Spats (footwear)

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A left felt spat
1863 photograph of Senator Charles Sumner wearing spats.
Senator Charles Sumner (left) wearing spats in 1863. At right is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Spats, a shortening of spatterdashes, or spatter guards are a type of classic footwear accessory for outdoor wear, covering the instep and the ankle. Spats are distinct from gaiters, which are garments worn over the shoe and lower trouser leg, and used primarily as personal protective equipment.

Civilian dress[edit]

Spats were primarily worn by men, and less commonly by women, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They fell out of frequent use during the 1920s. Made of white cloth, grey or brown felt material, spats buttoned around the ankle. Their intended practical purpose was to protect shoes and socks from mud or rain but this footwear also served as a feature of stylish dress in accordance with the fashions of the period.[1]

Increased informality may have been the primary reason for the decline in the wearing of spats. In 1923 King George V opened the Chelsea Flower Show, an important event in the London Season, wearing a frock coat, gray top hat and spats. By 1926 the King shocked the public by wearing a black morning coat instead of a frock coat (a small but significant change). This arguably helped speed the Frock coat's demise (although it was still being worn on the eve of the Second World War). Spats were another clothing accessory left off by the King in 1926. Interestingly it is said that the moment this was observed and commented on by the spectators it produced an immediate reaction; the ground beneath the bushes was littered with discarded spats.

By the mid-1930s high topped shoes and spats were regarded as being very old fashioned "The high topped shoes your grandpa used to creak around in" although the same newspaper report from 1936 predicts the return of spats amongst fashionable men despite "Observing that in recent years well-dressed men have been discarding spats because they have become the property of the rank and file." This seems to indicate another reason for their decline.

The third reason is probably the most significant, and the most prosaic - once western city streets became cleaner; due to the replacement of horses by cars and the use of asphalt and concrete - there simply was much less filth about and consequently much less need for "spatterdashes". Although some elderly men continued to wear them into the 1950s as part of their business garb since the second war the wearing of Spats seems to have been confined to places like the Royal Enclosure at Ascot or very fancy private weddings.

Military uniform[edit]

U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard wear white canvas leggings as part of the Enlisted Full Dress Whites or Blue

Since the mid-19th century, soldiers of various nations, especially infantry, often wore leggings or spats to protect their lower leg, to keep dirt, sand, and mud from entering their shoes, and to provide a measure of ankle support. French infantry wore white spats for parade and off-duty wear until 1903. Italian soldiers wore a light tan version until 1910 and the Japanese Army wore long white spats or gaiters during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.

Spats continue as a distinctive feature of the Scottish dress of Highland pipe bands, whether civilian or military. The modern Royal Regiment of Scotland, into which all Scottish line infantry regiments were amalgamated in 2006, retain white spats as part of their uniform. Prior to that date most Scottish infantry units in the British Army wore spats. For Highland regiments in kilts, spats reached halfway up the calf. For Lowland regiments in trews, spats were visible only over the brogue shoes.

Most regiments of the modern Indian and Pakistani Armies wear long white spats into which trousers are tucked, as part of their parade dress. Other full dress uniforms which still include spats are those of the Finnish Army, Swedish Army, Portuguese Republican National Guard, the Carabiniers of Monaco, the Egyptian Military Police and the Italian Military Academy of Modena. In the Finnish Navy, spats are part of the winter uniform. The U.S. Navy Honor Guard and Rifle Guard wear them while performing ceremonies.

Spats are still used as a traditional accessory in many marching band and drum and bugle corps uniforms in the United States.

Safety and protection[edit]

Spats are still used today in certain industries for safety reasons. In foundries molten metal pourers often wear leather spats to keep splashes of molten metal from burning their feet. Even a small splash that lodges in a shoe or between the shoe and ankle could cause a severe burn. Many welders also wear leather spats for protection from sparks and metal splash. Some chainsaw operators wear protective leather spats, often combined with chainsaw boots to prevent injury from accidental chainsaw contact with the foot or ankle.

Spats are also used for extreme weather conditions and are usually made from Gore-Tex materials (See Gaiters). The Argentine Army use brown leather spats laced over combat boots as ankle supports for parachute jumping.

Symbolic use to represent wealth[edit]

The wearing of spats is often used as symbolic shorthand to represent wealth, eccentricity, or both. In some cases, these depictions occur long after spats ceased to be a normal part of everyday menswear but those from before the 1950s are usually making an allusion to "ordinary" upper-class standards of deportment and class. An example of this is Irving Berlin's song "Puttin' on the Ritz", which mentions spats along with a variety of other elements of formal clothing that were common when it was written.

The wearing of spats by fictional characters such as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, P. G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster, Lord Peter Wimsey and Jean de Brunhoff's Babar the Elephant for example is mostly intended to underline the conventional nature of the characters involved. They are elegantly turned-out prosperous gentlemen of the period; it would be odd if they did not wear spats.

Often their main purpose is to emphasise the learnedness, clarity and professionalism of the character. There are countless professors and doctors portrayed in books, television and film wearing spats for this reason.[citation needed] An example of this is that the Sixth Doctor from Doctor Who wears spats, probably making an allusion to the First Doctor as well as Hercule Poirot.[citation needed]

Sometimes spats are there to emphasise the feckless, shallow and frivolous nature of the character; this is certainly deserved in the case of Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster, but serves as a red herring in Dorothy L. Sayers books of Lord Peter Wimsey.[according to whom?]

Rich Uncle Pennybags, the iconic man from the Monopoly board game, and Walt Disney's Scrooge McDuck are slightly more satirical, alluding to someone undeniably adept but possibly a bit stuck in the past. This is very similar to the obsessed scientist or absent-minded professor.

Their appearance on Jiggs from the comic strip Jiggs and Maggie is different. Jiggs is a newly wealthy man whose wife desperately wants to break into the upper class while Jiggs would much rather eat corned beef and cabbage and relax at home with his shoes off. Here the wearing of spats is used as a commentary on pretension and social climbing; Jiggs's spats are almost like a symbolic ball and chain, they obviously don't fit him very well.[citation needed]

In a similar vein, in the film Some Like It Hot (made in the 1950s but set in the 1920s), the mob boss is called "Spats" Colombo, because he regularly wears spats, thus providing an ironic contrast between his aspirational gentility and his actual thuggish behavior. Similarly The Penguin from Batman is drawn wearing spats along with a suit with tails and in Who Framed Roger Rabbit Toon Patrol the chief weasel Smart Ass, also wears spats (probably a direct allusion to Spats Colombo).

Spats seem inappropriate on these creatures because they patently lack the genteel qualities that the presence of spats suggests. Together with white gloves and a monocle, spats are part of the symbolic shorthand to represent wealth, eccentricity, or both. Mr. Peanut is an example of this; where the lowest and cheapest form of carnival food is advertised in faux high class clothes which aren't going to fool anyone and is therefore funny. Harpo Marx is another example of this.

This is connected with the wearing of spats as a symbol of a drop in class. Here a man is trying to retain status in the face of declining circumstances; Charlie Chaplin's "little tramp" is an example of this as are several of W. C. Fields's characters, Burlington Bertie and Bustopher Jones from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot.

Other uses[edit]

  • By extension, the phrase "spatted" refers to aerodynamic fairings around the wheels on aircraft undercarriage.
  • In Japan, the term "spats" refers to leggings.
  • In American football, the act of taping the outside of one's cleats using athletic tape is known as "spatting."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Article Pity the fellow who can't afford spats, page 35 "The Oldie" September 2012

External links[edit]