Fashion is only the attempt to realize Art
in living forms and social intercourse.
– OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES
An experienced society columnist once summed up her whole method of placing people in the social hierarchy by telling me, “It’s all in the shoes.”
Nowhere is your taste and social background so neatly summarized as in your choice of shoe. It is the single most important part of your image, the root from which your projected self grows. Large numbers of single women judge prospective male partners rapidly and solely by looking at their feet.
Shoes are the only item of clothing on which you really must spend a great deal of money. It is not really important for the rest of your ensemble. An inexpensive but modishly cut suit can fool tv cameras and fashion journalists alike; an H&M shirt is perfectly hip during its six-month lifespan; a twenty-dollar tie from Wal-Mart is still pure silk. But cheap shoes always look bad. Cheap shoes will also wear out. Good shoes can be resoled almost in?nitely and will obviate shoe-buying for ten years. From a purely ?nancial standpoint, you cannot afford cheap shoes.
To know quality you must be aware of technical speci?cations. There is a scene in Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld in which a Jesuit intellectual attempts to educate a delinquent pupil by teaching him the names for all the parts of the shoe: sole, heel, lace, tongue, cuff (the strip of leather around the top edge), quarter (the rear sides), counter (the strip of leather over the heel, also called the backstay), welt (the leather base between the upper and the sole), vamp (the front area over the instep), eyelet, grommet (the metal rings that reinforce the eyelets), aglet (the plastic sheath at the end of the lace). And the wooden form that the cobbler makes shoes on is called a last (leading to the old joke about shoemaking: the last comes ?rst). The Jesuit’s contention is that “everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge.”
For our purposes, the point is not only that great literature is obsessed with fashion (something repeatedly demonstrated in these pages), but also that you cannot know a thing until you have words for it. I think that the words welt and sole are the most overlooked “everyday knowledge” in fashion.
In the ?rst half of the twentieth century, a ?ne, light shoe was probably Italian-made, and therefore evidence of wealth and sophisticated taste. Many elegant Italian shoes were constructed without a welt – that is, with the uppers stitched directly to the leather sole, with no intervening stiffener. Heavily welted English shoes, made for walking in cold climates, were, in the 1950s, the mark of the plodding Anglo-Saxon in a baggy suit; Europeans had trimmer silhouettes and lighter feet.
This is no longer the case. Mass-produced footwear has been emulating the narrow, slipper-like Italian style since the seventies. Thin-soled shoes have become indicators of cheap production techniques (most uppers are now glued, rather than stitched, to the welt) and connoters of discount malls and oily moustaches. A thick leather sole and leather welt will give you authority, will cost you more, and will last forever.
Soles wear out long before uppers do. One way of ensuring your sole’s longevity is to take your new shoes to your cobbler (you have a cobbler, don’t you?) the day after you buy them and have him install a thin protective rubber sole over the leather before the original sole wears out. This procedure will cost you about twenty dollars. Make sure the rubber layer is not too thick, and it will be invisible. It will give you greater traction. And when it wears out, you spend another twenty dollars rather than buying a new pair of shoes.
Guys with a lot of money won’t need or want to do this – in wealthy circles, this practice is seen to be a little parsimonious, and it is certainly more elegant to have a plain leather sole than one with a rubber coating, no matter how thin. Wealthy guys may worry that when they sit and cross their legs, their rubber protective sole will become visible and make them look like penny-pinching students. I still insist that if your cobbler does it right, the rubber layer will be completely unnoticeable from above. And if people are staring at the soles of your feet when you sit down, they are looking rather determinedly to ?nd fault somewhere, so let them. The practice of resoling good shoes has saved me hundreds of dollars – I am currently still wearing, with formal wear, a pair of very plain black leather oxfords with a toecap (a line of stitching across the toe), which I bought from the Canadian ?rm Dacks in 1987, making them, at the time of this writing, eighteen years old.
Note that the original sole, in a pair of dress shoes, must be leather. In a casual out?t, for bars and parties and shopping, you may wear Dr. Martens or Blundstones or police boots or heavily lugged streetwear boots from techno-playing East Village stores. But a business suit is capsized by a comfy pair of rubber-soled shoes, no matter how shiny the leather uppers. Rockports – the popular sport shoes that disguise themselves as dress shoes with leather uppers in brogue styles – are the worst blight to hit of?ce-wear conventions. (Okay, second perhaps to casual Fridays.) Your Rockports aren’t fooling anyone: they still look like sneakers to me.
There is also a new style of faux leather sole – a sole that is half leather, with rubber patches in the centre and leather around the edges, so that it looks to be all leather when viewed from above. These look civilized, and are often quite expensive, but your cobbler cannot af?x the aforementioned protective layer to them. This is ?ne if your ?nancial situation allows you to replace your shoes once every two years or so.
Which with What – Shoe Styles
Very conservative thinking has it like this: for a suit and tie, black lace-up oxfords only. No options. Even brogues, the heavy walking shoes decorated with strips of hole-punched (“tooled”) leather – also called “wingtips,” because the decorative layer of leather on top of the toe often comes to a point – were once thought to be too casual for a city suit and more appropriate for tweeds and other country wear. (Note that a brogue, by coincidence, also means a heavy rural accent.) But now brogues, black or burgundy, are considered just as serious a suit foundation as any plain shoe. (Again, as long as they have a grown-up leather sole.)
“Long wingtips” are so called because the sides of the toecap – the part that makes the wingtip design – extend right back to meet at the backstay. “Short wings” means that the toecap curves downward at the sides and vanishes into the welt.
There are several hybrids of brogues and oxfords. If the decorative tooled leather runs across the toe in a straight line, that is, without coming to a “wingtip” point, it is called a half-brogue. But this is truly useless information. The important thing to know is that the more decoration there is on a shoe, the less formal it is. For example, some shoes have a texture known as “pebbled” – the leather looks slightly bumpy or wrinkled. Nothing wrong with this, but I picture it more with a sports jacket and ?annel trousers than with a severe pinstriped business suit. Highly ceremonial occasions demand very sleek, unadorned leather.
Note too that the way the ?aps that hold the eyelets are sewn into the rest of the upper indicates a hierarchy of dressiness. “Closed” lacing means that the two sides of the upper that are drawn together by the laces are sewn under the rest of the upper. The tongue is a separate piece which is also sewn onto the underside of the vamp. “Open” lacing means that the two ?aps are sewn onto the top of the upper. The tongue is just an extension of the vamp. Shoes with open lacing are sometimes called Bluchers in Britain, apparently because the Prussian ?eld marshal Blucher (who was Wellington’s highly successful ally at Waterloo) issued his troops with boots in a similar style. They are also sometimes called Derbys.
Again, it is of no practical value whatsoever to know these terms, which are increasingly forgotten by the industry anyway, but I cannot help revelling in the words as much as in the objects. If you must look at this in practical terms, know that the only lesson here is closed lacing means a more formal shoe.
Shoes with open lacing will often have metal grommets placed in the eyelets. This creates a rugged outdoorsy or industrial look which may be appropriate for corduroy trousers and a tweed jacket, but not for a business suit.
Generally, the rules for pairing shoes with suits have relaxed greatly. Slip-ons, for example, can be quite formal-looking these days, as long as they have a high vamp (the vamp is the part where the laces are if the shoe has laces – the part that covers the top front of your foot). Low-vamp, moccasin-like loafers still look too much like slippers for wear with a tie. And no one wants to see too much of your socks.
Even buckles, on slip-ons, can look quite sober, as long as they are to one side: loafers with a gleaming snaf?e in the centre of the vamp (like the standard real-estate-developer Gucci loafer) are, however, just too casual for a suit (and too plain tacky for anything else).
And ?nally, let me make this clear: There is no occasion or out?t in civilized society which justi?es the wearing of loafers with a leather fringe and a dangling tassel over the vamp. These shoes are an abomination.
A recent trend among fashion-forward designers has been to pair shiny, lace-up ankle boots with dark suits. This turn-of-the-century look I ?nd romantic. It is for the daring only, and not appropriate for the more conservative boardrooms of the ?nancial or political world.
A “Chelsea boot” is a slip-on ankle boot (sometimes also called Beatle boots, for obvious reasons). Its current incarnations tend to have round toes, rather than the pointy toes of their Carnaby Street forebears (more on the blunt/pointy conundrum in a moment); both are appropriate with casual suits – that is, suits worn without ties – for fashionable rather than conservative environments.
The shape of men’s shoes changes with fashion. These changes are even more noticeable than those in suits and shirts. As I write this, the most fashion-conscious have just shifted their loyalties en masse from wide square toes to narrower shoes that almost look pointy (indeed, the current style resembles the “winkle-pickers” of the mod era). The new pointy shoes still have slightly blunted toes – if you stand the shoe upright on its backstay, you can balance a quarter on the toe.
Variations in stitching are also increasingly popular: fashionable shoes often have a “split toe”; that is, a visible line of stitching joining the two sides of the upper, visible on the toe. Or you will ?nd two seams running down the vamp, right to the sole. All of these can be acceptable for dressy suits, but use your judgment, because the stitching can be excessive.
And remember that these styles are ephemeral. You can never go wrong with a classic round-toed oxford, either with a toecap or without, or with classic brogues.
There were once strict rules for matching the colour of your shoe with the colour of your suit, but these are disappearing as well. I have caused a veritable ?restorm of outrage by writing in a newspaper that I accepted the wearing of brown shoes with charcoal or navy suits. This was once strictly taboo in class-conscious circles; brown shoes with a dark suit were, in my father’s day, a sign of an outsider, like the wearing of a pre-tied bow tie or clip-on suspenders. My father tolerates brown shoes only with a sports jacket – particularly with a tweed jacket, which demands them.
But like the old adage that red wine is for meat and white for ?sh, the injunction that brown shoes are casual is outdated. Indeed, a man pairing a navy suit with a pair of brown suede oxfords is quietly displaying his con?dence and his aestheticism, which I admire. Burgundy or oxblood (which is slightly darker; also called cordovan, from a kind of expensive leather) is a particularly versatile colour with suits, matching light grey, dark grey, or beige. These combinations will make you look modern and possibly Italian.
I would, however, warn against very light-coloured leather shoes: grey or tan or white. They always look cheap, no matter how expensive they are.
Bright colours are ?ne for very casual shoes such as sneakers or running shoes, meant for wearing with shorts or jeans and skateboarding in. If we are not talking about suits and ties, then you don’t need my advice: go nuts.
Suede shoes can be beautiful with sports jackets of all colours. Suede shoes should be brown; they are too informal for black.
A particular kind of moulded rubber sole – a sole that looks organic, like an approximation of the foot itself, and that curls up at the front and back to become particularly visible – became popular in the 1990s and is still in?uencing fashion-forward styles even in dress shoes. This was the great contribution to the history of masculine footwear from the Italian designer Miuccia Prada, and its in?uence has been far out of proportion to its beauty. For about ten years you couldn’t see an architect or curator walking a loft ?oor without glimpsing the telltale red heel dot of the Prada label; it was the mark of downtown consciousness. It was probably popular because the curvy sole looked both futuristic and athletic, like something to keep your feet stuck on a wet windsur?ng board. I have always been baf?ed by the success of the Prada sole design and have long wished it a speedy obsolescence.
My wish is coming true, as the Prada sole has been copied by so many low-end casual shoe manufacturers that it is now a staple of the discount racks at mall outlets.
Stick with sober ?at soles and you will avoid this association.
Shoes with Formal Wear
For black or white tie, ancient wisdom demands patent leather oxfords (in Britain) or court pumps (in America). Patent leather is that treated leather that looks as shiny as plastic. It doesn’t need polishing. Court pumps are those very low-vamp loafers with a little grosgrain silk bow just above the toe.
Both demands are outdated. Patent leather is great if you can afford a special pair of shoes for your dinner jacket. But to court pumps I wish a curt good riddance, as they always looked frilly and ridiculous. Nowadays a simple black leather oxford will match both black and white tie, as long as it is polished to a high gloss.
I still would avoid brogues, however, with black tie. Remember that the more elaborately patterned or stitched the shoe, the less slick and therefore less formal it is.
I don’t need to tell you, by this point, that loafers with little tassels, indeed loafers of any kind, or any shoes with rubber soles, are embarrassingly wrong with black tie.
And if you think it’s amusing to break the rules of formal dressing by matching a dinner jacket with canvas tennis shoes, then you should stop reading immediately. You are angry about something, and want to be talking about politics instead.
Copyright © 2005 by Russell Smith. All rights reserved.