion-forward influencer Beau Brummell—clamored after the look, and the Duke's name forever became associated with the boot.
Eventually, new technology caught up with the look. In 1852, Charles Goodyear invented natural rubber. American industrialist Hiram Hutchinson acquired the patent to develop footwear from the rubber, and his subsequent workshoes became must-haves for farmers and field workers. When World War I hit, the company that would become Hunter Boots manufactured Wellington-style waterproof boots that could withstand muddy trenches for the troops. The Duke could not have known it at the time, but his namesake footwear would serve as an important piece of protection for the British army decades after his death.
The style never faded, and today, Hunters and other Wellington-style rubber boots are considered the gold standard for wet-weather wear.