At Jean Gaborit we go to great lengths to ensure that our historical reenactment boots are the genuine article, authentic down to the tiniest detail. It’s not always easy. Generations pass, old skills and methods die out, and the paintings and photos we’re left to work from seldom include the sorts of details a boot-maker needs to turn out a faithful reproduction. Every era and style presents its challenges, of course, but by far the most challenging style we have ever been asked to make are our Hessian boots, also known as the Hussar.
These were the boots worn with such élan by the light cavalry units known as the Hussars during the Napoleonic Wars. Tall and polished, with their ornamental tassels and their neat lines of pleated leather across the instep, they accented the Hussars’ colorful dress uniforms perfectly. They were the last world in masculine style and elegance in the ballroom, while field versions of the boots were worn in history’s greatest cavalry charges.
The original design came from eastern Europe probably Hungary, and the flamboyant, hard-riding cavalry troops of King Matthias Corvinus in the 15th century. Known as Hussars, they cut such a dash in fending off the advancing Ottoman armies and were so highly regarded as a fighting force that their light-and-fast tactics and distinctive style of dress became de rigueur among elite cavalry troops throughout Europe.
By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, all of the great powers – France, England, Austria and Russia – had Hussar regiments in their armies. Hussars’ reputations for being dashing, if reckless, adventurers – a Hussar who is not dead by the age of thirty is a blackguard, or so the saying went – gave their look and style, and especially their boots, an undeniable cachet. Fashionable boot makers in Paris and London took up the cause, made the finest Hessian boots that money could buy, and elevated the method of pleating the instep into an art form.
Alas, two hundred years later it is a lost art form, or very nearly so, as we discovered when we decided to create an authentic pair of these elegant period boots ourselves. While it would have been no problem to fashion something that superficially resembles the boots you see in old paintings, we wanted to do better than that – to reproduce faithfully a pair of authentic Hessian dress boots that would have drawn an approving nod from the Comte de La Salle himself, the impetuous Hussar general who epitomized the age and died in a valiant charge at the Battle of Wagram in 1809.
To do so meant an eighteen month odyssey of painstaking research and countless late-night hours of trial and error in our workshop to revive this lost art. Our initial challenge was to define the correct last shape for the foot. Lithographic prints and paintings never seem to show any detail when it comes to footwear. Fortunately we managed to locate some photos of the remains of boots removed from one of the mass graves of La Grande Armee during the terrible retreat from Russia. These photos, along with information supplied by the Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides, enabled us to prepare a series of wooden prototype lasts and gave us our start.
After further research we settled on a ‘duck bill’ shape to the toe box and a wide taper from this to the ball of the foot. Heel height was another issue that had to be addressed. Most of the boots recovered from the bodies in the charnier were a modern size 3 or 4, so reproducing the correct proportions for today’s average foot size of 8 or 9 was quite tricky. Eventually we settled on a two-inch heel.
After several weeks of mainly evenings and weekends spent perfecting the lasts, we were ready to make our first attempts as producing a boot – but without the pleats. That was a complication we would deal with later.
Patterns prepared and leather cut, we blocked the first pair on the vamp crimper. They required quite a large piece of leather, well beyond the size of most of the lasts we crimp, a long moment in the steamer and 24 hours on the crimper, drying then closing the lasting of this first pair was great fun !
Whilst all of this was going on we began looking for a workable solution for forming the pleats. Here we got lucky. Via the internet we managed to get in contact with an old gentleman living in the USA who remembered as a very young man listening to his grandfather tell a story about how in his youth he had watched the boot makers in his native Hungary making this type of boot and forming the distinctive pleats.
His simple description of the technique used started us down the right road. We had another piece of luck not long afterwards when, while visiting a well known shoe museum in the UK and talking to the curator, we learned they had a collection of photos, measurements and notes about these same techniques.
Using the information we made up our jig and attempted to pleat our first instep. It proved to be a lot more difficult than we could have imagined, and so back to the drawing board !
After a lot of thought and consideration we decided on the option of fully leather lining the boot, effectively making the boot twice, the first assembly without the pleats then disassembly adding the pleats then a final lasting to produce the boot as seen in the photo below.
The results, we think, were worth the effort – a pair of faithfully reproduced Hessian boots using the traditional techniques but with the added comfort of a full leather lining, they are both robust and elegant. To date we have made them in black, green and claret leather, the latter to match the evening dress uniforms. You can order yours here.