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).
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.
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.