Hessians: From Battlefields to Boots

If you study the American Revolution in school, at least in the time of yore when I was there, you learned that the British hired Hessian Soldiers to fight in the American Revolution. These soldiers came from the state of Hesse-Kassel (in later years it became part of Prussia and then Germany). While we know them best for their part in the British opposition to the revolution, the British employed them in other armed conflicts as well.

Hessian troops in British pay in the US war of independence
Hessian troops in British pay in the US war of independence. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Us_unabhaengigkeitskrieg.jpg

So, when I began seeing bits about romance heroes looking handsome in, buying or, removing their Hessians, well, I wondered how the name Hessian came to apply to boots.

Extracted from larger picture of Hessian Soldiers.
Extracted from the picture above, you can see the Close up of the tassle on the boot. Also, the toe box is pointed for use with the stirrup.

The Hessian soldiers’ boots became known as “Hessians” in the early 1800s. 

And yet– those boots that so epitomize the time were still a new fashion only just becoming popular during Jane Austen’s day.

Hessians were made to be worn with breeches, and the V-notch, for some reason is why they were.  I can imagine that there was less wear to the breeches at the knee and right below since it would rub less.

Initially used as standard issue footwear for light cavalry regiments, especially hussars, they would become widely worn by civilians as well.  The boots had a low heel, and a semi-pointed toe that made them practical for mounted troops, as they allowed easy use of stirrups. They reached to the knee and had a decorative tassel at the top of each shaft, with a “v” notch in front.[4] The Hessian boot would evolve into the rubber work boots known as “wellies” and the cowboy boot.

As trousers became the day dress of soldiers in the 1800s the Duke of Wellington is known to have instructed his boot maker to alter the style of his boots to fit more closely to accommodate the trouser.

George Dawe's portrait of the Duke of Wellington, 1829, looking carefully at he footwear we can make out the tassle on his boots.
George Dawe’s portrait of the Duke of Wellington, 1829, looking carefully at he footwear we can make out the tassel on his boots. This is either in his dress uniform or before he had the boots changed to work with trousers.

According to HistoricalMovies.wordpress.com:

During the Regency period, men’s fashion underwent a change as knee breeches were exchanged for trousers. Although trousers had been entering fashion since 1800, they only became appropriate casual and semi-casual wear for men between 1810 and 1820….

Hessian boots, which had begun as standard issue military footwear but became widely worn, accompanied knee breeches. With a semi-pointed toe and a low heel, Hessians also included decorative tassels

But Hessian boots were unsuitable for wearing under the newly acceptable trousers, so Wellington instructed his shoemaker Hoby of St. James Street, London to modify the popular boot. The result was cut higher in front to cover and protect the knee and had the back cut away, in order to make it easier to bend the leg. It was also cut closer to the leg. …. After Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon, “Wellington boots” became extremely popular as stylish footwear that could be worn with trousers.


The boots were worn in the military throughout the 19th century as this picture of a very young British officer of the Hussars.  This is actually a picture of Winston Churchill in his younger days.

The young 21 years old Cornet, (Second Lieutenant) Winston Spencer Churchill of the 4th Queens Hussars. 1895https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hessian_%28boot%29#/media/File:Churchill,_uniform.jpg
The young 21 years old Cornet, (Second Lieutenant) Winston Spencer Churchill of the 4th Queens Hussars. 1895 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hessian_%28boot%29#/media/File:Churchill,_uniform.jpg
This is a close up of Winston Churchhill's boots.
This is a close up of Winston Churchill’s boots.

In any event by 1814 the footwear had found its way into the popular iconography of the time:

“Lodgings to Let” Cartoon showing a fashionably dressed man standing in a well-furnished sitting-room, speaking to a pretty and elegant young woman. He wears a tophat, Hessian boots, and carries a large rough walking-stick. He says: My sweet honey, I hope you are to be let with the lodgins! She answers: No, sir, I am to be let alone. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lodgings_to_let_LCCN92522495.jpg