One of my favorite aspects of fashion is discovering the nuanced histories of objects we often take for granted. As with many things in life, the obvious questions are often the most overlooked. For example: why is the Chelsea boot named as such?
The general style of boot known as “Chelsea” hails from England, which may not come as a surprise. But today’s incarnation includes both Victorian and Mod characteristics as well as Australian design. A British-Australian Mod-Victorian combo? That may intrigue you.
To understand the Chelsea boot, we must go back as far as 1839, when Charles Goodyear invented vulcanization. It’s the process of hardening rubber and improving its molecular elasticity by adding sulfur. In the modern era, we probably can’t imagine rubber-accented items, like car tires and, of course, shoes, unable to withstand wear. But prior to Goodyear’s discovery these objects’ lifespans were insanely short. In addition to the vulcanization of rubber, another invention by Thomas Hancock–elastic–composed the other 50% of a typical Chelsea boot.
But it was Queen Victoria’s Royal Cordwainer (or shoemaker) who thought to combine the two. The Queen tasked J. Sparkes Hall with creating a laceless fitted boot that was comfortable for walking but could be worn for horseback riding as well. (The laces of the Queen’s typical footwear continually caught in the horse’s stirrups). Hall crafted the Paddock or Elastic Ankle boot in 1852.
Alas, the boot fell out of popularity during the War years, from about 1915 to 1950. Among other conditions, the “Make-Do-and-Mend” campaign discouraged Brits from purchasing new items, allowing raw materials to go towards war efforts instead.
After the austerity of the war came an era of great prosperity. The so-called “Youthquake” saw teenagers out and about, spending money and showing it. In London, the most prominent neighborhood for this display of newfound wealth was Chelsea–where our beloved boots get their name. A group of young artists, filmmakers, and even socialists frequented the area. This influential crew, which included fashion icons Jean Shrimpton and Mary Quant, became known as the “Chelsea Set,” and thus their style–which included the Paddock boot–also became associated with “Chelsea.”
Mods in particular favored Victorian Paddock boots for their dainty look, despite their traditional reputation as footwear for manual labor. Perhaps the Mods wore them ironically–work boots on those who didn’t have to work at all.
Typical Chelsea boots are of ankle-length height and have rounded toes and low heels. They consist of two parts, each made from a single piece of leather, called the vamp and the quarters. The vamp and the quarters meet near the ankle where they are joined by a strip of vulcanized rubber or elastic, which extends to just below the ankle (but not all the way down to the sole). Additionally, the vamp and the quarters are sewed together, not one on top of the other.
In this era of creativity, many groups created variations upon the traditional design. A Chelsea boot with a “Cuban Heel” became the “Baba Boot,” particularly favored by the Beatles. Naturally, fans around the world noticed the style and its popularity skyrocketed.
Speaking of universal appeal, Australian companies commissioned their own versions of the Chelsea boot. It is their iteration that most closely resembles the style-du-jour of 2019. Much more durable, Australian boots were chunkier and tougher. Companies such as Blundstone, RM Williams, and Rossi were among the most popular elastic side boot manufacturers.
Chelsea boots have been around for nearly two centuries and don’t seem to be waning in popularity any time soon. Among our favorite styles now are these ones from Frye and the cashmere-accented Fara Chelsea from The Row. Doc Martens also has great styles for men and women, both traditional looks and modern variations.