We often mix up terminology in the shoe world and one of the biggest mix-ups is the idea of spats vs button boots, where often spats are referred to as a button boot when they are not the same thing. So, let’s take a look at each and describe what makes them different.
A spat is a separate ornamental piece, usually made in thicker felt material and sometimes leather, that sits atop one’s shoes in order to protect it. This was a common accessory in the late 19th century back when the roads were not paved and people walked often in muddy terrain. The spat would protect the sock/ankle region from either getting wet (from rain) and/or dirty from mud splatter.
Outside of protection, spats were also used as a style piece, those being more common when made in white leather. You saw that complemented by other white accessories in the outfit, such as a waistcoat (see photo for reference). All in all, it was an added piece meant for accompanying your outfit but was always optional and not a fixed piece.
These days it is hard to find places that sell spats as it is a very uncommon accessory now. It would be considered very dandy to be wearing a pair and not something I ever see in the streets. But I do know that people still appreciate them and most often than not will use them for a party and/or special occasion. Not to mention the period tv shows/movies that are so popular as of late. A shop in NYC is one of the few that has a decent selection of them: https://fineanddandyshop.com/collections/spats
Button boots are an actual style of boot whereby the buttons should be a functional way of opening and closing the boot to secure the foot, much as laces would be on an oxford boot. Traditionally speaking, these were fastened by shirt-style buttons and even metal ones. Today, you might find button boots with metal snap buttons as well. A traditional button boot might require a button hook to assist you in actually fastening the buttons as it can be a painstaking process with the fingers. Hence the snap button option is used by some makers wishing to make it easy for their clients.
Button boots were commonplace in the Victorian era. They were a stylish alternative to the oxford/balmoral boot and were often favored due to the sturdiness of the button that would not come loose, as laces can do. The only issue, as I mentioned above, was the practicality of fastening them which was the same then as it is today. But as a classic, elegant style was much more favored in that time period where accessories to help you dress were quite common, everyone was privy to the button hook.
Button Boots today are far less common but still equally special. Maybe even more special as you will now find them in far more color and material combinations than you would have in the late 19th century. It is not uncommon to find them with a suede and/or cloth shaft nowadays and a colorful bottom half. In fact, it is now rarer to find them in all leather.
One common misconception is that a button boot is a spat. But that is actually wrong. More appropriate would be a spat boot. But technically that is also wrong. And I have been there, too, using those terms until I took it upon myself to be the world’s top supplier of button boots, where I took more pride in naming them correctly. Spats are not button boots and button boots are not spats. They are two distinct products with two distinct purposes. They just both happen to share buttons.