“Wanna know if a guy is well dressed? Look down.”
Thus did George Frazier, Esquire magazine’s legendary fashion columnist in the 1960s, observe that true male style is found only on the finest foundations. Perhaps more any other element of a man’s ensemble, the refinement of top-quality dress shoes is apparent to even untrained eyes, revealing the taste and personality of the wearer. When properly crafted and fitted, they are also investments in the ultimate luxury: comfort.
An Improvement on Nature
Leonardo da Vinci celebrated the foot as “a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.” Quality shoemakers might object to the latter part, considering that the aim of their craft is to sculpt sleeker platforms than nature provided. To this end, the shape of a first-class shoe should follow the foot itself -- curved on the outside, narrow in the “waist,” pointing toward the big toe rather than the shoe’s centerline.
The shape of a dress shoe is determined by the shape of the wooden form, or “last,” it was made on. Lesser makers tend to use larger lasts to produce roomier shoes that fit a wide variety of feet, but at the expense of aesthetics. Top-shelf and custom shoes are instantly recognizable by their slender, curvaceous shape, which, along with closely trimmed soles and upper patterns refined over the past century, can actually create the illusion of being smaller than the “works of art” they encase. (Being made from vegetable tanned leather, they’ll also age much better.)
Choosing a Shoe
With regard to formality, dress shoes follow the same rules of thumb as tailored clothing: the less surface texture (e.g. reverse calf suede, pebbled Scotch grain) and ornamental detail (e.g. seams and broguing) a shoe has, the more formal it is.
While black dress shoes were traditionally considered de rigueur with dark dressy suitings, dark brown offers equal refinement, if not superior style. However lustrous, black dress shoes will always lack an antiqued brown’s deep patina and changing highlights. Just as any object placed on a polished mahogany tabletop immediately acquires an expensive aura, top-quality brown leather shoes invest all fabrics with an intangible richness.
In an average lifetime, a man walks 110,000 miles. His shoes had better be comfortable. Here too, you get what you pay for. Crafted from smaller quantities of better material than lesser makes, quality dress shoes are surprisingly lightweight, and if the wooden last a quality dress shoe has been made on properly corresponds to the wearer’s foot, there should be little need for the ritual breaking-in usually associated with the new-shoe experience.
More than any other element of the classic male wardrobe, dress shoes require routine maintenance to maximize their beauty and longevity. Shoe horns should always be used to avoid breaking down heel counters over time, and shoe trees should be inserted after wear to maintain your shoes’ shape. Regular conditioning will keep the uppers supple, and wax polishing will both raise a shine and help protect against the elements. If you favor a high gloss glaçage or “spit polish,” be sure to apply it only on the toes and heels to avoid drying and cracking the “moving parts” of your shoes.