Weathering the Storm With Hunter Wellingtons

How an English duke and the invention of vulcanized rubber gave us the ideal boot for April showers By Robert Klara

When foreign heads of state visit the White House, they tend to bring the sort of dull, diplomatic gifts destined for museum storage rooms, like tea sets and oil paintings. But a notable exception took place in July of 2010, when David Cameron called on the Obamas with something the first family could really use. Newspaper reports said Samantha Cameron had gone shopping in Notting Hill and picked up the items herself: a pink pair for Malia and purple for Sasha.

The British Prime Minister had brought the kids some Hunter boots.

At $150 a pair—cheap by diplomatic standards—the expenditure likely pleased the Exchequer, and it no doubt pleased the public, too. After all, among all the U.K. exports cherished by us Yanks—Burberry raincoats, Jaguars, Downton Abbey and so on—not one is as stylish yet simultaneously utilitarian as a pair of Hunter boots.

Make that a pair of Hunter original Wellington rain boots. Specifics matter these days, as Hunter is a swanky brand that makes everything from drawstring coats to phone pouches; most recently, the brand collaborated with Target on a capsule collection. But it all began with those tall boots—so quintessentially British that they carry not one, but two royal warrants.

“In the rain boot category, the icon is the Hunter boot,” said Will Kahn, fashion market and accessories director for Town & Country magazine. “If they were good enough for Princess Diana, they’re certainly good enough for me.”

Hunter boots’ meandering climb to prominence actually began two centuries ago. In 1817, Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington—and a man who clearly didn’t like wardrobe changes—decided he wanted a boot versatile enough to wear on the battlefield, on the fox hunt and straight into the dining room. Wellesley fancied the cut of the Hessian boot and instructed his London shoemaker to make him a pair out of calfskin leather.

Wellington would give the boots their colloquial name, but it would take the efforts of two Americans to bring them to global prominence. The first was Charles Goodyear, whose development of 1844 vulcanization made rubber soft, pliable and wearable. Next came Henry Lee Norris, who arrived in Scotland in 1856, erected a factory and began making Wellington rain boots out of rubber. Two world wars brought in so many orders from the British Army that few were the Englishmen who hadn’t seen or worn the boots.

Following several name changes, Norris’ old company became Hunter in the postwar years, then began to add bright colors to the product line. Hunter Green caught the eye of the royals—among them Lady Diana Spencer, who in 1981 showed up for her engagement photos wearing her pair of green “Wellies.”

Royal patronage wasn’t enough to keep Hunter from sliding into insolvency in 2006. The boots might have vanished were it not for—appropriately enough—a summer shower. In 2005, two months’ worth of rain fell on the Glastonbury Festival in mere hours. That’s when the paparazzi spotted supermodel Kate Moss slogging through the mud in short shorts and Wellington boots. Thanks to the “Kate Moss Effect,” Hunter swiftly recovered. Wellies appeared on the feet of everyone from Naomi Campbell to Madonna.

Oh, and on David Cameron’s feet, too. Four years after his White House visit, Cameron toured flood-ravaged Somerset. He wore his hunter green Wellingtons—though what made the papers was the PM’s worry that his boots made him look “too posh.”

Hunter Wellingtons take their name from the first Duke of Wellington (1) who brought calf-high leather boots into fashion in the early 1800s. With the later perfection of vulcanized rubber, the North British Rubber Co. (2) resurrected the style, turning out millions of boots in its factory (3) for the British Army and everyday laborers. While Hunter is known for many styles (4).

Its iconic boot is the Wellington, which saw a surge in popularity after Kate Moss wore hers at the Glastonbury Festival.

Prince Charles’ 1981 announcement that he would wed Diana Spencer set the world abuzz, not least because some whispered Diana was a “commoner” (in fact, she wasn’t). But she would need a makeover to suit her new role and, just before the stylists descended, photographers captured the natural Diana—in her cords, folksy sweater and hunter green Wellingtons. She looked great in them, as she would in everything else.