In 2002, a British teenager called Charlie Gowans-Eglinton took a weekend trip to Paris with her mother. Reflecting back on the trip in 2017, Gowans-Eglinton, now a fashion editor for the Daily Telegraph, recalled that “we drank coffee and did the galleries and, having spotted stylish French women wearing them, bought my first pair of knee-high boots, which I insisted on wearing straight away. Somewhere between the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo I lost feeling in my toes, and so ended my first, and only, experience of knee-high boots.”
I have great sympathy for Gowans-Eglinton, because she had her first experience with the fashion boot when it was, without doubt, at its least forgiving. Women’s boots in the years surrounding the Millennium were a triumph of style over comfort; wickedly tight, perched on pencil-thin stiletto heels, and with a toe so pointed that it looked like it had been weaponized for some James Bond movie. Contemporary news articles highlighted the pain caused by trying to fit the aerobicized calves of the fashionable Millennial woman into the glove tight shafts of these boots.
The designers, of course, were unrepentant. Quoted in the New York Observer in 2000, Miranda Morrison of Sigerson Morrison, justified her company’s wickedly tight boots by saying “We made a decision … to cater to the shapeliest legs, just because that’s how the product looks the best. I mean, you know there are companies who try and fit everybody, and the result is that, for a lot of stylish girls, their boots fit like Wellingtons!… You can put your leg into a smaller boot… you may spend a couple of days wondering where your toes are.”
If anyone can be blamed for this, it’s probably Gianni Versace. His 1995 fall ready-to-wear collection had introduced a new style of boot that, in many ways, it was a high-legged equivalent of the popular high-heeled pumps of this period, combining the stiletto heel and pointed toe of the pump with a glove-tight leather upper climbing to just below the knee. It was stunning, and it was almost unwearable, but it inspired a flurry of late nineties imitators. “Out of fashion for decades,” the Toronto Star reported in September 1995, “[the boot] is now striding onto centre stage in kid-soft leather or gleaming patent, on high stacked heels or short, dagger-sharp stilettos. There haven’t been so many boots in fashion since Nancy Sinatra first grabbed a microphone.”
Ironically, by the time the young Charlie Gowans-Eglinton was trying out her first pair, mainstream shoe designers were modifying the dress boot to place place less demands on the wearer. The toes were squared off, at least at the tip, to reduce wear and tear on the feet; the fit of the shaft was loosened, especially round the ankle; and stilettos made way for stack heels, easier to walk in. A frequent, and very distinctive variant on this style was the “compressed stack;” viewed in profile, it looked like a stiletto, but from the rear it was apparent that the heel ran the full width of the boot and went straight to the ground without any taper. This revised design was to become a key element of what a 2011 New Yorker article described as “… the professional woman’s default uniform of the moment: a smart knit dress in a dark color, worn with knee-high black leather boots.”
Today, of course, there is every manner of boot to fit almost any need. When my own daughter picked out her first pair, a year or so back, they were low-heeled, round-toed, and with a shaft that was relaxed enough that they can be zipped up with minimal effort. There are no complaints about numb toes. Reviewing this season’s knee-length designs for the Telegraph, Gowans-Eglinton was in a forgiving mood. “As I’ll be 30 on my next birthday, I reckon it’s probably time I gave them another go.”
- “Key Pieces for Fall – The High Boot” – Marie Claire, ca. 1999
- Gianni Versace advertisement by Richard Avedon, 1995
- Gowans-Eglinton, Charlie. 2017. Every type of boot that you should have in your Autumn ‘boot wardrobe.’ Daily Telegraph, October 18, 2017.
- Hayes, Tracy Achor. 1995. Step Into Style With the Appropriate Fall Footgear. Toronto Star, Sep 7, 1995: pg. F6.
- Jacobs, Alexandra. 2000. Das Boots: Women Beg for Torture, Wrapping Calves in Tight Leather. New York Observer, October 16, 2000
- Mead, Rebecca. 2011. Strategy Session: The Pipeline, The New Yorker, Jan 10, 2011