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Spats are a type of covering for the tops of shoes, which may be worn for ornamental or decorative purpose, or can be worn to promote safety while performing certain jobs. This shoe accessory became popular in the 19th century in men’s formal dress. The typical pair of spats have a loop that fits underneath the shoe, and then have an ankle length or longer piece of fabric (of various types) that fits around the ankle. This is usually attached with buttons, with the buttons generally showing on the outside of each foot.
A number of military dress uniforms make use of spats. Sometimes, as is the case with the current Indian Army, the fabric piece is very long, ending just below the knee. Pants worn are tucked into the spats. More often, this shoe accessory comes to just above the ankle, and pants are worn outside them instead of tucked in. You’ll also notice this accessory worn by many marching bands.
There are some imminently practical uses for spats in the workplace. People who work around melting heavy metals, which are extremely hot, may use them to avoid burns. Others who use chainsaws can also put these on to minimize potential damage if a chainsaw nears the ankle or foot. Various sports make use of them too, or simply tape their ankles (which is called spatting) to avoid ankle injury. Most of the types worn for practical purpose are made of semi-stiff leather.
Dress spats, are something else entirely. They may be made of leather, suede, fake types of leather, or shiny satin. Companies that still make them often make them for both men and women, and there is incredible variety in patterns, and colors. Women would typically wear them with a high-heeled pump, and women’s varieties may be ankle or nearly knee-length. They can be worn over dress shoes, or for a really outrageous statement, they could be worn over tennis shoes or something like Doc Martens®. In modern day, they’ve become a funky fashion accessory, and you will note pop stars like Gwen Stefani and various other celebrities sporting them.
At one point, spats were the height of fashion for men, especially up until about the 1920s. They protected dress shoes from damage, or dressed up not particularly dressy shoes. These accessories are also intimately connected with “mob” wear, and you’ll note in old movies, and new ones, that depictions of gangsters, especially gangster active during prohibition, frequently show them wearing spats.
If you want a visual of what shoes with spats look like, check out Mr. Peanut. He has his monocle, his top hat, his cane, and his shoes and spats. Maybe missing some clothes in the middle there, but otherwise he's very dapper!