Object lesson

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Some articles of clothing transcend their function as bodily garments to become symbols of political affiliation. Think of the donkey jacket, the brown shirt or the flat cap.

The wellington boot has long been associated with the well-heeled, but in its long history, the humble gumboot has run the gamut of social class. Originally a 19th-century fashion statement inspired by an army commander, and a longstanding favourite among gardeners, it made a comeback in the 1980s as that Yuppie splinter group, the green welly brigade, marched upon their weekend country retreats.

But nowadays it is synonymous with impoverished farmers, rural campaigners and fuel blockaders. Even the downtrodden gold miners of apartheid South Africa used their regulation issue footwear as a form of expression - a troupe toured their all-singing, all-dancing, welly-stamping routine in the UK last year to rave reviews.

All of which is a long way from its aristocratic origins on the battlefields of Belgium, where the English army led by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, in 1815.

On his return, the Duke commissioned a new design of boot to b made more suitable for riding - flat-heeled, calf length and cut lower at the back to allow the knee to bend. As a national hero, the Duke had his fair share of followers keen to emulate his style - and the shorter, leather boot suited the new fashion for trousers rather than breeches.

One hundred years ago, wellington boots cost the equivalent of pound;60 a pair. Mass production of the moulded rubber boot now means you can pick up a bog-standard pair for around a tenner.

Everyone from royalty to Glastonbury festival-goers wears them. Wellies have celebrity endorsements from Compo in Last of the Summer Wine, Paddington Bear and Egil Olsen, the former Wimbledon and Norway manager, who wore them to stop damp affecting his arthritic knees. But, stylewise, the welly remains something of a stick in the mud.

Even the efforts of designer Chanel (baby blue and lilac models at pound;130 a throw) have failed to shift their image upmarket. Wellies remain a resolutely down to earth item of footwear. They fear no puddle, do not baulk in the face of boggy ground and walk on where others fear to tread. And they keep your feet dry, to boot.

Harvey McGavin

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