Get on Spats Colombo’s bad side quick by disturbing his immaculate spats and draw his brutish ire. By 1959, spats had already fallen out of style when Billy Wilder gave them new life with his film Some Like it Hot, a Marilyn Monroe vehicle that was part gangster film and part romantic comedy, featuring a gangster known as “Spats” Colombo. Although audiences at the time were more than familiar with the unusual shoe accessory, it was symbolic of a bygone era and a status driven attitude that was being outmoded.
The popularity of spats emerged in the mid-18th century as part of military uniforms and men’s outerwear. Buttoned at the ankle and covering the instep of shoewear, they were most often made of white cloth or gray or brown felt material. Despite being initially intended to protect the shoes, they soon became an item of high fashion. While versions of spats made from hardier materials are still worn today in military uniforms or as protection from molten metal in foundries, they mostly fell out of fashion by the late 1920s.
In Hollywood, no one demonstrated the elegance of spats better than Fred Astaire. As he glided across dance floors and into the hearts of moviegoers, his tux, top hat, and glowing white spats became the perfect outfit for an upper-class gentlemen. The extra little signature of white by his feet pulls the outfit together: a punctuation of light to mirror his perfectly starched shirt and pocket square. Beyond creating a sense of balance, it accentuated his cleanliness and properness. It didn’t matter how hard he danced and romanced–his spats were effortlessly spotless.
Spats were, above all else, conventional. For much of their history, they would represent a sort of docile upper class individual: someone who wants to fit in. The heyday of spats was tied to a period in fashion where it was better to fit in than stand out, and spats became a shorthand for class and comportment. As a result, many writers would leach onto this idea and use it as a visual representation of a character’s conventionality. People who wore spats were of the times–a part of the establishment rather than apart from it.
Characters ranging from Agatha Christie’s Detective Hercule Poirot to Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar the Elephant wore spats to represent their upper-class gentility. In the case of Babar, the style choice was an increasingly uneasy symbol of colonial power; and, not unlike the style itself, it seemed trapped in the past. The class divide that spats represented in this case suggested a difference between the civilized and the savages, and the seemingly innocuous choice of dress suddenly took on sinister connotations.
While the symbolism represents a later cultural shift that likely wasn’t so apparent when Brunhoff was publishing the initial Babar books (throughout the thirties and into the early forties), it does point to how and why spats fell so far out of fashion. Beyond being “uncool,” they came to represent an oppressive class culture, as well as an out of touch upper class who couldn’t keep up with the modern world. Accordingly, most of the pop cultural representations of spats after the 1920s used them in satirical or critical ways.
Today, spats don’t hold the cultural weight they once did, but they still remain a fixture of many characters in the public eye. Scrooge McDuck, Mr. Monopoly, and Batman villain the Penguin all wear spats. All these characters are eccentrics out of step with normal life, and they’re driven by their pursuit of wealth and status. Spats complete the portrayals, even though most audiences today might not fully grasp the fashion’s iconography.
Then we return to Spats Colombo from Some Like it Hot. While Spats is not quite elegant or upper class, he is someone chasing a shortcut to status. In Wilder’s carefully catered world of illusions, costuming, and outward appearances, he uses spats as an extravagant symbol of a man who can’t hide his true nature. This delicate character trait, which also becomes a strong visual motif, represents the power of dress and costume. Spats evolved from a practical need into a symbol of class and finally into a shortcut for being out of touch and villainous, remaining, above all else, a notable icon of fashion history.