Friday, April 8, 2011

Everything You Need to Know About Everyday Dress Shoes

"Want to know if a guy is well-dressed? Look down."
-George Frasier

I'm going to try to convey in one post everything I've learned laboriously over many years about dress shoes.

I specify "everyday" to exclude formal shoes for black or white tie, which comes up rarely for most men, and which we'll discuss in a future post. We'll also exclude seasonal shoes, like two-toned spectators, which I also plan to discuss soon.

Also, I define "dress shoes" as shoes with leather soles, which you may think of as "hard shoes." Shoes with rubber soles, no matter how they may otherwise mimic real dress shoe styles, are not dress shoes, but casual shoes. Rubber soles shouldn't be worn with suits, blazers or odd jackets unless necessary for safety, which generally arises from medical conditions or rain, snow or especially ice.


Dress shoes are always made of leather soles and leather uppers, but there are a couple of distinctions to make.

Calf is the most widely used leather.

Shell cordovan comes from the rump of the horse; it's usually around twice as expensive as calf because it's much more durable and waterproof. Shell seems to be polarizing: you either love it or hate it. Those who love it say it molds to the foot in a way unapproachable by calf, as well as being waterproof and virtually indestructible. Those who hate it say it's too hot, too stiff, and not worth the nearly 100% premium. Either way, it doesn't take a shine like calf. I've never owned a pair, so I don't have an opinion. Blogger Maxminimus is one of the lovers; he has several pair and has written about them often.

The third type is suede, also called reverse calf. It's more casual than calf or shell, but has generally been appropriate with city suits since the Duke of Windsor began wearing it with his early in the 20th century. I wouldn't wear suede to the most formal events, like funerals or job interviews. Other than that, use your judgment.


There are basically three proper dress shoe colors: black, brown/tan, and dark reddish brown, the name of which -- such as, but not limited to, cordovan, burgundy or oxblood -- varies by manufacturer. I'll refer to them as oxblood, to avoid confusion between cordovan the color and shell cordovan the material. Lighter tan shoes, which I include with brown since it's just a lighter shade, are generally for spring and summer. Black, brown and oxblood are year-round colors. Black is the most formal, followed by oxblood, then brown/tan, which becomes more formal the darker the shade. More sophisticated dressers generally choose brown or oxblood over black for daytime wear, although obviously this varies according to one's taste and especially to the occasion.


There are two basic types of dress shoe:
1. Lace-ups, called oxfords
2. Slip-ons, called loafers

Generally, loafers are too casual for suits, but are perfect with blazers, odd jackets or sweaters. The one exception is that I've always liked penny loafers with summer cotton poplin suits, which themselves are also casual.


Oxfords are divided into two basic types:
1. Balmorals, which have closed lacing and are more formal
2. Bluchers (sometimes also called derbies), which have open lacing

Generally, bluchers are too casual for suits.

Let's discuss oxfords first, starting with balmorals.

The little holes that typically adorn oxfords are called broguing. The less broguing, the more formal the shoe. Logically, that should make plain-toed shoes the most formal. But, for whatever reason, plain-toe balmorals never evolved with the others and are considered mutts. (Plain-toe bluchers, however, are fine for non-suit wear.)

The most formal dress shoe, then, is the cap-toe, which features no broguing, but just a horizontal row of stitching across the toe. This shoe in black is appropriate for any suit, and is the best choice for more formal occasions, like weddings, funerals, and job interviews.


Brogues fall into three categories of descending formality: quarter-brogues, half-brogues, and full-brogues.

Quarter-brogues are similar to cap-toes; the main difference is the horizontal stitching across the toe cap is adorned with broguing. There may also be broguing adorning other seams on the shoe. This shoe is technically incorrect for the most formal occasions, but is otherwise perfect with any suit for everyday use.


Half-brogues are similar to quarters, except they have broguing on the toe box, similar to that on full-brogues, but they retain the straight, horizontal broguing on the toe cap, as opposed to the full-brogue's pointed, "wing-tip" design. Depending on the manufacturer and model , they may have extra broguing on other seams that the quarter-brogue may not.


As I alluded, full-brogues are what are usually called "wing-tips." These are typically thought of as the quintessential business shoe, which is ironic since they're the least formal dress balmoral design, and originated for country wear. That has gone by the wayside, of course, and they're fine for any everyday business use. However, their more substantial look tends to couple better with more substantial suitings that are closer to their country origins, such as flannel and tweed.


The main different style that tends to be unique to bluchers is the full-brogue "long-wing," so named because the broguing on the side is one long piece that extends from front to back. Long-wings also have thick, double soles. Some find them inelegant for that reason, while aficionados lovingly refer to them for the same reason as "gunboats."

This shoe, especially in brown as pictured, is one of my favorite more casual shoes; I especially love it in the fall with flannels and a tweed odd jacket. It's virtually synonymous in my mind with Thanksgiving Day. I also chose this and the balmoral full-brogue in similar colors so you can see how subtle the difference can look between open and closed lacing.

Long-wing blucher


There are three basic types of loafers:

Penny loafer

Tassel loafer

Brogued tassel loafer

Not a lot else needs to be said about loafers. They're generally too casual for suits, but are perfect with blazers, odd jackets, or sweaters. In my opinion, more casual jackets, like a safari jacket or the classic Polo Ralph Lauren cotton windbreaker or G9 Barracuda jacket, are too casual for leather-soled loafers, and are into rubber-soled blucher territory.

Incidentally, all of these loafer styles are also available in suede, such as the Alden suede tassel loafer after which I've lusted for more than 15 years (and which now retails for north of $400):

Suede tassel loafer

Brands & sources

Generally, the starting retail price point for quality shoes is around $225 for loafers (which use less material and labor than oxfords) and $300 for oxfords. Price is generally an indicator of quality with shoes, but not always; I'm sure there are cheaply-made shoes that sell in this range or above due to the cache of a designer name, although I don't know which brands those might be off-hand. Better shoes tend to be made from higher-quality materials and with higher-quality workmanship, the main difference of which is that the soles are sewn, rather than glued, onto the uppers. That makes them more durable and able to be re-soled, which the manufacturer will usually do for about 1/3 the price of a new pair, which includes recrafting the upper and replacing the footbed.

The basic quality cut-off in terms of brands is Allen-Edmonds and Alden at the bottom. Most who own both seem to feel that Alden is superior, and it is the more expensive of the two. However, Allen-Edmonds has much wider distribution, so it's much more likely to be found at a significant discount. I don't own any Alden shoes, but I have several pair of Allen-Edmonds, all of which I've purchased new on eBay for around $80 per pair. New Allen-Edmonds are on eBay constantly for 50% or more off of retail. Due to their narrower distribution, I've almost never seen a new pair of Aldens on eBay, in my size or otherwise. I've found AE to be an excellent value, especially at around $80 per pair, which is about 75% off from retail.

The consensus seems to be that formerly excellent American brands, like Johnston & Murphy and Florsheim, are not what they used to be and are no longer worth the retail price. However, they may be worthwhile at significant discount, or even at full retail for occasional shoes (I have my eye on some Florsheim spectators now, which I plan to write about soon).

Higher-quality brands include Crockett & Jones (typically around $700 per pair at retail) and Edward Green (around $1,000). Will Boehlke has EG shoes that are more than 20 years old that still look smashing and have only been recrafted (around $250) once at most.

So you should generally buy the best-quality shoes you can afford. They're usually cheaper than cheap shoes in the long-run (I've had $50-ish glued shoes literally rip apart in less than a year), and good shoes tend to look better, and get more comfortable, with age. As G. Bruce Boyer has observed, good shoes look good even when they're old, while cheap shoes look cheap even when they're new.

Care & maintenance

You should always keep cedar shoe trees in your shoes when they're not being worn; they stop the shoes from developing creases on the uppers, as well as stopping the soles from curling up at the toes and preventing odors. I usually buy mine at Bed, Bath & Beyond; if you get on their mailing list, they'll constantly send you 20% off coupons, which drop the price of a pair of trees to around $10.

If you can possibly avoid it, never wear the same pair two days in a row as this greatly accelerates their deterioration; shoes need at least a day of rest between wearings. This is also a practical argument for accumulating a more extensive shoe wardrobe, as greater rotation massively extends the life of each pair.

Leather needs to be fed not just for shine, but to avoid irreparable cracks. Shoes should generally be polished after every second wearing. There are few tasks I hate more than polishing shoes, but it must be done.

With proper care, good shoes will last indefinitely.

We'll discuss the ideal shoe wardrobe another day.

All images are courtesy of Allen-Edmonds, except for the suede tassels, which again are from Alden.


Jon said...

Quick question. I had always wanted to buy shoes online, but could never tell what size was the best fit. Is there a way for me to check my size at home and then order online? Thanks for the awesome info on your site.

Johnny said...

Hi Jon,

Thanks for the kind words. I'm glad you're enjoying my blog.

I answered your question as a new post so the maximum number of people will see it.

Mark Asher said...

I would add Monk Strap and Chukka to your list. I have both in tan and black with leather soles from Allen Edmonds and Alden that I have owned for some 20 plus years. The Monk Straps are perfect with suits where the Chukka work best with dress slacks and a blazer. Although I have never owned a pair I have seen gentlemen wearing tan Jodhpurs with earth tone suits.

Johnny said...


Thanks for commenting.

I don't consider chukkas to be dress shoes, although I agree that they can look great with a blazer or odd jacket, especially in brown suede.

I have an irrational hatred for monk straps, but I don't know why.