The Modern Man’s Leather Dress Shoe Guide
A beautifully-constructed leather belt, briefcase, or wallet can be a smart investment. But figuring out how to be a smart shopper when first venturing into the world of leather accessories can seem daunting. So read on for the first installment in our series on how to shop for the perfect leather accessory.
Before we get into the details on how to shop for shoes, you’ll need a quick crash course on the basics. There are four types of leather: full grain, top grain, genuine leather, and bonded leather. Full grain is the best quality, and refers to hides that haven’t been sanded or buffed to remove surface imperfections, leaving the leather to retain its character and strength. Top grain is also commonly used in high-end leather goods, and since it has a few too many blemishes to be categorized as full grain, part of the surface is shaved off to get rid of most of the grain and scars. It won’t develop a patina like full-grain leather, but has greater stain resistance than full grain.
Genuine leather comes next, in terms of quality, and is made from the bottom of the hide once the top grain has been separated. (Think of suede as an example.) Bonded leather or reconstituted leather are at the bottom of the barrel, and are comprised of the dust and shavings of leather glued and pressed together, then coated or stamped to look like full or top-grain leather. Keep in mind that you might also find leather goods that aren’t made of cowhide, since horsehide, lambskin, and goatskin make appearances in various types of accessories and garments.
And remember: Just because a pair of shoes is expensive doesn’t necessarily mean it’s well-made, so get ready to be a careful shopper. As with any piece of clothing or accessory, you’ll ultimately be looking for the piece that’s right for you, so you’ll want to learn to spot quality and stick to your guns on the styles and aesthetics that will fit in with and elevate your existing wardrobe.
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A shoe-shopping expedition can either end as a success or as a spectacular failure. The difference between those two outcomes lies in your preparation, and how much you pay attention to finding the pair that strikes the right balance between style and practicality. The beauty of leather shoes is that they offer both, as a well-made shoes of dress or casual leather shoes can last you years with proper care.
The first thing you should consider is shape. Even before we dive into specific styles, you should know that you’re looking for a slim, streamlined shoe with a rounded toe. (No square toes or exaggerated shapes, please.) When it comes to dress shoes, you should be looking for leather soles. But you’ll be able to choose between a couple of styles, including shoes with a slim, elegant sole, or those with a chunkier, edgier sole. If poor weather is a feature of your home climate, you could, alternatively, consider a rubber sole, though they aren’t as long-wearing or as easy to replace as a leather sole.
If your dress shoes are the item in your wardrobe that you wear the most, you should take shopping for a pair seriously. Consider paying more for a pair that’s going to last you a lot longer than the $100 pairs you keep replacing each year. And once you’ve chosen a high-end shoe, make sure that you take care of it. You need to put some regular maintenance not only into the leather uppers of your shoes, but also the soles, heels, taps, and heel pads. Condition and polish your shoes regularly, store them on shoe trees, and take them to the cobbler when necessary.
As for the specific styles of shoes you’re looking for, there are some classic options you should consider. A black, lace-up shoe, like Wolverine’s Horween Chromexcel style here, is a basic that every guy should have in his closet. But if you fall into the camp of guys who wear black shoes only for weddings and funerals, a brown shoe can be a good choice.
The oxford is the most timeless of dress shoes, can be dressed up or worn more casually, and can feature a plain toe, a cap toe, or even a wingtip. The blucher is similar in shape to the oxford, but has its facing stitched on top of the vamp instead of under the vamp. (Most shoes called oxfords, like Cole Haan’s Cambridge, Wolverine’s Henrick, or Apolis’s Officer Shoes, are, in fact, bluchers.) The monk strap, in single or double varieties, is a stylish alternative to a laced shoe and a favorite of many young menswear devotees, and the Cole Haan Cambridge Double Monk is a good choice. A loafer, while traditionally a casual shoe, is now accepted even with a suit, and comes in tassel, bit, and penny versions, like Sebago’s penny loafer. The dress boot is generally like an oxford but a longer shaft, and is similarly suited to both day and formal wear. A cordovan dress boot like this one from Peal & Co. is an excellent choice. A chukka boot, like this Cole Haan version, are a more casual, but still polished, style.