You don’t need to look much further than today’s social media platforms to see men are now just as eager as women to put in 100% when it comes to looking their best. Selfies taken from practised angles show off every sexy pose, whilst every of life’s YOLO moments are captured… from trendy gastro-food-porn, to latest fashion purchases like a hot new pair of heels. Once an arena reserved for the fairer sex, the world of beauty and fashion has now broadened to include a growing male focus. Skin care ranges designed for the ‘modern man’ mean many of us now have to fight for time in the bathroom! Side-by-side we cleanse, tone and moisturise with our male counterparts and sometimes even fight over the hairdryer- not to mention the heat protecting morroccan hair oil…
And when it comes to wardrobe space, many of our sisters have had to relegate substantial portions of their prized threads to make way for the Mr’s multitude of chinos, blazers and yep… shoes! I guess we could look at these growing social trends within a capitalist framework. But that would be boring. Instead it’s way more fun to look at the history of male fashion trends and see that throughout the ages, men’s fashion has seen the birth of some quirky, outrageous as well as iconic styles that have stood the test of time.
An overview of this entire subject would be beyond the scope of this humble article. Rather, this article will focus on the shoe. And because we really want to narrow it down- we will explore the world of men’s shoes. NOTE: for a detailed exploration of the history of women’s shoes, we recommend watching the entire catalogue of Sex and the City. Trust me.
Back in the day (we’re talking waaay back like, in the medieval period), new shoes were the prielege of a small group of society’s elite. Obviously other members of society wore shoes, but these poor folk we forced to make do with practical offerings, usually made from cheap materials that would require ongoing repair. Meanwhile, the wealthier classes and their aristocratic mates lavished their fortunes on the latest trends, often including the unique and artistic and sometimes just outright bizarre!
So whilst the poorer classes were getting around in scrappy sandals, the rich guys were strutting their stuff wearing shoes made of leather, silk and other luxurious materials sourced from exotic locations around the globe. For most of the sixteenth century footwear was simply flat however prior to this period, we saw the emergence of an extreme style called the ‘pike’ or ‘poulaine’. This style of shoe was characterised by a rather pointed toe which could be as long as 10cms in length. We still see examples of this out-there style in contemporary men’s shoes, most commonly in formalwear.
Things got a little fancier around the beginning of the seventeenth century, when along came arched soles and heeled shoes for men. With James I was in charge (1603-1625), trends in men’s shoe styles celebrated the unashamedly flamboyant; masculine court fashion was soon embracing stockings and men were even able to choose from a range of shoe decorations including silk roses and bows. Both beautiful statements of style and a symbol of one’s wealth, these extravagant shoes did however experience a down-time as war raged in Britain and Europe. During this time men’s popular fashion reflected a heavy military influence, and military-inspired boots became the benchmark for men’s footwear fashion. Various interpretations of the boot were now hitting the streets in a big way, including popular knee high boots made from quality leather. From a humble riding boot to military-tough footwear, the boot was transformed into a fashion icon that perfectly married practicality with elegance.
At around this time the French court styles were also starting to set the tone for the rest of the world, and it was their penchant for the buckle that saw the iconic boot take another pivotal turn in the fashion history books. These must-have additions to the boot would be bought separately, and a smorgasboard of precious stones and metals were available to consumers…wealth and social standing always dictating quality, of course.
There was another important social milestone taking place during this period: mass production and the development of new manufacturing technologies. Factory produced shoes were now made available to common folk, many of whom enjoyed an increase in their earnings thanks to new employment opportunities in the booming manufacturing industry.
Let’s fast-forward a bit to the nineteenth century because it’s here we see the birth of some of THE most iconic styles of men’s shoes. At this time the hottest looks focused on variations of the ankle boot; the Brogue and also the Balmoral were the most popular, the Balmoral available to consumers in a range of popular styles including the Oxford and Derby.
During the mid-nineteenth century, manufacturing industries employed increasingly mechanised production methods. Mass production meant many more people could now access affordable footwear. Consequently however, this triggered the rapid decline of hand-crafted men’s shoes and retailers soon replaced shoemakers.
We now take an even bigger leap in time, arriving safely in the post WWII period, a time of booming industry and post-modern reverie. During this phase we see an ever-expanding variety of shoe styles and most importantly, an array of good quality shoes available at price points to suit every echelon of society. With mass production once again flourishing, countries like China were emerging as dominant trade leaders whilst on the other side of the globe the trend-setting Italians were still famous for their quality often hand-made footwear. Interestingly, it was the post-war youth revolution that once again injected an experimental flavour into the world of men’s fashion; brands like Docotor Marten were emerging as were designs like winklepickers, brothel creepers and iconic Chelasea boots.
Following the flower-power movement of the 60’s, footwear got a little sporty and the sexy 70’s saw the emergence of trainers and sneakers, footwear for all tastes and ages. This omnipresent style is once again enjoying a resurgence on the runways, with hot new kicks no longer reserved to the sporty crowd. Often associated with hip-hop culture, iconic sneakers are now considered ‘must haves’ and take the wearer from the tennis court to a semi-formal afternoon at your local gastro-pub. And the world of the sneaker-freak is no longer confined to the male market; the androgynous appeal of this style of footwear means women and men can enjoy an array of unisex options.
However not all styles enjoy such wide mass appeal, as gendered notions of fashion are still pervasive in post-modern times. No better example of this can be found in the classic heel/pump style shoe; gender politics may have come a long way baby, but we are yet to see the heel/pump infiltrate the male market. Similarly, styles like the Oxford and Derby are still considered predominantly ‘male’ styles of footwear.
To this point this article has focused on (OK skimmed over!) some of the major movements in men’s footwear over time. We will now take a slight detour and instead focus on the more technical side of shoe design, including but not limited to, definitions of the anatomy of the shoe.
The upper – This refers to the main part of the shoe. The ‘upper’ is the leather or canvas that is seen above the sole when a shoe is worn. The ‘upper’ can further be broken down into many key points (the vamp, the heel, the eyelets, etc.), but as a whole it is everything which actually covers the foot when wearing the shoe.
The insole – As the name eloquently suggests, the insole refers to the lining of the inside of the show. It is the part of the shoe which the foot comes into contact with when worn.
The outsole – Yep, you guessed it, the outsole refers to the bottom of the show. Made from plastic, rubber of leather, this material is what comes in contact with the ground while walking.
The welt– Usually a feature of more expensive quality footwear, the ‘welt’ refers to the think piece of leather which attached the upper to the outsole of the show.
The last – When constructing a shoe, you firstly need a last! The ‘last’ here refers to a three-dimensional model of the foot and it is on this that the entire show is moulded and constructed.
Taking another detour, this article will now explore some of the key styles of men’s shoes. Some of terms you may remember from earlier in this article, others may be new but ALL will help you better understand the world of men’s footwear.
Brogue: This term refers to and describes the baseline for formal men’s shoes. Historically, brogues were recognised by their decorative perforations on the upper, particularly the tip of the show. Made from multiple pieces of leather, the decorative features of brogues make them the quintessential choice for formal footwear.
Oxford: This is a classic variation of the traditional brogue and is characterised by a closed lace style. Worn both casually and formally, the Oxford is a simply designed shoe that has withstood the test of time. Decorations and adaptations to the toe cap can alter the shoes wearability, taking it from an informal setting to an after-5 engagement with some simple design twists.
Derby – The Derby is another popular adaptation of the popular Brogue style. The key defining difference between the Oxford and the Derby is evidenced in the lace structure; the Derby has an open laced structure which creates tabs on the eyelets. Although still a simply constructed shoe, the Derby offers the wearer more creative options the eyelet tabs allow manufactures to add more decoration and adornments.
Blucher: Much like the Derby, the Blucher show typically features an open laced construction. The Derby and “Blucher” are often interchangeable terms however the major difference between the two styles relates to the way in which materials are added to the vamp. On the Derby we see the quarters overlap the vamp to the form the eyelets, whilst on the Blucher, the stays are made from smaller materials, creating a more demure appearance.
Loafer: This style of shoe exists in a category often associated with relaxation and comfort. Similar to a moccasin construction rather than a brogue, these slip on shoes are typically made from leather or soft suede. Loafers compliment a multitude of styles, from smart casual to formal.
Monk strap: Much like iconic loafer, the monk strap (sometimes referred to as just monk) does not feature laces. Rather, the monk uses either a double or single buckle strap across the top of the upper to fasten. Measures of formality position the monk strap somewhere between the Oxford and Derby but what sets this show apart is its striking rarity compared to the two afore mentioned brogue styles.
Whole cut: Once again the name says it all! Of all the various men’s shoes, this style is clearly the most formal. Constructed using a single piece of leather, the Whole Cut is without distinctive vamps or quarters and derives its elegance from its sheer simplicity of style. Perfect for a ball, wedding or any other uber-formal occasion, these shoes also feature a closed lace design like its Oxford cousin.