The do's and don'ts of men's shoes have commanded a lot of attention over the years. You have probably heard about the famous ‘No brown in town’, about black as the paragon of elegance, about the range in formality with loafers at the bottom of the list, derbies higher up and oxfords on top, or the supposed aesthetic inferiority of brogueing compared to a smooth toecap.
There are often two competing sides regarding the matter—those who enforce those rules and those who don’t care about them. While some stiffly adhere to those canons, looking down on those who don’t master the rules, others prefer to show off baroque associations, claiming the superiority of their flair and sprezzatura. But how should one approach these ancient rules from a contemporary perspective?
There was a time when social organisation was divided between hunting on your estate and doing business in town. But those Victorian and Edwardian timetables no longer apply. We don’t necessarily separate the black or grey suits for town and brown or green tweeds for the countryside anymore. And so often, there is no reason to match shoes to those strict colour codes.Norms have changed— in the famous series Downton Abbey, one can see the servants sporting three-piece tweed suits after work that were supposed to show a certain rusticity, while they would surely be regarded today as gloriously dandified.
The colour codes are thus very different from those times when no brown in town applied. Only obsolete and supercilious snobbishness would dictate us to obey such rigid rules. And yet there is still a sense that the many hues of brown are more casual and relaxed than the very formal solid black. It is probably a remainder of what historian Michel Pastoureau described as « protestant chromophobia ».
This rule is likewise derived from that strict division between brown and black as markers of casualness/formality. More precisely, they reflect the schedule of the day. In the series Downton Abbey or in Julian Fellowes’ novel Past Imperfect, one can catch a glimpse of the sartorial mores of high society whose members needed maids and valets to help them change clothes several times each day according to the proper circumstances. It was then customary to have dinner in white tie.
Obviously, brown shoes are inadequate for the full evening dress, which remained the benchmark of formality until the late 60s’. In the same spirit, in his novel Past Imperfect, Julian Fellowes playfully quoted an aristocrat who regarded the dinner suit, or tuxedo, as too casual (‘When do you wear a dinner suit then?’ —'When I dine alone with the Duchess in her bedroom’).
Not many of us dine in white tie as a rule today, which offers greater freedom in the our choice of shoes. And yet, one still often connects an evening out or a formal context with black shoes…
Brogues, i.e. shoes adorned with small perforations, are often considered to be ‘sporty’ shoes. Why should brogues be less elegant than smooth shoes? One often hears about the supposedly rustic origin of brogues but it’s been a long time since anyone punched holes into their muddy shoes to help them dry out and brogues have been purely decorative for as long as anyone can remember.
Why should an ornament be considered less elegant than no ornament? After all, one can regard brogueing and other fancy stitching as adding a certain something to a shoe. In this respect brogues are not really less elegant, just less formal.Indeed, elegance depends on social circumstances. Some shoes are blatantly beautiful and yet very difficult to wear. Is there any way to assess beauty ‘for itself’ as opposed to beauty in a given social context? Clothes, after all, can only be viewed in the context of their social function.
Could one wear Corthay’s Arca double eyelet derby with a pink patina for a funeral? A window-pane patterned Pini Parma suit with triple-sole tan derbies at a business meeting? And after all, why not? Well, probably because a funeral requires a subdued attitude and dark clothes express a withdrawal of one’s self. Probably because a business meeting requires that everybody should be on an equal footing as sartorial competition can be awkward to deal with in a business setting.
Elegance depends on context, for elegance is about self-presentation for others as much as for oneself. To give the wrong impression of a selfish show-off is not elegant—even if your clothes are. Displaying excessive care for appearances can make you stand out as shallow instead of effortlessly elegant.
That is one of the reasons for XVIth century sumptuary laws in France, often of puritanical inspiration, which forbade shoes that were too bold and ostentatious: Indented shoes (fenestrati) were forbidden for monks as a fashion that was deemed incompatible with their spiritual calling.
Even in Geneva these shoes were banned although they were spotted in 1555...and Calvin, always very particular in the detailing of his doctrine, used his majestic authority with the judges so that they would not condone such shoes and they were effectively blacklisted. » (from Paul Lacroix et Alphonse Duchesne in their History of the Shoe from the Most Remote Antiquity to Contemporary Times, Histoire de la chaussure, depuis l'antiquité la plus reculée jusqu'à nos jours, 1852).
Sartorial originality is a double-sided sword—by highlighting stylistic invention and care for clothes, it spotlights how one cares for one’s presentation, which is not always in synch with the circumstances and not always well accepted as it creates a distance between those who are well dressed and those who are not—which can, if overdone, be perceived as haughty behaviour and create discomfort for others.
Today, ‘rules’ about shoes and formalities as social prescriptions have not disappeared, but have been transformed to become less strict. At one time brown shoes may have been frowned upon, but that is no longer the case—which again does not mean that the difference between casual and formal has disappeared. The line is simply drawn elsewhere now.
Still, sophisticated or original shapes and colours are by definition, often perceived to be over the top. Hence the danger of sartorial sophistication — when you try your best to be elegant, you can ironically cancel the very elegance you’d been looking for: i.e., über-elegance is beyond elegance, and paradoxically not in a positive way. French philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch reminded us how virtues are easily destroyed by narcissistic awareness:
« When you want to capture virtue, it becomes a caricature. You lose it as soon as you reach it. (…) Without a certain innocence, the well-meaning action will turn into arrogant vanity…and the hero suddenly will turn into a showy peacock. » (Quelque part dans l’inachevé, p. 80 & p. 112).
Although Jankélévitch was talking about virtue, there is something here that also applies to the concept of elegance. When you try to reach elegance, you’re always on the verge of parade and exuberance, which may cancel out the virtues of elegance. But then, it leads one to wonder whether the pursuit of elegance is a virtue or a flaw, a merit or a weakness? At the end of the day, it is a balance between ease and fortitude, boldness and humility, teaching and learning---and it is the very path that will eventually define our own personal style.
Opening Picture : Riccardo Freccia Bestetti (Bespoke.)
Picture 1 : Edward Green.
Picture 2 : Gaziano & Girling.
Picture 3 : Corthay (Bespoke.)
Picture 4 : John Lobb.