Historical Costume 1800-1820: boots and bags

A couple of weeks ago, in my blog about footwear, there wasn’t room to cover ladies’ boots.
So today I will. Plus some other essentials for the well-dressed lady.


buff cotton and leather half-boots 1815-20 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

cotton & leather half-boots 1815-20 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

If you’ve read your Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, you’ll be familiar with the term “half-boots”.
But what were they?
And what were they made of?

The pair on the right, from the marvellous V&A collection, is made of striped cotton with buff-coloured leather toecaps. The sole is leather and there’s a little heel. From the picture, it looks as though they, like the shoes I discussed in my last blog, are not made for left and right feet. They also look as if they’ve hardly been worn. If they were worn, it probably wasn’t in the rain and mud, judging by how clean and shiny they still are.

cotton jean half-boots 1812-20 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

cotton jean half-boots 1812-20 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This dark striped pair, dating possibly from a little earlier, looks even less capable of dealing with foul weather since the uppers are all made of cotton jean (though the rosette is silk). The soles are leather, again with a small heel.

According to the V&A, boots like these became fashionable from around 1804 and were worn with walking dress or morning dress. However, C Willett Cunnington’s English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century quotes as follows from 1800: “Half Boots up to the knee of cordovan leather which draw on by means of boot hooks are worn by many females of dashing ton.” Very dashing indeed, I’d have thought, especially with the thin muslin gowns worn at the time. Buff boots were fashionable from 1804, Cunnington says, especially in winter. He mentions cloth half-boots from 1809 and jean boots (for walking) from 1814.

Hardwearing cottons, like jean, were often preferred to leather. Were cottons more comfortable perhaps than stiffer leather? Or perhaps cheaper? Or was it just the fashion? Possibly.

Pretty? Or practical?

kid leather half-boots 1815-20 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

kid leather half-boots 1815-20 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This pair looks rather more practical, being made of darker kid leather throughout, and lined with canvas. They have leather soles and a small stacked heel.

I’m not sure I like that silk rosette, but it may have been fashionable to add it, perhaps to show that these boots were for a lady?

More than half boots?

white cotton kid-lined boots with silk trim 1812 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

cotton kid-lined boots 1812 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

And then there were the (in my view) totally impractical boots, like this pair, also from the V&A collection, dated to around 1812. They are slightly longer than the half-boots above. These are made of white cotton, lined with white kid. The trimmings and stitching are white silk. All very extravagant, I’d say.

Cunnington mentions silk half-boots for carriage dress in 1816 so these might have been a predecessor. They have clearly been worn and they look comfortable to me. But cleaning them must have been a nightmare (for the poor lady’s maid, of course).

leather boots side-laced 1820 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

leather boots side-laced 1820 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The V&A has called this pair “boots” rather than “half-boots” though they look lower than some of the half-boots shown above.

These date from around 1820 and have lacing on the side, rather than up the front. They are made of leather, with leather soles, and a rather more solid heel than earlier boots. They have a masculine look—a bit like spats?—but they definitely belonged to a lady because you can read part of the name inside the top of the boot on the left of the picture. [Click image to enlarge it.] It looks like “Mrs Norman” or something along those lines.

And finally, to show that fashion could be thoroughly outrageous, I offer you this French print from 1814. The lady is wearing a white dress with lace trimmings, long green gloves, an ecru cap, a red, green and yellow tartan shawl and tartan boots, in blue, white and red, with yellow frills. To complete her restrained ensemble, she holds a white parasol and a pink-edged handkerchief.
Delightful, don’t you think?

lady wears tartan boots and shawl, Paris print 1814 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

lady wears tartan boots and shawl, Paris print 1814
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bags are better than boots? Or prettier, at least…

All the information above may be interesting to writers like me, but the pictures don’t exactly have a lot of glamour, do they? The Paris print tends to make me shudder, I admit.

So I thought I’d end with a few more exciting images from my own collection. Specifically, bags and reticules. The colourful lady in the Paris print is not carrying a reticule—her hands are full with the parasol and the fancy handkerchief—but she might have done. Perhaps something as eye-catching as these, from the Hereford collection?

The reticule above is made of white satin. Those eye-catching iridescent green leaves are actually—sorry—insect wing cases. The purple satin reticule below, trimmed with black lace, is beautifully embroidered. Either of these might have been home-made.

This final item is more of a handbag than a reticule, I think. It’s made in a stiffened basket shape and lined with pink satin. It has a fine cane handle, trimmed with silk bows, and delicate embroidery around the rim. Someone put a lot of effort into making this. She may even have carried it along with one of the pink parasols in my earlier post. Pink was obviously popular.

Bag a giveaway? Something to cheer us all up?
WINNERS : Jan Jones and Flora Harding : Giveaway now closed

Recently, I’ve been publishing revised editions of some of the early Joanna Maitland titles, with splendid new covers. I’m delighted to say that they’re doing pretty well. So, to celebrate that, and to cheer us up as we go into the gloomy days of another month of lockdown, I’m offering free copies of Marrying the Major, in the Unsuitable Matches series, to TWO lucky winners. (Kindle ebooks only)

Just leave a comment on this blog and you might win something new to read in lockdown. I’ll announce the winners here later in the week. Do enter. You might just bag a book 😉
Giveaway now closed. Winners were Jan Jones and Flora Harding. Congratulations ladies 😉


23 thoughts on “Historical Costume 1800-1820: boots and bags

    1. Joanna Post author

      I thought so, too, Liz. There are quite a few prints where the dresses are quite short, though. For example, the 1814 French print of the lady walking using her parasol as a walking stick (in my parasol blog) is also shortish, though not as short as this one. Maybe also because she’s out walking and doesn’t want to drag her skirts in the dirt?

      In the end, I guess it was down to the artist and the publisher. Maybe they wanted to emphasise the bobby dazzler boots?

      1. Joanna Post author

        PS If you enlarge the print to read the caption, it’s all about the accessories: écru bonnet, shawl and boots écossais (ie tartan) and percale parasol. So the dress did have to be short enough for the boots to show.

  1. Sophie

    Must say I was stunned by your tartan-booted lady. Regency BoHo indeed. Even started to plot a story about a young fashionista who copied the ensemble slavishly and the family battles that ensued. I can just hear Papa…

  2. Jan Jones

    Fascinating. I wonder if they somehow treated the cotton used in the half-boots to make them a little more waterproof?

    Wincing at the thin soles though!

    1. Joanna Post author

      I suppose the boots could have been greased in some way — a sort of Regency dubbin — but none of them look as though they have, do they? Agree on the thin soles, too. You’d have felt every pebble and cobble.

  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    Oh, now I am a fan of the tartan booted outfit! It’s rather boho, which appeals to me, being something of a gypsy myself. Beautiful reticules. But I can’t think any of those boots offer much protection from lousy weather. One would hope something a little more sturdy would be available. Must check my Cunnington. Wonderful post!

    1. Joanna Post author

      We’ll have to agree to differ on the tartan outfit, Liz. Cunnington doesn’t have much to say on whether boots were any good in lousy weather. He just talks about styles and materials, mostly.

  4. janegordoncumming

    There were many drawbacks to living in the 19th century, but they did have some lovely things! Okay, not very practical, but I’d so like some of those dear little boots and one of those gorgeous bags. Not to mention a sprigged muslin dress, and a hat with ribbons and flowers on…

    1. Joanna Post author

      I agree they do look pretty. I particularly like the boots with the buff toecaps. But if you want a bag like those, Jane, you could always embroider one???

  5. Rachel Summerson

    I really enjoyed this blog, Joanna. Those half-boots are really elegant – I’d love a pair! Though I’d definitely need a lady’s maid to clean them for me – it must have been a very time-consuming job.

    I was also interested to see the reticule decorated with the green iridescent beetles’ wings – which reminded me of the actress Ellen Terry’s barbaric-looking dress decorated with ‘1000 green jewel beetles’ wings which glittered like emeralds.’ which she wore as Lady Macbeth.

    Where on earth did one buy such things?

    1. Joanna Post author

      I’d like a lady’s maid too. Pity there are none about. As to the beetles’ wings, I haven’t a clue where they came from but they were obviously available to buy. Sounds like Ellen Terry’s ones were similar to the ones on that bag. I can tell you that it looked beautiful in the flesh (so to speak) but was a bit off-putting once I realised what it was made of. The beetle equivalent of bird of paradise feathers, I suppose. A bit terminal for the creature concerned.

  6. Flora Harding

    Another fascinating post on costume for me to bookmark – thank you! I love the bags but the boots don’t look very comfortable.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I don’t think the boots look too bad, Flora, though they’d definitely be on the small side for a bigfoot like me 😉
      Hope the book is doing well.

    2. Joanna Post author

      PS to Flora. You don’t have to bookmark the costume posts. They’re all in a series. If you scroll down the sidebar, you’ll find all the blog series listed. Click on Historical Costume and they’ll all come up. Eleven, so far 😉

  7. Gail Mallin

    A very interesting post! What struck me about the boots was that they seemed made for long narrow feet. Or do you think the shape was just a fashion statement? I’d never get any of them on that’s for sure! The green insect wings reticule looks lovely, but it’s not something I would actually want to carry round with me. Maybe Regency ladies were less squeamish.

    1. Joanna Post author

      The long narrow feet match what is shown in all the prints, don’t you think, Gail? Also tiny, in the prints. It may be that only small elegant boots ended up in museums. Quite a few in the V&A’s collection were gifted from Harrods so maybe they were the tiny sizes they used to put on display in shop windows. I do think Regency and Victorian ladies were less squeamish. You only have to think of all the birds that died for 19th century hats.

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