It was J. Sparkes-Hall, bootmaker to Queen Victoria, who had the idea for what we now call Chelsea boots. He was inspired by another newfangled invention: vulcanised rubber. Vulcanisation, patented in 1844, involved curing rubber with sulphur, which made this viscous natural material both more durable and more elastic. To Sparkes-Hall, this meant he could design a close-fitting boot that, unlike its predecessors, needed neither laces nor buckles, relying instead on two stretchy rubber panels at either ankle. Its first fan was Queen Victoria herself. According to Sparkes-Hall’s original patent, filed in 1851, she “walks in them daily”.
Fast-forward a century, and the Chelsea set, a group of young, creative Londoners who gravitated towards the King’s Road in the late 1950s, began wearing them with the clothes they bought at Mary Quant’s Bazaar. A few years later, the Mods adopted the boot to go with their tight, round-collar suits and skinny jeans. Their neat shape was enough to unite the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Beatles wore custom-made Chelsea boots with chunky little Cuban heels; the Stones’ were lower, more traditional and more scuffed.
After 150 years, Chelsea boots are pretty much immune to the vagaries of changing taste, and they are gloriously democratic: everyone from Prada to Primark sells a version. The secret of their success, according to Tim Little, creative director at the shoemaker Grenson, is simplicity plus practicality. “If you don’t overcomplicate things,” he says, “a Chelsea boot is incredibly versatile.” The combination of a clean, uncluttered shape, closely hugging the foot, and a slim sole goes as well with a suit as with jeans and a leather jacket. The rule—really the only rule—is that the boots should be worn with trousers that are narrow, preferably stopping right on the ankle bone. Go too loose and long and you risk looking like Jeremy Clarkson. This is why, although something of a perennial, Chelsea boots have enjoyed a resurgence in the past five years, as leading designers like Hedi Slimane have shrunk men’s clothes closer to their bodies. These slimmer silhouettes go well with Chelsea boots because they allow the lines to continue, lean and uninterrupted, to the floor.
If you want minimalist ease-of-use, go for plain black leather. Brown suede is simultaneously more casual and more precious, and therefore better if your boots are just for the weekend. There are a growing number of styles with coloured details, like the brown suede Camroon from Ted Baker (£145; kurtgeiger.com), which has contrasting elastic panels in blue, or the Gatley Top from Clarks (£100; clarks.co.uk), which is refined and conservative enough to be worn to work, but has a yellow fabric pull-on loop and a thin strip of contrast-coloured sole to give it some visual interest.
Despite its name, the parti-coloured Paul “Beatle boot” from Russell & Bromley (£185; russellandbromley.co.uk) is really just an abbreviated Chelsea boot. In tan, brown or black suede or leather, with either burgundy, navy or plum elastic panels, it is slightly cropped at the ankle and built on a narrow last, which makes it look more Hammersmith Apollo than Wigmore Hall.
Mostly, though, this is a style that works best when kept simple. Grenson is a case in point. It has several Chelsea boots in its men’s collection, the least appealing of which—the Jacob—is the most decorative, with a fussy punched-leather toe. The best is the Declan (pictured, from £210; grenson.co.uk). Extremely plain—constructed from just three pieces of leather or suede—and extremely practical, it’s just the boot for taking a brisk walk up the King’s Road. Or even around Balmoral.