Knee deep in snow? Sloshing through the mud? Dancing around rain puddle? When mother nature gets wet, what in the world is a vintage loving gal to wear? This is a BIG question asked every winter. Did women wear vintage boots with dresses? How can I keep my shoes clean and dry when the weather is bad? What snow boots will still look vintage with my pinup outfits?
Turning to the history of boot styles of the 1900s to 1960s we can see that yes indeed, boots were worn in winter, BUT the selection was pitiful compared to the wealth of pretty heeled shoes. Winter boots were practical, not fashionable. They were worn outside only to get from place to place and were quickly removed once indoors. There is a serious lack of vintage photos of women in boots, even ads for winter fashion never showed women wearing boots. Although attempts had been made to make boots fashionable throughout the decades, it wasn’t until the 1960s that designers finally succeeded. Up to that point, winter boots came in a few basic styles: leather lace-up boots, rubber rain boots or shoes, rain covers, and fur-lined booties. I would also add in sport boots to the mix, even though they were not exclusively designed for winter.
Each decade made minor adjustments to the winter boot design and give us hints of what to look for in our quest for the perfect vintage boot.
Vintage Fur Boots
Carriage Boots, Fur Lined Booties
Carriage boots that were velvet and lined with fur or quilted silk. The style had been popular for winter travel since the 1860s. Not intended for walking in snow, except to a carriage, they later added rubber soles. Some had a hallow heel designed to fit over a pair of heeled shoes called overshoes. By the turn of the century, rubber replaced velvet and they were renamed “Arctics.” Needless to say, they were heavily used by North American women in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. When salt was used to melt icy walkways in the 1940s, rubber boots replaced leather options almost entirely. The bow tie closures also came in a zipper option after the 1920s, however the zipper was prone to freezing in the snow. They were also not watertight. Many women in the 1940s onward put their feet into plastic bread bags before slipping into boots, just to keep dry.
1910s Boots & Gaiters
World War II took its toll on leather supplies. In England, boot heights were restricted to eight inches. Instead of leather, the tops of boots were made of felted wool or separate wool gaiters (spats) were worn over walking shoes. Shoes like Oxfords and Mary Jane heels were increasingly common, now that hemlines were also rising. Once hems rose 8-10 inches off the ground, boots no longer provided enough coverage. The 20th century was all about showing off women’s legs, especially her ankles.
The mixing of leather and canvas or wool gabardine continued to dominate boot fashions in the 1910s. All leather lace-up boots were gradually reduced to winter wear or sportswear only, but the style did not die out. Victorian style lace-up boots, often called granny boots, have appeared in stores and catalogs from the 1920s to now. They have become classic designs, experiencing major revivals every 5-10 years but never leaving fashion entirely. Conveniently, they are back in fashion this year. Yippie!
The short hemline was first used in women’s bicycle costumes around 1890. To cover her exposed leg, over the calf lace-up boots in black or russet leather with low heels and ridged soles were worn. These vintage boots often had metal hooks on the upper half which allowed the laces to slide and adjust to the movement of flexing calf muscles. These very tall boots were adapted to other outdoor activities such as hiking, ranching, and riding. Some version of these very tall outdoors boots continued to be made for women until the 1940s. Winter versions were lined in fur or wool and paired with tall boot socks. They were a favorite boots style for working women and safari explorers such as Osa Johnson (video, 15 min).
See more hiking/camping photos and boots.
Women’s rubber-soled tennis shoes had been around since the 1870s, but the art of playing sports (tennis, golf, gymnastics, yacting) was minimal until after World War I. By the 1920s, women were buying these white, black, or tan canvas boots and shoes for sports, summer beachwear, and housewear. They were called “sneakers” since the rubber sole made them silent, perfect for sneaking around. They are not winter shoes — the canvas body made them breathable for summer. Leather versions did exist for rugged sports and could have been worn in winter by some rebellious types.
The early ’20s saw more women wearing the boot version of sneakers. However, the low version quickly became more commonplace for at home use.
1920s Russian Boots
In 1921, a fashion boot was introduced called the Russian boot. It was a mid-calf to knee-high pull on boot, with a straight shaft, leather outside, and a 1-2″ Louis or Cuban heel. It fit loose enough over the calf that some bunching around the ankle was expected. Indeed, it was this looseness and flexibility that made them more comfortable than most lace-up leather boots. The Russian Boot was not worn for fashion, except by the very fashion forward rich and famous. It had a reputation of being worn by women who frequented speakeasies and other underground establishments. Hiding a flask at the top of the boot gave new meaning to the term “bootlegger.”
For the typical woman, Russian boots made feet look large under short dresses. Poor quality materials also made them impractical as weatherproof shoes. Unlike other fashion boots, it did remain a common women’s boot style for most of the ’20s. The later years preferred a taller boot that pulled on or zipped up. They would have been a forgotten boot style if it were not for the late 1950s and 1960s revival of them. Learn more on the Wiki.
Rain Boots, Galoshes
One theory for how the “flapper” got her name is by the boots she wore. Rubber galoshes with buckles left open created a flap, flap, flap sound. Teens never buckled them — it was one of the first style statements the new youth-driven society established. Galoshes were usually overshoes, designed to fit over heels or Oxfords. They could be all rubber or have a rubber shoe with a jersey or wool body. Calf heights came in short ankle or mid-calf. By the end of the decade, snaps replaced big buckles and zippers appeared on the fronts of some models. However, some buckle rainboots were still being made through the 1960s.
The late 1920s saw a new rubber boot, shaped to the leg, made of water resistant rubberized cloth. It quickly replaced heavy rubber galoshes. These new rain boots came in various colors, and had wool or rayon jersey uppers in a fun gingham or houndstooth print. As rain boots, they also shortened down to ankle height. The new streamlined look with crossover buttons was “Art Deco” inspired, making them more fashionable than any rain boot up to that point.
The 1930s expanded on the rain boot but raised the coverage back up a few inches. The wrap over buckle was increasingly common, as well as the two snap flap with scallop edge. Some had fur or sheering lining. White rubber boots were the new thing of the 1930s. They looked fresh and more feminine compared to the standard black and brown vintage boots.
The 1950s saw the loop and button replace the snap over styles. Also new colors – grey, tan, red, and some fabrics like tweed. The zip front boot with fur or shearling collar, which never went out of style, experienced more favoritism in the 1950s.
The 1940s also saw the Western boot become common in the spring/summer. They could also be worn in the rain. They gave birth to the plain tall rubber rain boot with or without an engineer strap and buckle in the 1950s. What you imagine as rain boots or Wellies today began in the 1950s. Initially they were favored by men and children, but when offered in more colors (clear, white, red), women began to wear them and simply carried their heels in a large purse instead.
Since were back in fashion, 1960s women continued to favor the slip-on rain boot. They could be tall in bright mod colors (red, beige, white, black, brown, yellow) or shorter “bootie” heights with rolled tops. Many were lined in fur for winter warmth.
The rubber (or better yet, shiny vinyl) boot became spring to winter boot staples. The Space Age was in full swing, and the shiny boots fit perfectly into the style. Silver boots were the most fashionable of all, but white was more mainstream. At the same time, go-go dancers were getting the spotlight. Tall vinyl boots with a flat sole or thick chunky heel became associated with go-go dancers. Mainstream fashion followed the trend with pull-on or side zippered vinyl boots in either flashy mod colors or hippie earth tones. Paired with warm tights, women’s feet and legs were the warmest they had been in decades.
Rain Shoes, 1920s-1950s
Rain shoes were another classic wet weather option. They were not boots. They were simple black rubber slip-on shoes worn over heels or by themselves. They were often worn over gaiters in the teens and ’20s. These rain shoes remaining unchanged for most of the century. The shapes mimicked pumps of the day, exposing the ankle in the ’30s while remaining modest. Higher sides and a thicker sole were introduced in the ’40s, but became thinner in the 1950s and 1960s.
Vintage Snow Boots
In the late 1930s, women’s winter boots were taking style lines from menswear. The tall lace-up sport boots no longer were comfortable enough. Shorter boots were desired, along with a thicker, more rugged sole that was found on men’s workbooks. Ladies’ snow boots were usually lined with a fur, shearling, or cloth with a collar that could fold up for higher coverage. White, tan, brown, and black offered more choices than menswear.
The 1940s and 1950s continued to wear the ’30s style snowboot. Two-tone colors were popular in the ’40s, as well as the return to buckles instead of just laces. The 1940s blended work and play boots together for a practical, durable shoe.
Changing shoes or wearing heavy overshoes was getting old by the 1950s. Women who lived in milder but wet climates discovered rain covers. Essentially, they were plastic shoe bags with a non-slip sole and a single button or loop to keep them on. Some were in the overshoes style. Most rain covers came in clear or black with contrast loop buttons or snaps.
When the stiletto heel pumps became trendy with women in the late 1950s, it introduced a new problem for rubber rain boot makers. The pointy heel poked through overshoes, galoshes, and rain covers! The solution was to make pointy heel rubber boots and overshoes. They instantly became more fashionable. Lined with fleece or fur, they were easy to slip into. The top could be folded down for a more fashionable look, or up for more protection.
The thin heel stiletto was short lived. By the early ’60s, shoes in general were now flat. Flats soles or small flat heels replaced tall heels on both shoes and boots.
1970s Granny Boots
Coming back full circle to the turn of the century, 1970s shoe designers ditched the mod look and embraced vintage style granny boots. Pointy toe, over the calf, lace-up with a stacked heel, they used embroidered fabrics and suede to lend an earthy bohemian aesthetic to the old designs. Haven’t you seen these in store now? They’re back again…..
Shopping for Vintage Style Winter Boots
If you dress in vintage every day, you know firsthand the horrific task of finding warm, waterproof, yet vintage looking rain and snow boots. Am I right? Every year I search high and low for winter boots to recommend to you. With each season certain styles are revived, while others like fur carriage boots remain elusive. Here is what I look for:
- Granny boots – Lace-up boots with a heel in black or brown are versatile from the 1900s to 1970s. They look great with dresses too. They are probably not great choices for snow unless you find some that are lined (or wear thick tights). For a ’70s look, try some with embroidered designs. Shop here or here.
- Snow Boots – Most modern snow books have very thick tread soles and modern materials, certainly not vintage style. I look for boots with a thin sole, a roll cuff in faux fur or fabric, and a leather body. If you can’t find a fur cuff, you can buy them separately or wear fur cuff socks.
- Rain Boots – Classic, simple, slip-on rain boots are a good choice for the ’50s and ’60s. They may not look very vintage, but they are accurate. Try a cute pair of polka dot boots or boots with bows with a pinup dress.
- Rain shoes – Rain overshoes are still being made in men’s or unisex sizes. They slip on over your normal shoes. They are not glamorous, but they’re useful and accurate.
- Rain Covers – Don’t forget the simplest idea for protecting your nice vintage heels with plastic rain covers. Cheap and easy and, yes, vintage too. They beat wearing trash bags over your shoes!