It is not often that a man is made to really think about his footwear. Unlike those of the fairer sex, we chaps do not spend a great deal of time trawling our way around myriad shoe shops in search of that perfect stiletto, court or pump. It is probably fair to say that we each perhaps have only one or two pairs of causal shoes, one pair of work shoes and maybe some boots (walking, welly, Chelsea or other) – a collection hardly worthy of its own wardrobe.
What is undoubtedly true is that most men don’t stop to think about the style, construction or purpose of the shoe they are buying – so long as it looks good and is within budget (or on sale). But when it comes to your wedding you absolutely must look your best; do you really want to be knelt at the altar in that pair of glued together loafers from Clarks your fiancée bought for you?
So, in order to help you make a quality purchase for the big day we have put together this little shoe buying guide. Soon my son you will know your welt from your wing-tip and your balmorals from your brogues.
Getting the colour right
Where better to start than with the colour of a shoe? You basically have two options here – black or brown – but what you choose most definitely depends on what you are wearing on the rest of your body. Traditionally a black shoe is considered more formal than brown and we think this still largely rings true today. If you are wearing any dark coloured outfit (with the exception of navy) then black shoes are a must. This applies to all suits, morning dress and black tie. If you are taking the American route and going for the black tuxedo at your wedding, you should note that it is sartorially correct to wear black patent leather shoes, however under absolutely no circumstances should you don a pair of patents with anything else, ever.
Brown shoes should only be worn with navy blue suits – so long as it is not too light a brown – or if you are going for a more relaxed look across the whole of your outfit. They can also help to add a bit of subtle country chic if that is your sort of thing. Just because brown is a more informal colour doesn’t mean you should scrimp on style, shape and quality however.
Different colour leathers are of course available – from burgundies to blues through deep forest greens – however, unless you are planning your wedding around a specific theme that encompasses this look you are probably best steering clear of hued shoes.
Shapes & Styles
A classic gentleman’s shoe is available in only a small handful of different styles. Sure, there are subtle variations between each brand, and the ‘pointiness’ of the toe may change from season to season, but essentially each shoe can be classed in one of four categories.
The Oxford (or Balmoral as it is sometimes known) is characterised by having its shoelace eyelet tabs stitched underneath the ‘vamp’ – the part of the shoe upper that covers the top of the foot and toes. This type of construction is known as ‘closed lacing’ and offers the most clean – and as such most formal – appearance of any lace up shoe. Oxfords are a timeless classic that will serve you well at any occasion and will be a sensible choice for you on your wedding day.
The only other lace-up shoe in this set of four is the Derby. On first inspection you may not be able to tell the difference between a Derby and its first-cousin the Oxford; however a closer look will reveal that where the Oxford is ‘close-laced’ the Derby makes the most of ‘open-lacing’. Here the shoelace eyelet tabs are sewn on top of the vamp to create two ‘flaps’ that wrap around the tongue of the shoe. Originally designed to be a more comfortable and sturdy shoe for hunting in, the Derby is traditionally considered to be unsuitable for formal occasions. Whilst there are plenty of lovely Derbys out there, if you are buying a new pair of shoes for the wedding try to stay clear of a pair of these.
Rather surprisingly, Monk shoes bear no resemblance to the footwear modelled by monks or other men of the cloth. In fact we have completely failed in our research to find out why indeed they are even called Monks. The next most formal shoe after the Oxford, the Monk is a half shoe / half boot hybrid that will feel like heaven to any man who suffers from considerably wider feet. The shoe is closed by one or two buckles that run across the top of the foot instead of lacing, allowing for variable widths to be achieved with ease. If you fancy something a bit different from the bog-standard lace-ups you’ve always worn, why not put on a pair of these for the big day.
Loafer is a unifying term for a number of more distinct styles of shoe; however we all know that this pretty much encompasses all types of ‘slip-on’ footwear. From Venetians to Moccasins, the loafer epitomises comfort and freedom of movement. For this very reason the loafer can hardly be considered the pinnacle of formality and yet there are some styles out there than really do look the business. If you can avoid the ‘Friday night out’ shoe look and find something with more elegance and class, you might be able to pull off a pair of these with your wedding suit.
Unless you are having a pair of shoes made bespoke for you – in which case you probably needn’t bother reading this guide – you will be buying what are known as ‘ready-to-wear’ shoes straight off the shop shelf. It goes without saying that these shoes are made on some form of a production line, with each pair that rolls off looking exactly the same as the last.
However we humans have a habit of coming in different shapes and sizes, and the same is certainly true of our feet. Whilst they may all look roughly alike, each pair of feet has unique contours, bumps, curves and rises that are as individual to us as our fingerprints. Apart from shoe size – a fairly standard measure of length and width across the industry – manufacturers use different moulds to define the 3D shape of the shoes they produce. These moulds are known in the industry as ‘lasts’.
Lasts are usually a solid piece wood, metal or plastic that the shoe leather is stretched and bashed around to help form its shape during the manufacturing process. You may have noticed that different brands of shoe just ‘feel different’ on your feet irrespective of size or style; this is because each manufacturer uses their own subtly different last shapes based on their own research and heritage. In order to buy the right pair of shoes for you you must try on pairs from several manufacturers, judging them not only on style but also on how they feel around the foot: Do they pinch at the knuckles when you walk? Is there too much room around the toes? How tight are they around the sides of your feet? Once you have found the pair that fits you the best, ask the shop assistant what the last number of the style is – any good shoe retailer will be able to tell you this straight off – and make a note of it. This vital piece of information will help you buy comfortable, well-fitting shoes for the rest of your life. Not only will correctly fitting shoes be more comfortable they will also last considerably longer as you will not be placing undue stresses on the construction when you walk.
Constructing the sole
You may not have paid much attention to how your shoes were actually built before, but when it comes to buying a quality piece of footwear you should learn some basic pointers that will help you sort the wheat from the chaff.
Perhaps the simplest – but also most important – indicator of a quality shoe is the way in which the sole is bound to the upper. The majority of cheaper high-street shoes will feature a sole that has been glued or ‘cemented’ on to the shoes body: if the sole is very thin, made of rubber or does not feature any stitching on the bottom it is likely to be cemented. There are several problems attached to cemented soles which we will discuss after looking at alternative methods of construction.
If you have at any time in your life spent more than £100 on a pair of smart shoes you are likely to have come across the term ‘Goodyear Welted’. Putting welts on shoes was common practice long before the Goodyear welt, but it was an extremely long process that was done with hand-stitching and abandoned due to the amount time it took. Fast forward to 1869 and machinery was invented to speed up the process of welting a shoe by a certain Charles Goodyear Jr – the son of Charles Goodyear Sr (the guy who revolutionised the process to vulcanize rubber and what not.) This dramatically shortened the time it took to apply a welt to a shoe, and earned it the title: Goodyear welt. But what does this mean?
Essentially a welt is a strip of material – usually leather or rubber – orbiting the shoe that is stitched or glued directly to the inner. This provides an anchor point for the thick outer sole, which is then stitched to the welt. The upshot of all this is that the outsole can be completely removed from the insole and upper by severing the stitches that bind them together. This means that when the outsole is worn through, the whole thing can replaced with a new one without damaging the rest of the shoe. This can be done as many times as may be required meaning the life of a Goodyear welted shoe can be several times that of one with a cemented sole.
Whilst cemented soles can sometimes be replaced, doing so could tear or damage the leather used in the rest of the shoe. Glue also has a habit of setting hard therefore sole may not flex or twist in the same way as with welted footwear. This can lead to stresses and strains being placed on the rest of the shoe that will ultimately result in a shorter lifespan.
If you have never bought a pair of welted shoes before, ask the shop assistant to point some out to you so you can see and feel the difference for yourself.
In love with leather
Let us make one thing absolutely clear; you should never ever ever consider purchasing pair of formal shoes that are not made of leather. Leather is the only acceptable material when it comes to crafting a quality pair of shoes and can be used for pretty much every part of the construction. Plastic, pvc or ‘pleather’ is an absolute no no – it is cheap, uncomfortable and no doubt a sign of poor workmanship throughout.
Now we’ve got that out of the way let’s look into some of the types of leather used to make the best shoes around. This section refers to the leather used in the uppers.
Corrected Grain (CG) leather is a type of skin that has been buffed, dyed and polished so as to remove any imperfections or blemishes that may be found on the surface of the hide. The leather is then ‘painted’ with a glossy coating that both protects it and gives it a nice finish (a bit like a dull patent leather). Whilst CG leathers are not the finest, they are not to be scoffed at either; however once the coating has been scratched it cannot be easily restored meaning you need to take extra care when wearing your CG shoes.
Full Grain Leather
Full grain leather refers to hides that have not been buffed or sanded to remove imperfections and markings. As the grain of the leather remains intact the shoes are able to breath better, as well as being stronger and more durable. By its very nature full grain leathers have a visible grain that will differ from shoe to shoe, giving a deep texture that will always look great so long as you regularly polish and feed them. Look for tiny pores in the surface of the leather to confirm you are buying full grain.
Finally, and to help you on your way, here is a list of top quality shoe brands to cover most price ranges. The simple fact with shoes is that you tend to get what you pay for, so think hard about investing in a really good pair that will last you many years.
Loake – www.loake.co.uk (from £100)
Barker – www.barker-shoes.co.uk (from £150)
Cheaney – www.cheaney.co.uk (from £250)
Herring – www.herringshoes.co.uk (from £250)
Church’s – www.church-footwear.com (from £300)