Stepping Out: A Pair of 1820’s Ladies’ Half Boots
By Emily Whitted, WPAMC Class of 2020
In our British Design History course this January, each of us chose a single object from Winterthur’s collection to research in the context of transatlantic design influences between Great Britain and America. I chose an 1820s green silk and wool pair of ladies’ half boots (pictured above) and thought about them intensely during our two-week trip abroad. Below are some of my research findings about the design history of this shoe shape.
This pair of green silk and wool ladies’ half boots from the Winterthur collection epitomize a murky, transitional time in women’s shoe design. Also known as prunella boots or prunella shoes — named for the prunella fabric, a type of sturdy wool and silk material that makes up the uppers — half-boots were first introduced in England around 1805 and peaked in popularity by 1830s. Prior to ankle boots like these, the fashion of 18th century ladies’ footwear dictated heeled shoes, with buckles or front laces to close them, but heeled shoes had shrunk down to flat soles by the end of the century. The side laces of these shoes are a signal of an improved level of comfort for the wearer from older shoe designs; the laces would have faced the inner ankle, meaning this pair has a shaped left and right shoe, and the laces could easily accommodate feet swollen from fatigue, overuse, or illness. This adjustability would remain a popular design feature in the following decades. Half boots were the first practical, comfortable, and mobile women’s shoe styles in the nineteenth century, and this crucial first form is echoed even in footwear worn in the present day.
Durability is a crucial component of a successful pair of shoes for women on the move. Ladies’ half boots were also perceived as an appropriately feminine form of footwear, but one that women knew weren’t as functional as they seemed. The touches of morocco leather around the heels and toes of Winterthur’s prunella boots would have provided some slight protection for the fabric uppers, but ultimately would not have stood up to heavy use for long. The siren’s call of current fashion is in constant conflict with one’s means; the decision to wear fashionable footwear in poor conditions and risk damage is not made lightly by all women. Some certainly wore their half-boots in ill-advised weather, and some just as certainly stuck to tried-and-true protective overshoes. Despite their falling heavily out of fashion by 1820, overshoes were still worn through 1850 as an economic precaution.
My fellow classmates can attest to the extraordinary amounts of walking we did on our trip, outdoors in a myriad of weather conditions and indoors on some truly incredible floors. We talked about our feet constantly, especially when the weather was poor or the walking tours long, or in some truly magical moments, when we took off our shoes to tread gently on the period carpet in no. 1 Royal Crescent in Bath. In those moments, I’d look down at my own shoes, and wonder what it’d be like to walk in these prunella boots instead.
These foot-focused experiences reminded me that shoes can limit as well as liberate. In the case of Winterthur’s prunella boots, ladies’ shoe design had made strides towards liberating the feet of nineteenth century women in England and America, although women’s daily physical activities still outpaced their design. Nineteenth century American and British women would stay on the move: walking to work, for exercise, to maintain social networks, and eventually in protest supporting their right to vote in the twentieth century, carried forward by their footwear.