A Brief History of Dress Shoes: Part I
Upon walking into a shoe store, one can’t help but succumb to the disheartening feeling that there is a seemingly endless array of shoe styles. In spite of the illusion of an overabundance of choices, there are in reality less than a dozen core designs (although suave marketers and designers would have you think otherwise). Knowing a little bit about each, and the stories behind them, will help you spot the embellishments being touted as innovation season after season. For example, that’s Count Gebhard von Blucher up above, holding the (photoshopped) shoe style that helped him defeat Napoleon at Waterloo.
With that in mind, we’ve put together a definitive list of classic dress shoe styles to help you sort through the mire next time you find yourself in the market for a pair. A word to the wise, several notable styles have been purposefully excluded from this list (e.g. jodhpurs, tassle loafers, kilties), but we’ll circle back to them in another post.
Oxford (or Balmoral)
If there is one dress shoe to know, it’s the Oxford. The classic English dress shoe actually originated in Scotland, and is also referred to as a “Balmoral” after Balmoral Castle. The style first made an appearance in Europe as early as 1640 but didn’t become popular until the late 1800s, after the shoe’s sleek silhouette had been adopted by English preparatory schools—hence the name change to “Oxford.”
Before the introduction of the lace-up Oxford, the most common footwear option was high-top shoes that were fastened using buttons.
The bow-tied laces were originally perceived as feminine, but there was no denying that the lace-up design was more efficient and comfortable than buttoning up, which hastened the rate of adoption. Some historians attribute the term “straight-laced” to the ways different people tied their Oxfords, although this is still heavily debated.
The style had migrated stateside by the turn of the century, where it fell into favor among American businessmen and entrepreneurs looking to convey both professionalism and cosmopolitan heritage. The 1920s saw to the first experimentations with the style, when the Jazz and the flapper culture introduced an element of flamboyance, using two-toned and contrasting leathers to create a sporty, preppy look.
The signature feature of the Oxford is its closed lacing, which means the eyelets are attached directly beneath the vamp instead of on top of it. Today, they’re most often encountered in boardroom settings and tend to skew formal, although they can be worn in a way that makes them decidedly more casual. Among the many brands that are well known for their Oxfords, look to Cheaney & Sons, Church’s, Tricker’s, Allen Edmonds, Crocket & Jones, and Alden.
Derby (or Gibson, or Blucher)
The derby’s (a.k.a. Gibson, or blucher) characteristic feature is its open lacing, which differentiates it from its near cousin, the Oxford. Because the underlying structural components are exposed, the blucher is considered less refined and therefore less formal than its stylistic counterpart. Named after an nineteenth century Prussian general, Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, the blucher’s origins are intertwined with Prussia’s military history.
Von Blücher commissioned the shoe design to replace the standard issue military boot in 1814, which was both impractical and uncomfortable. The blucher enabled the general to ready his troops for battle much faster because it was designed with laces and a below-the-ankle construction, so they could pull their shoes on and off with ease. Von Blücher and his troops played a key role in the defeat of Napolean Bonaparte at Waterloo, which confers a level of historical importance on the shoe’s design that is, perhaps, unrivaled by any other.
Contemporary iterations of the classic design can be seen in Common Projects and Mark McNairy, although the classic style is best represented by the same crew as the Oxford: Cheaney & Sons, Church’s, Tricker’s, Allen Edmonds, and Alden.
The brogue is perhaps the most popular dress shoe style to date. Notable contemporary designers like Thom Browne create seemingly endless interpretations of the classic style.
The brogue was originally designed as a field shoe, but it has since found its way into boardroom and formal settings. While a brogue can be either an Oxford or a Derby, the name comes from the Gaelic word “brog,” which means “shoe” and refers to the decorative perforations along the exterior of the shoe. Brogue patterns are generally configured according to four different cap styles: full wingtip, semi-, quarter-, and longwing. While now purely decorative, originally broguing had fully perforated holes that helped drained water after wading through Scottish bogs.
If you’re planning on trekking through some marshes, take a preliminary trip to Trickers, Sanders, or Alden to stock up on a classic pair of brogues.
The monk strap is currently the most rakish of classic dress shoe styles, but as the name suggests, it was originally designed as a dressier and more durable alternative to sandals for European monks. Essentially a work shoe, monk straps traditionally featured a cap toe to provide additional protection. They are structurally similar to a blucher, but monk straps eschew laces in favor buckles—either one or two—, which make them exceptionally easy to take on and off.
The buckle places the monk strap in a liminal space between a derby and a loafer in terms of formality. Leaving the top buckle unbuckled is an affectation related to break-in period associated with the high-vamped shoes, but has also come to convey an air of sprezzatura within fashion circles (especially Italian).
Atlanta-based designer Sid Mashburn—with his eye for American prep style imbued with Italian panache—is partially credited with the recent resurgence of the monastic shoe’s popularity, although many will point to Lino Leluzzi as the true progenitor of the trend. If you’re looking to pick up a pair, head to Edward Green, John Lobb, Alfred Sargent, J.Crew, or Sid Mashburn, all of whom preserve the original details of classic style.
Come back tomorrow for Part II of our shoe knowledge series with info on Chukkas, Chelseas, and more.