Shoe Formality Hierarchy

What makes a shoe more, or less, formal is defined by three major factors:
1. Color
2. Surface Smoothness
3. Style Complexity

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Each of these factors has about equal value, and can contradict each other in defining the formality of a shoe.

Let’s start with color first, since it is the most obvious at a glance.  The formality of color holds true in both clothing and shoes.  Black is the most formal and light browns the least formal.  This is partly based on the old axiom that city colors are monochromatic while country colors are earth tone.

Shoe colors that fall outside black, brown and cordovan, such as greens or purples, are considered novelty colors in men’s shoes.   The shade of the color also determines formality, with darker colors being more formal and lighter colors being less formal.

The next factor is surface smoothness.  In this case we are talking about the leather material the shoe upper is made of.  The smoother the leather surface the more formal, and the more texture the surface has the less formal.

Since patent leather is the smoothest leather it is the most formal.  And, since suede has the most texture it is the least formal.  The only exception to this rule would be shell cordovan, which is smoother than calf skin, but considered less formal than calf skin.  Exotic skins like crocodile fall between cordovan and suede in formality.

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It is important to note that fancy and formal are not the same thing.  This is why some shoe novices think that a wingtip shoe is more formal than a cap toe shoe, which is simply not true.  To explain why this is not true let’s look at the third factor which is style complexity.

The amount of decoration and/or seams on a shoe determines its formality.  The less decoration and or seams the more formal the shoe.  The more decoration or seams the less formal the shoe.  Typically a cap toe shoe has less decoration and seams than a wingtip shoe (although not always).

Loafers, as a rule, are considered less formal than lace up shoes, with one main exception: The opera pump (also known as a court shoe).  The opera pump is a whole-cut slipper made of black patent leather, with a short vamp (which defines it as a pump) decorated with a grosgrain bow.  This shoe should only be worn with a tuxedo or true formal attire.

Other aspects of style complexity to consider is Oxford style (closed lace) versus Blucher style (open lace).  Since the blucher style requires the quarters to overlap the vamp it adds more seams and complexity to the style, therefore causing the blucher style to be less formal than the oxford style.

Monk strap shoes are actually a style of blucher (although the monk strap existed before the term blucher was used), using a strap, rather than laces to pull the quarters closed over the tongue.

Clearly, all of the factors that define the formality of a shoe exist in every shoe in different and sometimes conflicting ways.  For example a brown calf skin, wingtip, blucher would considered similar in formality to a black suede, cap toe, oxford; each having varying aspect levels of formality.

Wet Shoes are Bad

It’s that time of year again when most of us have to run, walk, or stand in the rain at one point or another (Fall in the northern hemisphere and Spring in the southern hemisphere).

As a child, jumping in and running through puddles had a certain allure. But do you remember what your mom did with your shoes when you got home? Neither do I, because I simply didn’t care: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”.

As a man, not only do you understand how to appreciate nice things, you should know how to care for them as well.

In reality there is no way to truly waterproof your shoes without ruining the leather, or wearing goulashes. However you can protect the leather from incidental exposure to water by adding a protective coating to your shoes (this is commonly referred to as waterproofing).

There are only three types of protection you can apply to shoe leather:
1. Oils
2. Wax
3. Silicone

Most spray protectors contain silicone, which is believed to dry out the protein bonds in leather, so I would avoid using waterproofing that come in a spray can.

The two most common oils used for waterproofing are neatsfoot oil and mink oil. Mink oil is used more commonly than neatsfoot oil.

When using oil as a protector keep in mind that oils like mink and neatsfoot can darken the leather to some degree. Also note that some mink oil mixtures made for waterproofing contain silicone and should be avoided.

The most common wax used as a protector is beeswax. Products like SNO-SEAL use beeswax (they also have a silicone product, that I would suggest avoiding for shoes).

Since most paste shoe polish contains a high ratio of wax to oil (usually beeswax), I tend to just add a couple extra layers of paste polish this time of year. On shoes I know I will be wearing in the rain and/or snow (not my best dress shoes), I will add some mink oil when conditioning the shoes.

While applying a protector to your shoes is a prophylactic procedure, you also need to know what to do once a shoe has gotten wet.

First and foremost, do not try to force dry a wet shoe, that will do more damage than anything else you could do short of throwing them into a wood chipper. This means don’t set your shoes next to the heater vent, or dry them with a blow dryer. Setting them on a sunny stoop is ok. Mostly just let them air out in normal room temperature.

Some people suggest stuffing the shoes with newspaper while they dry. This helps absorb the water and gives the shoe leather some support as it dries. If the shoes are not too wet you can just use the shoe trees you normally have in the shoes (you do have shoe trees right?).

Once the shoes are dry again they should be conditioned with leather conditioner/oil and, if desired, waterproofed again as well.

If shoes are left damp for a length of time (a couple weeks, or even a couple of days if the conditions are right) they can develop mold spores which are almost impossible to get out of the shoe leather.

While some suggest using vinegar to remove mold, it simply does not work on shoe leather. Because Leather is acidic to begin with any mold that thrives on an acidic substrate will not be affected to any great degree by the acetic acid in vinegar. A chlorine solution is about the only way to kill mold spores in leather, and I wouldn’t suggest doing that to your shoes unless you are an expert with chlorine.