Slipping standards ? What slippers and loafers reveal about men

Dr Benjamin WILD
Slipping standards ? What slippers and loafers reveal about men

The assessment of a man’s style and character commonly begins with his choice of footwear. If a bloke lavishes care and attention on such a lowly and conventionally unobserved part of his body, it is presumably thought that he must invest equal, or greater, care on the rest of his appearance. This fastidiousness would probably suggest he possessed commensurate – and much-desired – traits in others aspects of his life.

So what of the preponderance of the slipper and loafer?

The slipper is historically associated with the sitting room and fireplace, but it has become an increasingly common site at black tie events and the beach, as has the more hardwearing loafer, which has a more nefarious reputation, linked to cads and homosexuals.

Cleverley Suede Loafers
sockless loafers and slippers

Above : Dimitri Gomez bespoke slippers, George Cleverley slippers and loafers, the famous “wall” at Pitti Uomo

Typically made from suede, which needs less regular maintenance than leather shoes made from the outer surface of an animal’s skin, and commonly associated with leisure and relaxation, these items of footwear have come to be a staple in women’s wardrobes.

When worn by men, they encourage associations of extravagance, as they are often linked to evening soirees and decadent shenanigans. Furthermore, sartorial caution is thrown to the wind as slipper-shod men frequently appear sock-less and flaunt a part of the body that would have made mild-mannered Victorians shudder.

If slippers and loafers have a dubious reputation when worn out of doors, it is presumably due to their construction, which requires less material than more traditional oxfords or derbies, and their fastening, which is non-existent and makes them looser on the foot.

These comfortable, easily wearable – and removable – shoes seem to have sparked associations about the character of man who would wear them, much like co-respondent shoes, which are a much more notorious style of footwear. Low-heeled brogue- or oxford-style shoes made in two contrasting colours of leather, co-respondent shoes were a daring choice of footwear for men in the early twentieth century because of the negative connotations they aroused.

The name co-respondent was taken from the law courts, where it referred to a man who was conducting an affair with a married woman; he was said to be her ‘co-respondent’.

The loafer, then, is something of a hybrid, wayward shoe. Even shoemakers have had their doubts about it. George Glasgow, owner and manager of London’s prestigious GJ Cleverley shoes, told me that George Cleverley never liked making loafers for customers because he didn’t think he was giving them value for money because he was using less leather. He also fretted over the fit, which is difficult to perfect. To resolve the problem, he created elasticised sides, which helped to support the foot.

Whatever Cleverley’s qualms, his innovation was driven by demand. Social stigma and complicated construction aside, this was a style of shoe that his customers wanted.

Vintage Bespoke George Cleverley Gusseted Slipper (6)
Cleverley easy shoe
corthay brighton

Above, two examples of George Cleverley “easy” (elasticised) shoes, Corthay’s Brighton loafer

In truth, the roguish associations of the slipper (when worn in public) and loafer probably explain their enduring popularity.

Photographer and socialite Cecil Beaton (1904-1980) wore loafers with increasing frequency as he aged. In part, he was concerned for comfort and ease of use, but the quantity of black patent slippers (topped with a flattened bow) that he ordered from shoemaker John Lobb suggests he liked the style, which was uncommon in England before the 1960s. The style was more prevalent in America, which is presumably where Beaton first saw it.

Always keen to embrace avant-garde vogues, Beaton wore distinctive footwear throughout this life, including co-respondents. But being bold was not without problems. In the first half of the twentieth century to remark that a man was ‘light in his loafers’, was to suggest he was homosexual, a crime but more damningly a social stigma that died hard.

If Society once criminalised the loafer, it is probably responsible for its gradual rehabilitation. Once regarded as provocative, even antisocial, time has done much to denude the loafer and slipper of their social toxicity; a man wearing loafers or slippers in public today is more likely to be considered a maverick, rather than malevolent. In part, this is because the loafer has made its comeback in a luxury setting, chiefly black tie soirees, and gained respect by association.

If this style of footwear possesses an enduring roguish quality, it has now also acquired a certain refinement, and with a commensurately high price tag. This is important.

John Lobb Pump patent leather
Gaziano & Girling's patent leather loafers

Above, John Lobb patent leather opera pumps and Gaziano and Girling patent leather loafers

For despite their relative ease of construction and manufacture from a range of materials – many of which are abundant and inexpensive – newly made loafers and slippers rarely sell for less than £150 ($220), a not inconsiderable sum considering their limited practicality, weather vulnerability and distinctiveness makes it unlikely they will ever become a wardrobe staple for men. Of course, it is these very limitations that are establishing loafers and slippers as ‘Veblen goods’, a name derived from the nineteenth-century social commentator Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to explain how people invest money in high cost items of limited utility to demonstrate – or imply – that they have extensive financial resources, and this enormous social cachet.

In turn, this helps to explain why the loafer and slipper are enjoying a renaissance now. The affects of the economic downturn of 2008 are still being felt and the fissure between the wealthy and the rest shows now sign of closing, anything but.

In the wake of the economic collapse, a whole series of Veblen goods flooded the (luxury) market as people tried to show they possessed sufficient resources to survive, socially and economically. More generally, the popularity of the loafer and the slipper is undoubtedly helped by the fact that they elide with the zeitgeist (again, influenced by recent economic turbulence), which is channelling a more individual and relaxed style of menswear.

Sagan+Tri-Pack by Allan Baudoin

Above, colored slippers by Allan Baudoin in London

I suppose all of this means that there is still cause to regard the loafer-wearing man with mild suspicion, for whilst he may appear to be embracing a casual way of living, the chances are, he is making a contrived statement about his financial and social status.

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Benjamin Wild Website

Opening picture : Brighton loafers by Corthay

George Cleverley’s Slippers

Gaziano & Girling Loafers

Allan Baudoin Sagan Slippers

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