A Little History of "Vienna" Victorian Congress Boots

Sep 3, 2018 4 comments

With the release of our shiny new "Vienna" Congress Boots this season, we thought we'd give a little history of this interesting, rather special kind of footwear.

In the US the elastic-sided boot was known as the "Congress Boot" or "Congress Gaiter." Elastic-sided boots were patented in England in 1837 by J. Sparkes Hall but the elastic wasn't particularly good. Vulcanization was developed in 1839 by Goodyear but the resulting improved elastic does not appear to have been used in ladies' boots until the late 1840s.

The Met, early 19th century elastic-sided shoes. 13.49.37a,b
Shoe Icons - high cotton shoes with elastic at the sides. This is likely an example of "shirred goods." 1840s
There were two types of elasticized fabric used in congress boots - one was the true elastic web made from vulcanized India rubber thread, which is most like what we have today. Boots with the elastic webbing date from the 1850s (England) and the 1860s (US). The other type was known as "shirred goods" and was made of stretched rubber threads, running horizontally, that when "released" drew up the fabric they were sewn into for a shirred or puckered look. Boots with shirred goods are contemporary with the elastic web boots, with the web being the preferred method presumably due to stretch, recovery, and longevity.

Shoe Icons - 1860s-1870s elastic-sided boots in brown glace leather, AKA "bronzed kid." This was a *very* popular leather for women's shoes and boots and unfortunately isn't made today, but we got as close as we could with our patina brown colorway.
Nancy Rexford notes that the congress boots (with inferior and then better elastics) were worn in England for 10 years before they made their way to the US around 1847. (Women's Shoes in America, 1795-1930, pg. 206).

This coincides roughly with Queen Victoria's coronation in 1838. J Sparkes Hall was a bootmaker to Queen Victoria and claimed the Queen "walks in them daily and thus gives the strongest proof of the value she attached to the invention."

An interesting page from "Der Bazar: Illustrirte Damen-Zeitung, Volume 7," 1861, showing a variety of congress gaiters with bows and other decoration.
After 1847 congress gaiters were very popular for ladies - with restrictive clothing, people needed to put on their shoes and not worry about laces coming untied. Bending down in corsets or tight clothing isn't comfortable, polite, and sometimes not even possible, so the 18th and 19th centuries saw several alternative fastening methods for shoes - buttons, buckles, elastic - contemporary with shoe strings (laces).

The popularity of congress boots continues through the 1870s but the function of the boots begins to shift from being a fashionable style to being more for outdoor or practical use only. By the late 1880s congress boots for ladies are not considered the height of fashion but they were still being made.

Here is a page from the 1886 catalog "Grand Magasin du Samaritain" showing two congress boots with the more fashionable side-buttoning boots. They were still hangin' in there in the mid-1880s in Paris, which is known to be a fairly fashionable place. ;-)
There was a bit of a revival in the 1890s and turn of the 20th century for the "Ladies' Up to Date Congress Shoe," but it faded out fairly quickly. Elastic-sided boots continued to be made in the early 20th century but were relegated to "comfort shoes" and were not at all seen as fashionable for women. A quick bimble through Zappos today, however, will turn up a variety of congress gaiters, now commonly called Chelsea Boots, some very fashionable. Now that's a footwear style with staying power, 170 years old!

American Duchess "Vienna" Congress Gaiters in black or patina brown - true, glorious reproductions perfect for the 1850s, Civil War, and bustle periods.
Our new
"Vienna" Congress Boots
are available in


  1. So, I'm looking at the new Vienna's and say to my brother, "I like them, but I'd cut the bow off". He replies, "No! It's structural! That's a load bearing bow!"

  2. I have come from the ancient posts of AD and wow, it is amazing to see what the first huge project was, if I may say so, really really go check it out.

  3. Um, sorry about that dumb question: are Chelsea Boots the 21th century follow-up of these Congress Boots...?


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