Men’s relationship with shoes is often a lazy one. Being guys, we tend to see shoes as utilitarian, something we need, but not something on which to dwell. However, once the moment comes to look good, maybe a wedding, an interview or a big date, we’re scrutinizing our footwear like a panicked drill sergeant. The fact is, we need different kinds of shoes for different reasons, but too often default to the three or four pair that have been in the closet for years. (Photo credit to sartorialist.com)
This is a sad situation because if most guys took the time to understand how well made shoes are manufactured – the quality of materials, complexity of construction and amount of time it takes to make just one pair – they would pay as much attention to their feet as they do the new HD television. Not only that, but there is an awful lot of truth to the saying that women judge a man by his shoes. To be “well heeled” means that you have money and class. Or least you have a solid income and can afford to keep you shoes in good condition, like keeping them polished and replacing your heels before they wear away all together.
Men’s footwear have two distinct advantages over women’s. The first is that men’s shoes fit. As my wife tells me on a regular basis, I’d better appreciate that fact. A properly fitted pair of dress shoes should be comfortable all day long. Second, men’s shoes are built to last.
One of my favorite pair are some brown wingtips given to me by my father. They are 17 years old, have been re-soled numerous times and are still in great condition. As an aside, they were purchased at Barrie, Ltd., an institution in New Haven, Connecticut, for more than 65 years. Located next to the original J. Press, they shod the feet of generations of Yale students. Sadly, Barrie Ltd., closed their doors in 2003 – a victim of progress and higher rent. As a memorial of sorts, David Honneus, a Yale alumnus wrote this requiem.
With the long overdue trend toward dressing well but, not always being dressed up, too many men fall into the “not-appropriate trap.” Broadly defined, this is when incompatible clothes are thrown together under the delusion that simply mixing business and business casual items creates “business casual.” It doesn’t. One of the more annoying offenses that I regularly see is wearing very formal cap toed oxfords with casual, heavy cotton khakis. It looks ridiculous and draws attention to the glaring incongruity like a spotlight.
Like anything else, moderation is key here. With clothing in particular, you must pay attention to scale, material, texture and balance. When dealing with footwear, you also have to consider function – what’s this thing for?
In the modern world, guys have an array of amazing and versatile shoes, boots, sandals, loafers and sneakers. On a day-to-day basis though, it really boils down to shoes you wear with suits, nice pants and a sport coat, khakis, jeans and shorts.
Before we move on to what you should wear with what, let’s take a quick look at how shoes are put together (and we’re talking here about shoes you wear to work). This is important because when it comes to making an investment in good shoes, that investment can be pretty steep. A well made pair of bluchers from Brooks Brothers can run you about $428.00. The same type of shoes from the Ben Silver catalog will cost you about $600.00, while a perfectly good version from Johnston & Murphy is a bearable $225.00. They are all good shoes, but which is right for you?
Well, it depends of course. All thee of these companies sell excellent shoes, the difference is mostly in the details, styling, and materials. Ben Silver’s footwear is manufactured by Crockett & Jones, an English company that is also sold under Polo/Ralph Lauren’s label. Brooks Brothers’ best shoes are made by the venerable Peal & Co., the footwear manufacturer that used to supply Brooks’ with it’s footwear and which they acquired in 1964.
When it comes to purchasing a pair of shoes, keep one thing in mind: it’s not like buying a book or a pack of undershirts. Shoes are to your feet what tires are to your car. What they’re made of and how they’re put together have a lot to do with how they look, perform, and last. With men’s’ footwear, you really do get what you pay for, and with dress shoes, that comes down to materials and construction. If your fancy new dress shoes cost $39.99, they are either stolen goods or will last you at most a year – maybe two.
If you are lucky enough to be the President of the United States or the Prince of Wales, your shoes are made entirely by hand, fit like a glove, took months to make and cost a fortune. Makers like John Lobb and Edward Green create veritable works of form fitting art with prices that look more like mortgage payments, but they also offer ready to wear lines that are a little more in reach.
For the rest of us, buying “bench made” shoes is the next best thing. Bench-made means that they were made by one cobbler – a shoemaker – or a small team or cobblers. The lining of the shoe is all leather as is the sole and the shoe’s exterior, or vamp (unless of course it’s a non-leather shoe). The heel will be either all leather or leather and rubber. These composite heels are a more durable and cost a bit less to replace than all leather ones. Bench made shoes are made on standard lasts, which are like three-dimensional wooden templates that create the actual shape of average foot sizes. Custom made shoes would be created using hand carved lasts that duplicate a customer’s foot exactly.
Mass produced shoes are less durable and are made of lesser grade materials. To cut costs, certain levels of quality are skipped. The leathers are not of the best quality and the use of thinner split leather is not uncommon. Better made shoes have soles that are actually stitched to the body of the foot in a process called Goodyear welting. Goodyear welting also allows the bottom sole of the shoe to be replaced, extending the life of your shoe indefinitely. Lesser quality shoes often have their soles glued to the vamp and in many cases, these shoes cannot even be re-soled.
Inside the shoe, there are differences too. While most mass produced dress shoes do have heels that are lined with leather, the toe box, or front of the shoe, is often lined with canvas or other less durable and less expensive materials. Fully lining a shoe with leather is better because it lasts longer, is comfortable and helps to keep your feet’s moisture from damaging the shoe’s interior.
I’m not saying that the only shoes you should own must be custom or even bench made. Different people have different needs and different budgets. Take a look at what you wear and think about how you want to present yourself to the world. You want a stable of shoes that cover most of your needs, from formal occasions to day-to-day needs, to washing the car. Buy the best you can afford in each of these categories because, just like tailored clothing, it’s better to have fewer well made pieces than a closet full of junk.
When it comes to figuring out what to wear at any given time, just try using common sense. Team the aforementioned casual cotton pants with a more substantial shoe in a low gloss finish. For heavier, more casual pants, you want a larger overall profile to balance out the heft of the fabric. This means a thicker sole, less refined stitching, and an overall sense of casual, but not, sloppy, style. J. Crew makes some very nice casually styled brogues that go well with a heavier pant.
Leave the formal oxfords, cap toes, and balmorals for your suits. Bluchers and loafers can be worn with finer gauge dress pants and “dressy” khakis. I’m also a big fan of having at least one pair of suede dress shoes, slip-ins, or ankle boots. They go with anything and lend an air of sophistication to whatever you have on. In a rich, dark chocolate, they pull together casually dressy outfits like nothing else really can.
A good pair of dark jeans can carry off several styles of shoes depending on what else you are wearing. You want to find jeans that have a dark blue finish, and nothing too trendy. Go for jeans that fit well, aren’t baggy or dragging, and are the proper length. These can go from urban chic to running errands – wing tips to sneakers. If you’re trying to dress up some shorts, try classic canvas tennis shoes or moccasin styled loafers.
Pay attention to purpose; why am I wearing these shoes? What am I doing, where am I going? How do I want to look?