Let’s just go walking in the rain.”
One day, I was walking around the park of my college campus at the University of California, Irvine with my dear friend, when I spotted a girl wearing the most fabulous pair of rain boots. They were the classic Burberry plaid print and hit just below the knee. Now, I am not usually one to approach strangers and ask them where they purchase their clothes but I just had to know where she got them! She told me where and I began my year-long quest for these boots. I searched and searched all over Southern California but could not find them anywhere. One day, while shopping one after class with my same friend, I found them. I did not care about the price because I knew that these boots were worth it! Finally I had found my dream boots and I have truly gotten my money’s worth. I wear them as often as I can and have worn them in the rain (obviously), at the beach in the sand, in the snow, while riding on the back of a motorcycle, and I am wearing them right now!
My sister, who is currently living in London, just had to buy a pair of Hunter’s first thing when she arrived. My friend in the story above is getting her Law Degree in Seattle and bought a darling short Burberry pair to trek the rainy weather of the Pacific Northwest. My son has the most adorable pair of bumblebee boots. Today, rain boots are a classic and essential piece of everyone’s wardrobe yet come from interesting, war-filled beginnings.
In 1817, Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington instructed his shoemaker, Hoby of St. James Street, London, to modify the 18th century boot because fashion was changing. Gentlemen everywhere discarded their knee breeches in favor of longer trousers. In America, James Madison (in office 1809-1817) was the first President to wear trousers instead of knee breeches, and Duke Wellesley was turned away from a fashionable London social club for wearing trousers, which were against the strict dress code.
In a letter from his residence at Walmer Castle, the Duke instructed his shoemaker on how to make a pair of his boots:
I beg that you will make for me two pairs of Boots, of the usual form only four (or the thin of an hand) lines longer in the foot than usual. Send with new false soles that will fit this new size. If needed make them broader. If these boots should suit me I will send another [pair] of galoshes. If I fit them; and [a pair] of shoes of the same size. I beg to have these boots as soon as possible, as I am pained by those which I wear at present.
Your obedient Servant-
The previously popular Hessian boot, worn with breeches, was styled with a curvy turned-down top and heavy metallic braid which was found to be unsuitable for wearing under trousers. The new boot commissioned by Duke Wellesley, was designed in soft calfskin leather and had the trim removed and was cut closer around the leg. Its design was durable enough for battle and yet comfortable for the evening.
Because of Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, “Wellington boots” became extremely popular as stylish footwear that could be worn with trousers. These boots caught on with patriotic British gentleman eager to imitate their war hero. They remained the main fashion for men throughout the 1840s. In the 50s they were more commonly made in the calf high version and in the 60s they were both superseded by the ankle boot, except for riding. All these boots were made of leather.
In America, shoemakers were beginning to manufacture with rubber. Henry Lee Norris went to Scotland in search of a suitable site to produce rubber footwear. Mr. Norris, realized that the patent for rubber footwear related solely to England so he registered a trademark and patent in Scotland. Mr. Norris acquired a block of buildings in Edinburgh, known as the Castle Silk Mills and thus the North British Rubber Company was registered. Mr. Norris then had to find employees skilled in the manufacture of rubber footwear. This was no simple task for such a new industry so Mr. Norris imported labour by acquiring 4 adventurous New Yorkers who sailed to Scotland. They were employed not only to make boots, but also to instruct others in the process.
The rubber boot was initially produced in a limited quantity but with World War I approaching, demand quickly rose. The War Office asked The North British Rubber Company to fabricate a rubber boot to suit the conditions in flooded trenches. The rubber mills ran day and night to produce massive quantities of these trench boots. In total, 1,185,036 pairs were made to handle the Army’s demands. The fashionable boot was now a functional necessity.
Again the company made an important contribution during World War II. At the outbreak of war in September 1939, 80% of the entire output consisted of war materials. Although trench warfare was not a feature of World War II, the Wellington still played an important role when forces assigned to the task of clearing the enemy out of Holland had to work in terrible flooded conditions. The North British Rubber Company was called upon to supply Wellingtons and thigh boots yet again. By the end of the war the Wellington boots (“wellies“) had become popular among men, women and children for wear in wet weather. The boot had developed to become far roomier with a thick sole and rounded toe.
Today, rain boots come in a variety of colors and patterns. Almost all shoe manufactures have a rain boot in their collections. Some advice: avoid plain, black pairs unless you are going for a fisherman look. My sister bought a pair in black and has not worn them for fear that she might be accused for stealing a salty sea man’s work boots. I urge you to invest in a nice pair as they will not only serve their purpose but will also add some cheeriness to an otherwise gloomy, rainy day.
“And when it rains on your parade, look up rather than down.
Without the rain, there would be no rainbow.”
~Gilbert K. Chesterton