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The iconic Chelsea boot

Considering this well-known style’s creation in the days of Queen Victoria, its long-lasting popularity and the design’s likely future.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © Thomas Faull |

In the Western world at the beginning of the 19th century, the most popular style of footwear for men was the boot. By the mid-1800s, this had become the footwear of choice for both sexes in all social classes, with women favouring ankle-length boots without heels.

However, fastening such footwear usually required buttons and laces, which could be a difficult operation. This problem encouraged London-based shoemaker Joseph Sparkes Hall to experiment with different fastenings in order to make life easier for his customers – a project which eventually resulted in a boot with expanding side gussets that would allow the wearer to easily pull them on and off.

Sparkes Hall began making rubber waterproof overshoes – ‘galoshes’ – in 1830 and was keen to develop and incorporate novel materials into his footwear. His initial experiments aimed at overcoming problems faced by the Londoners of his day were a failure, because the elastic materials available for him to work with were simply not stretchy enough. He did not give in, and the first successful pair of elasticated footwear he produced featured a gusset incorporating coils of metal that were covered in ruched cotton, folded into tight pleats.

Sparkes Hall was obviously proud of his design as, in 1837, he presented a pair of his ‘dainty elastic-sided boots’ to none other than Queen Victoria during the first year of her reign. In his 1846 work The Book of the Feet, the shoemaker stated that the Queen “was well satisfied with the design”, adding that “Her Majesty has been pleased to honour the invention with the most marked and continued patronage: it has been my privilege for some years to make her boots… and no-one who is acquainted with her Majesty’s habits of walking and exercise, in the open air, can doubt the superior claims of elastic over every other kind of boots”. It is no surprise that once Queen Victoria was seen wearing these boots, they quickly became fashionable. As well as the ease of donning and doffing the footwear, there was no risk of buttons falling off or laces breaking.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

A pair of women’s black silk jersey elastic-sided boots made by Joseph Sparkes Hall c.1860s

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

Children’s black leather and patent leather elastic-sided boots made in the 1850s

Vulcanised rubber comes on the scene

Nevertheless, there was something better in store than expanding gussets made from metal coils. In 1839, Charles Goodyear is said to have accidentally discovered the rubber vulcanisation process and, in the following year, Sparkes Hall replaced the coiled wire in his boot with rubber. He went on to patent his creation, which is reportedly the first registered design to feature elastic, and described the improvements in materials and workmanship as combining “to make the elastic boot the most perfect thing of its kind.” In addition to the style being worn in the street, a number of fashionable evening wear varieties were soon produced, including a cream satin version.

Initially worn by both men and women as walking shoes, Sparke Hall’s footwear eventually became popular with horse riders. By the early 1890s, the style had been adopted by equestrian enthusiasts in sufficient numbers for it to become known as the ‘Paddock boot’. Interestingly, the style also gained the nicknames ‘Congress boot’ and ‘Congress gaiter’, apparently due to its popularity with American politicians.

The footwear that later became known as the ‘Chelsea boot’ had a number of set characteristics. A close-fitting, ankle-high boot with an elastic side panel, it often included a fabric loop or tab affixed to the back which could be gripped when pulling on the footwear. It would generally have a rounded toe (although some pointed-toed styles have also been sold as ‘Chelsea boots’ as mentioned later in this article), a low heel, and the vamp and quarters meeting near the ankle where they are joined by a strip of vulcanised rubber or elastic which extends to just below the ankle (but not all the way down to the sole).

How did the modern name arise?

From the mid-1950s onwards, a group of young artists, film directors and other ‘creative types’ began to meet in the area around the King’s Road in West London. This group, which by the ‘swinging sixties’ included well-known fashion designer Mary Quant and model and actress Jean Shrimpton, was labelled the ‘Chelsea Set’ by the media, and came to include a number of rich, talented or beautiful people who were taking centre stage within British popular culture of the day. The footwear of choice with many of these celebrities, even further afield than the British capital, was the Paddock boot, which – perhaps disparagingly – was referred to as the ‘Chelsea boot’ by onlookers. As a result, the name stuck within the public consciousness.

Beatle boots

One of the previously-mentioned variations of the Chelsea boot was the ‘Beatle boot’. Its story began when John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Pete Best – then members of the recently-formed ‘Beatles’ group – saw Chelsea boots being worn by a band from London while they were visiting the German city of Hamburg in October 1961. On returning to London, they saw Chelsea boots in theatrical and ballet shoemaker Anello & Davide’s shop window, and immediately commissioned the company to create a variant featuring Cuban heels and pointed toes to complement their new suit image. The name of this style, which became available with either elastic or zipped sides, was unsurprisingly linked with what went on to become one of the most famous (and influential) bands the world has ever known.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery

A Beatles boot from the mid-sixties

Some of the artists who wore Beatle boots included The Monkees, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Jimi Hendrix, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. The footwear could even be seen adorning the feet of ‘Starfleet’ officers in the original Star Trek series, first broadcast in 1966. Having mentioned Star Trek, it is worth noting the fact that Imperial Stormtroopers could be seen wearing white Chelsea boots in some of the Star Wars movies, first released in 1977.

Part of British culture

Chelsea boots and some of their closely-related variants were considered an iconic element of Britain in the sixties and seventies. For example, this was evident as part of the image-conscious ‘mod’ scene, which saw scooter-riding adherents wearing Chelsea boots while dressed in tailored suits.

Fashions inevitably lose their status, and the approval rating of Chelsea boots started to decline during the 1970s. However, the punk movement at the end of the decade and into the early eighties unleashed another surge of popularity. An additional drop in the style’s fortunes occurred during the 1990s before Chelsea boots regained their desire in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

What future for Chelsea boots?

The Chelsea boot’s extreme versatility – able to be successfully worn with both casual and formal attire while presenting a ‘classic’ and ‘simplistic’ look – is said to provide ‘timeless charm’. Not only can the style be fashionable, but there are also plenty of examples of variants produced specifically as rugged work boots, some of which feature safety toe caps and other protective elements.


Variants have been produced specifically as rugged work boots

With many major brand owners including Chelsea boots in their collections, the future for this style looks positive. In fact, a Google search brings up no fewer than 60.1 million results – surely evidence of the Chelsea boot’s endearing popularity.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 40 of the June 2022 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

Other articles from this issue »