So I got to thinking about my shoe collection last week. Always a dangerous thing…. It occurred to me that my shoe collection has a hierarchy. Formal shoes at the top and informal shoes at the bottom.
However, it’s a more complex hierarchy than simply formal shoes on the one side and informal shoes on the other. Even among your formal shoes some are more formal than others. Ditto for your informal shoes.
At some point in the middle there’s is a pretty wide swathe of no man’s land where informal and formal categories overlap and there are less clear demarcations. My guess is that most men’s shoes sit somewhere within or on the borders of that no man’s land, which means we fellas can get into a muddle pretty easily.Looking at my own shoe collection I suggest that both my informal and formal collections each include shoes in broadly 4 grades, each grade more formal than the one preceding it. In between these formal and informal categories is my no man’s land which include shoes that could be viewed either as the most formal of my informal collection or the most informal of my formal collection.
For ease I’ve numbered these grades 1 to 9. I suggest that my informal shoes from most casual to least informal range from grades 1 to 4. My formal collection starting from the most formal runs from grade 9 down to 6. Leaving grade 5 in the middle as the no man’s land.
Clearly this is not a science and is based primarily on the shoes currently in my collection. Your collection may reflect a somewhat different ranking hierarchy.
However, my guess is that you have a ranking hierarchy, even if it is unconscious. If you’ve ever decided that some shoes are too formal too wear to work or too informal to wear to a wedding you’ve indicated that you are working with a hierarchy of some kind. So here’s my grading hierarchy.
1. Open toed shoes such as sandals and flip flops. Basically, if your feet are on display it’s about as informal as a brother can get.2. Sneakers, trainers or canvas shoes. I would put plimsolls and espadrilles in this category also, but I confess I don’t own any of the latter 2 myself. Effectively, any shoe in this category is one level above open toe shoes.3. Boat shoes or driving shoes. These are colourful and comfortable examples which do not require you to be piloting a boat or car in order to be worn. They work well with shorts or with linens and are great for summer. 4. Loafers or chunky boots. Whether tassel or penny, loafers are among the least casual of the informal shoe collection. Whether in leather or suede they are a great addition and can be worn to dress up a pair of shorts or dress down a pair of chinos. Chunky boots are the equivalent for colder weather or when walking in challenging terrain.
In a formal shoe collection the distinctions between grades is not so much with type of shoe as much as it is about shape and purpose and materials. So as a general rule, chunky shoes are less formal than thin soled, suede less formal than leather, and brogues less formal than oxfords. In broad terms the more formal the shoe the less practical they are.9. Black Patent Pumps. Top of the food chain of formal shoes are patent leather pumps, only worn on black tie or white tie occasions. Not massively practical and they look faintly ridiculous unless worn in that kind of setting. Unless you attend Black tie events with some regularity probably not worth investing in a pair. I myself haven’t.
8. Plain Oxfords & Wholecuts. The next level down tends to be where most men’s shoe collections peak. Plain Oxfords with limited brogue stitching, with plain or cap toes rather than wingtips are among the most formal shoes we wear. In regulation black they are the uniform of business and the military. The plainer the more formal. This makes wholecuts with almost no stitching perhaps the most formal Oxford of them all. Most people nowadays wear Oxfords with black tie rather than patent pumps.7. Derbies & Monk Straps. Next in terms of formality are Derby and Monk Strap shoes. Sometimes known as Bluchers the Derby is distinguished from the Oxford by its open rather than closed lacing. It is this open lacing which makes it slightly less formal than an Oxford.
Monk Straps sit somewhere in this grade also. For some the lack of lacing on Monk straps make them more formal than the Derby. For others the shiny buckles make them less formal. The reality is it depends on both one’s subjective perspective on Monk Straps and just how formal they are designed to be. Monk straps cover a very wide range of shoes and all that they have in common is their type of fastening.6. Brogues, Saddle Shoes, Slip-ons & Chelsea boots. Technically speaking, brogues are not a type of shoe. Broguing is a detail in which decorative holes are punched in the leather. So brogues can be Derbies, Oxfords or indeed Monkstraps. In common usage however, Brogues are a type of shoe, typically with wingtips though it is possible to have half or quarter brogues. A similar argument could be made for Saddles. Slip-on shoes with no lacing and chelsea boots fall into this grade which is more or less the bottom rung of formal shoes.
No Man’s Land
Most men who are vaguely interested in footwear use shoes in grades 6 and 7 for everyday office wear if they work in a relatively formal setting. However, most men don’t actually care about footwear. So I suggest that most men own shoes in grade 5.
Here you find a range of shoes that defy easy description or categorisation. These include Chukka Boots, pretty much any shoes in suede, whatever their style, Doc Martins, most shoes with rubber soles. For me, most shoes made by Clark, for example, are best located in this grade.Shoes in the category are more interested in function than form. They are great work shoes as a result because they can been worn comfortably for hours on end. Thus grade 5 cannot by typified by a specific genre of shoes; Rather it is a category for those shoes that do not sit very easily either as formal shoes or informal shoes.
In my shoe collection it includes all my formal shoes made of suede and includes Oxfords, Derbies, Brogues Saddles and Monks. It also includes shoes which are in unusual colours because the more formal you get the more restricted your colours become. By way of example an Oxford shoe in black might be a natural fit for your formal collection. However, if that same shoe were made of red or green leather you might relegate it to grade 5. It feels informal because of its colour but it isn’t really a casual pair of shoes.
What’s Your Hierarchy?
Having heard a little my shoe hierarchy you might like to have a look at your own shoe collection. Does my hierarchy fit your own?
Leave me a comment to let me know.