Spats, a shortening of spatterdashes, or spatter guards are a type of classic footwear accessory for outdoor wear, covering the instep and the ankle. Spats are distinct from gaiters, which are garments worn over the lower trouser leg as well as the shoe.
Spats were primarily worn by men, and less commonly by women, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They fell out of frequent use during the 1920s. Made of white cloth, grey or brown felt material, spats buttoned around the ankle. Their intended practical purpose was to protect shoes and socks from mud or rain but this footwear also served as a feature of stylish dress in accordance with the fashions of the period.
Increased informality may have been the primary reason for the decline in the wearing of spats. In 1913, friends scrambled to help Griffith Taylor find spats and a top hat to receive the King's Polar Medal from King George V. In 1923 King George V opened the Chelsea Flower Show, an important event in the London Season, wearing a frock coat, gray top hat and spats. By 1926 the King shocked the public by wearing a black morning coat instead of a frock coat (a small but significant change). This arguably helped speed the Frock coat's demise (although it was still being worn on the eve of the Second World War). Spats were another clothing accessory left off by the King in 1926. Interestingly it is said that the moment this was observed and commented on by the spectators it produced an immediate reaction; the ground beneath the bushes was littered with discarded spats.
From New York in 1936, the Associated Press observed that "in recent years well-dressed men have been discarding spats because they have become the property of the rank and file." A revival of high-top shoes with cloth uppers was forecast to replace them.
The third reason is probably the most significant, and the most prosaic—once western city streets became cleaner; due to the replacement of horses by cars and the use of asphalt and concrete—there simply was much less filth about and consequently much less need for "spatterdashes". Although some elderly men continued to wear them into the 1950s as part of their business garb, since the Second World War the wearing of Spats seems to have been confined to places like the Royal Enclosure at Ascot or very fancy private weddings.
The wearing of spats is often used as symbolic shorthand to represent wealth, eccentricity, or both. In some cases, these depictions occur long after spats ceased to be a normal part of everyday menswear but those from before the 1950s are usually making an allusion to "ordinary" upper-class standards of deportment and class. An example of this is Irving Berlin's song "Puttin' on the Ritz", which mentions spats along with a variety of other elements of formal clothing that were common when it was written.
The wearing of spats by fictional characters such as Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, P. G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster, Lord Peter Wimsey and Jean de Brunhoff's Babar the Elephant for example is mostly intended to underline the conventional nature of the characters involved. They are elegantly turned-out prosperous gentlemen of the period; it would be odd if they did not wear spats.
Rich Uncle Pennybags, the iconic man from the Monopoly board game, and Walt Disney's Scrooge McDuck are slightly more satirical, alluding to someone undeniably adept but possibly a bit stuck in the past. This is very similar to the obsessed scientist or absent-minded professor.
In a similar vein, in the film Some Like It Hot (made in the 1950s but set in the 1920s), the mob boss is called "Spats" Colombo, because he regularly wears spats, thus providing an ironic contrast between his aspirational gentility and his actual thuggish behavior. Similarly The Penguin from Batman is drawn wearing spats along with a suit with tails and in Who Framed Roger Rabbit Toon Patrol the chief weasel Smart Ass, also wears spats (probably a direct allusion to Spats Colombo).
Spats seem inappropriate on these creatures because they patently lack the genteel qualities that the presence of spats suggests. Together with white gloves and a monocle, spats are part of the symbolic shorthand to represent wealth, eccentricity, or both.
This is connected with the wearing of spats as a symbol of a drop in class. Here a man is trying to retain status in the face of declining circumstances; Charlie Chaplin's "little tramp" is an example of this as are several of W. C. Fields's characters, Burlington Bertie and Bustopher Jones from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot.