Let’s face it, the majority of guys have shoe racks that look like shelves lined with shiny pairs of black and (maybe) brown bricks. The Kenneth Cole Reaction wave that swept the ’90s has robbed men of all knowledge relating to the traditional dress shoe and left only the blocky, square-toed, corrected-grain leather, rubber-soled, Pontiac Aztek of footwear to wear with suits. If this is you, no need to feel inferior. You’re a product of a generation that rebels against anything that is deemed “formal” in favor of the more “casual” alternative. However, history has taught us that knee-jerk reactions to the “establishment” is mostly, if not entirely, dumb. So, if while reading this guide, you think to yourself that the shoes described herein are “old man shoes” or remind you of your granpappy, don’t worry, that’s natural. Just accept the fact that these style guidlines were in place long before you were born and will remain in place long after the last Aldo store closes it’s doors. Let’s start with some basic rules:
1) Shoes with laces are more formal than those without. That’s easy enough.
2) More formal shoes are shinier than less formal ones. That one should be obvious. In order of formality: patent leather > calf/cordovan > pebble grain > suede > linen/canvas
3) With few exceptions, all dress shoes have leather soles. No exceptions! (except a few).
4) More formal shoes have fewer embellishments than less formal ones. The simpler the shoe, the more formal it is.
That should be enough to get you started classifying what you’ve already got. Now let’s talk about different shoe types. These are also listed in descending order of formality.
Lace-up Shoes: Sometimes referred to as “Oxfords” in the US. I’m only going to deal with lace-ups for this part since a) these are traditionally the more appropriate type of shoe to wear with a suit and, b) I hate loafers. edit: Since posting this, I’ve actually given loafers a chance and now I love them. I still don’t wear them with suits, but they’re great for sport coats and blazers.
”Bal..whut?” Exactly. Named after a castle in Scotland, balmorals are the most formal of standard dress shoes. They’re identified by their closed-lace design. This refers to the fact that the leather part that has the eyelets is one piece with a “V” cut into the center. A true balmoral also has a horizontal seam that runs around the vamp (front). Here’s a few examples in descending formality according to the four rules above:
Blucher (BLOO-chhher -like “Chanukka” or “Chala”)
If you’ve ever seen the movie “Young Frankenstein” you’ll know how to pronounce it. A blucher is different from a balmoral in its lacing design. The vamp and tongue are one piece and the laces pull together two separate flaps over the tongue. The blucher is one notch down from a similar style balmoral. Examples:
longwing gunboat blucher
Here’s where it starts to get interesting. Spectators can be either balmorals or bluchers, but they’re distinguished by having the toe and heel in a dark color and the tops of the shoes in a lighter color and possibly a different material as well. These shoes are entirely appropriate to wear with a warm weather suit in the summer months (and into the fall if one of the colors isn’t white), if you have the chuspa. Examples:
brown and white spectator balmorals
linen and leather spectator bluchers
Saddle shoes tend to conjure up images of poodle skirts, bobby socks and Olivia Newton John. However, they are totally acceptable as dress shoes and most don’t have the typical white-shoe-black-saddle that the stereotype calls for. These are pretty much golden anywhere that spectators are appropriate, but one notch below in formality. While they do have closed lacing, they aren’t considered balmorals because they don’t have the same horizontal seam. Instead, they have a saddle seam that doesn’t extend as far back. Examples:
cordovan shell saddle
suede saddle w/ red brick sole
Bucks (White and Dirty)
No, that’s not the title of some risqué film about deer lovin’. White and dirty bucks are a summer staple in the south. Typically a blucher, bucks are made of nubuc or suede leather and have red rubber soles. This is the only instance in which a non-leather sole is appropriate for a dress shoe (some saddles can get away with it too). They’re a warm weather shoe that are often paired with seersucker and linen suits. Examples:
dirty and white bucks with red brick sole
So, now that you know what dress shoes are supposed to look like, why not try a pair out? Your legs will look longer, your feet will appear less Hobbit-like and you’ll set yourself apart from the Pilrgrim-shoe shod masses.