Man started making leather shoes over five thousand years ago out of deer and bearskin to combat the snow in the Italian alps, but we’ve come a long ways since then. Even though the medium and purpose hasn’t changed, the way we treat and style hides to cover our feet has.
Leather is just a catchall term – there’s an array of skins, tanning methods, and treatments that distinguish all sorts of types of leather for every occasion. Here’s our breakdown of the most common men’s shoe leathers, ranging from casual to formal:
Roughout leather has the rough flesh side of the skin on the outside of the shoe. The surface is soft and has a super neppy texture but is still thick and durable enough to take lots of abuse. Roughout was a favourite for Marine Corps combat boots in WWII as they didn’t require shining and were more breathable than rough-in leather.
Veg-tanning is about as basic as you can get with leathers. It’s name comes from the vegetable matter and tree barks used in the tanning process, which combine to create a stiff and naturally colored leather. The light shade doesn’t stick around for long, however, as veg-tanned leathers will naturally darken and soften up with use creating an amazing patina over the course of it’s life. But beware, the process doesn’t make it stable in water and can shrink and become brittle when drying out.
Pull-up covers a broad swath of heavily waxed and oiled leathers like aniline and chrome whose color lightens when you pinch and “pull-up” on the leather. This allows the leather to absorb scuffs and scrapes like a champ while remaining relatively maintenance free. The original pull-up is Horween Chromexcel, which has been a favourite of casual shoe and work boot makers since its introduction in the 1920s.
Chamois or “shammy” leather is known for its soft hand, slight nap, and water absorbency. This has made it a common material for polishing cloths. But in shoes, it’s penchant for moisture is usually offset by a heavy dose of wax and oils. This makes chamois a hardwearing option that also doesn’t require shining.
Suede uses the flesh side of the skin like roughout but the skin has been buffed and sanded down to an even texture which makes suede thin and pliable enough for more delicate garments like gloves. The word suede literally comes from the French “gants des suede“, meaning Swedish gloves. Suede is a great, light wearing material but works best in summer and early fall as the neppy texture is a sponge for dirt and water.
Also known as Pebble Grain, Scotch Grain leather was developed in Scotland. Old Scots pioneered the texturizing process with the barley from old whiskey barrels that would shrink up the leather to create the signature pitted rhino-like appearance. Nowadays the pattern is generally embossed over an older calfskin. This hardy finish makes Scotch Grain more weather resistant than other leathers and has made it a common choice for casual English shoes.
Often considered the holy grail of leathers, Shell Cordovan is one of the rarest and hardest wearing shoe materials on the planet. Shell is cut from the hind quarters of a horse where the pores are so dense that it’s naturally water and stretch resistant, this also means shell ripples instead of creasing and folding around stress points.
This all adds up to create a shoe that can last for several decades if treated properly. The only caveat is that the rarity of horse hides and the difficulties involved in tanning make shell quite expensive and limits availability to a handful of colours, the most iconic of which is Horween’s burgundy No. 8.
Calfskin is the leather of young cows, making it thin and pliable with a fine grain that’s largely free of blemishes but still very durable. These qualities made calfskin a popular choice for vellum in medieval and early renaissance texts before the explosion in the use of paper. In shoes, it responds well to a high polish and can last for years if treated well. If you only have one pair of dress shoes go for calfskin.
Patent leather cranks the high polish of calfskin to 11 with it’s glassy mirror sheen. The finishing process on patent was adapted from Japanese lacquering methods in the early 1800s to create the slick exterior exterior, nowadays we generally use plastics. Patent is by far the most formal shoe material, as such it typically comes in black to match your tuxedo.