Wellies in Fashion
Can garden shoes and boots be fashionable?
There seems to be some controversy around the subject of gardening and fashion. Some folk think its just not possible to mix these 2 things; that somehow the act of gardening is superior to an interest in how we present and express ourselves in the world. Others take the view that as gardening is such a creative and visual pastime then surely it can come as no surprise that people hold firm views on what they should or should not wear in the garden. Lets take a look at the subject and see what we can learn from history and the present day, starting with the welly boot.
The history of the welly boot.
Most people know that the Duke of Wellington invented the wellington boot, that’s to say he asked his London boot maker to adapt the traditional knee length hessian boot and make it instead of leather so that it would be more durable and hardwearing in battle . Indeed Wellington is quoted as saying that the most important part of a soldier’s equipment was ;
‘firstly, a pair of good shoes, second a pair of good shoes…...”
You’ve got to love a chap who gets his priorities right, hey? And he set a trend! Suddenly all the London dandies were copying the hero of Waterloo and during the mid 19th century the fashionable boot was widely worn by the likes of Beau Brummell, and over time adapted to a mid calf length and then an ankle length version.
You can find a photo of a pair of “dress wellingtons” at the Northampton Museum footwear collection plus a lot of other fun stuff about the history of shoes. The shoe curator there, Rebecca Shawcross, has written a super history of Shoes
As for the history of that wellington boot, well it did become popular with the masses bearing in mind not everyone was a member of the aristocracy and could afford a pair of bespoke leather boots ! In the 1850s Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanisation process that turns natural tree grown rubber into a stable material (that is used in products such as tyres), and then an American industrialist ( Hiram Hutchinson) figured out how to use the new technology to make rubber boots. And the rest as they say is history….Did you know that during World War 1 over a million pairs of rubber boots were made for use by the British army in the trenches by the North British Rubber Company. Sadly no British manufacturing of rubber boots remains, but you start to see why the trend for rubber boots and shoes grew so strong in the UK.
Anyway, I digress, back to fashion in the garden….
Chelsea Boots; a great fashion icon in the garden.
Another great trend setter of the nineteenth century was of course Queen Victoria and in the mid 1850s she was given a pair of boots with elasticated side gussets which were soon all the rage. Adopted by both men and women one of the most popular styles was the ankle boot or Chelsea Boot, a style that re-emerged in the 1960s and at one stage was known as the “Beatle Boot” . In the present day there are some fabulous Chelsea Boots styles designed for use by gardeners , a blend of style and practicality as the side gussets stop mud and rain getting in at the top but totally flexible and comfortable for a day in the garden. If you need convincing that the Chelsea boot is back check out this article about boots trends in 2021.
And before we move onto the subject of fashion in gardening more broadly take a quick look here at this fabulous article by Harpers Bazaar showing all those amazing long leg boots that were so fashionable in the 1970s, although I’m the first to admit that thigh length boots might not be so handy for doing the weeding!
Most blogs on this subject start and end with Vita Sackville West, the creator of Sissinghurst and style icon of the early twentieth century in those knee length lace up boots and jodphurs ;
And here is a modern day style icon channelling her inner Vita in rubber welly boots….
But lets not forget Bunny Mellon, the American 1960s socialite who created several of her own gardens and designed the White House Rose Garden ( check out the famously beautiful crab apple allee at Oak Spring) . Bunny was fabulously wealthy and famous for gardening in haute couture clothes by the Spanish designer Balenciaga! Not your average kind ‘a gardening gal!
There are a few folk who have tried to summarise the essential wardrobe features of a well dressed gardener, not least this article from the Garden Museum ( in the grounds of Lambeth Palace in London) where the list of garden essentials includes hats and alpaca socks. Well they got that last one right and if you decide you need a pair of cosy, colourful, made in the UK alpaca socks then here are some excellent ones. But the article doesn’t include any mention of footwear….but guess who does? ….the nation’s favourite gardening sex symbol Monty Don! In this article Monty describes those features of his wardrobe that we are so familiar with….the big baggy high-waisted trousers, the over sized pull-on shirts, jackets, belts, and on the subject of footwear he famously says this;
“I have a pair of handmade leather boots that I use for all digging and heavy work. These cost as much as a holiday for two in the Bahamas but were worth every penny and much preferable to a holiday. I can dig all day in them without any discomfort and they are wholly waterproof.”
Which sort of brings us back to the Duke of Wellington doesn’t it?….Because if like me you cant afford those handmade leather boots then I come back to the rubber gardening shoe or boot. I’ve mentioned before in my blog How to Choose Gardening Shoes all kinds of considerations, not least cost, so take a look and decide for yourself.
And this brings us right up to today and a quick run through our brilliant women gardeners who inspire and guide us as we create our own humble gardens. Whether it’s the venerable Carol Klein with her wild hair and colourful dresses, or the lovely Alys Fowler ( “colourful but messy” and that’s just her gardening), or the fabulous Rosie Irving with her coordinated approach to Lucy and Yak dungarees and her Poddy and Black garden shoes…..I truly believe we can say that fashion and style is here to stay in the gardening woman’s wardrobe.
I believe that from the evidence of our social media (and even on old fashioned television) we can see how fashion and style doesn’t have to be slavishly followed but instead used as a pallet of colour and an indicator of our interests and passions….exactly as we would do in our gardens. Perhaps you live in a city with a small urban footprint and prefer to focus on a limited selection of neutrals or perhaps grow green house plants as the connection to nature is what you crave. Or do you have a blousey overgrown cottage garden and go for rose prints , contrast stripes, and loads of colour. Or like most of us you live in the suburbs and assert your own personality through your choice of dress style AND garden style. Whatever way you look at this its no surprise to me to find that fashion is part of gardening and what we wear on our feet is one of the most important parts of those style decisions, so make your decisions count!