Rebecca Earle notes that ‘a deep sartorial gulf
Hobnails added to the durability of the sole and also provided grip when walking on muddy ground: they were therefore useful for private soldiers and working people, but rarely appeared on elite footwear. Hobnails had the disadvantages of being noisy and unyielding on hard ground, and were notorious for causing leaks when the nails fell out. Although sumptuary laws that restricted certain clothes to certain classes had been repealed in 1604, the exigencies of economics and culture were almost as effective at prescribing footwear styles. In the eighteenth century, these phrases were not yet proverbial: they could be used to comment on someone’s shoes, but the social comment was only implied.
As Karen Harvey has noted, apparel such as leather breeches emphasized the shapeliness of the leg and the prominence of the genitals, so was highly sexualized
In the nineteenth century, however, these phrases took on their modern meaning as describing the person themselves, implying a close identification between clothing and its wearer. All of this has wider implications for the nature of social identity. Dror Wahrman argues that the ‘modern self ‘ emerged over the course of the eighteenth century and that, by the nineteenth, individuals were strictly classified in terms of gender, race and class. He also argues that clothes became detached from this process, as one would see through them to perceive the real self. Perhaps more than any other item of clothing, shoes are synonymous with their wearer: they are identified with the body rather than merely being an adjunct to it. It is therefore worth concluding by focusing on elite men’s footwear and their implications for politics.
We have noted how, over the course of the century, men’s shoes became plainer and lower-heeled. The shoe remained an important part of the elite male ensemble, however. As McNeil and Riello note: The male shoe also acted as a type of emphatic punctuation stop at the end of silk-stockinged legs, which marked out his gender distinction from young boys and women, and his class distinction from working men wearing leather or cloth protective leggings, ragged shoes, and clogs.
A lower quality version was the brogan, which often had wooden soles and ‘stiff leather that dug into the skin of the wearer
Although shoes were usually plain, one opportunity for decoration was the buckle. These went out of fashion in the 1790s when they became a politicized symbol of the aristocracy, along with the stockings-and-breeches ensemble. Nathaniel Wraxall noted in his diary that, in ‘the era of Jacobinism and equality,’ men’s dress was characterized by ‘pantaloons, cropped hair and shoe strings, as well as the total abolition of buckles and ruffles. The adoption of trousers had implications for shoe fashions, since trousers and pantaloons would typically be worn with boots rather than shoes. In 1801, Hampton Weekes wrote from London to his brother in the country to offer him his old silk breeches, since ‘I wear my boots and Pantaloons now’: he later added, ‘indeed it is the wear of all the young Men here.
In the democratic political atmosphere of the time, however, boots became synonymous with public life. Boots suggested energy, activity and a statesmanlike attention to the febrile international situation. The boot par excellence was the wellington. This was developed by the bootmaker George Hoby following the instructions of the Duke of Wellington, who desired a simple, smooth boot for wearing on campaign. As the invention of the victor of Waterloo, and later prime minister, the wellington’s patriotic credentials were never in doubt. In common with other fashionable footwear of the early nineteenth century, the wellington was cut close, and was manufactured from leather that was more flexible than was traditional for riding boots. Examples from museum collections have supple soles and uppers, making them suitable for walking as well as riding (Figure 7.