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A Step Ahead: The Gentleman’s Dress Shoe

by Ralph Napolitano, Jr., DPM, CWSP, FACFAS

Everyday I work with shoes either directly or indirectly in my medical practice.  What we put on our feet (or shouldn’t) is certainly related to foot health.  This blog is a bit longer than usual and takes a slight sartorial detour as we examine the gentleman’s dress shoe and how such shoes relate to foot health.  Ladies: I promise we’ll tackle your dress shoes another time.

I come from an Italian family that has worked with shoes.  My maternal great grandfather was a cobbler in Italy and Brazil.  My maternal grandfather, was a superintendent for the i. Miller Shoe factory in New York, NY that eventually became the Shoe Corporation of America.  Among his usual responsibilities, was personally overseeing the crafting of Mary Margaret Truman’s wedding shoes.  She was the only child of President Harry S. Truman and First Lady Bess Truman.  Margaret had her own, one of a kind “Last” made for her at my grandfather’s shoe factory that was known as the “Truman Last.”  A Last is a 3-dimensional wooden or plastic mold upon which a shoe is constructed.  On an aside, my paternal great aunt was a seamstress for Jaqueline Kennedy, but that’s another story for another blog.  So I grew up knowing the importance of well made, proper fitting shoes and really stress how important this is to my patients.

On to our talk about the gentleman’s dress shoe.  Not a small topic.  There are several “styles” of men’s dress shoes so we’ll keep it simple and will focus on two that are classic, lace up staples that you see on all kinds of men, both young and old, essentially everywhere.  These are the Oxford shoe and the Derby shoe.  An Oxford shoe is characterized by shoelace eyelet tabs that are attached under the vamp, which is the top of the shoe closer to where your ankle meets your foot (fig.1).  This feature is known as “closed lacing” construction.  Originally, Oxfords were plain, formal shoes made of leather, but have evolved into a range of styles suitable for formal, uniform, or casual wear. Function and fashion have dictated the evolution of the Oxford.  Today you see several variations of this iconic shoe.  They may be plain or patterned, with perforations known as broguing.  A couple hundred years ago, these perforations were first and foremost functional additions to a shoe allowing water to drain as one sloshed about through the English country side or similar sloppy terrain.  Today they are strictly ornamental.  In contrast, a Derby is defined by “open lacing” construction.  This means that the quarters, or the panels of material containing the lacing eyelets, are sewn on top of the vamp, rather than under it (fig. 2).  Just like Oxfords, they may be plain or patterned with broguing details.  Shoes with such perforations can also be known as “Brogues.”  To further complicate things, in American English the Derby shoe may be referred to as a Blucher, although technically the Blucher is a different design of shoe where only eyelet tabs (not larger quarters) are sewn onto a single piece vamp.  Tradition dictates that the Oxford is generally more formal than the Derby; However, in sartorial circles in the United States, Derby’s can almost always exchange places with the Oxford when “dress shoes” are required.  Yes, Derby’s pair quite well with a conservative suit in our country.  Exceptions include white tie and semi-formal dress, the strictest interpretation of the latter is also known as black tie.  Oxfords only are paired with such attire (or men’s Opera Pumps, I digress).  Another barometer of formality is ornamentation and broguing that we’ve been referencing.  Simply put, the most formal Oxford and Derby shoes lack ornamentation.  In other words, no additions or modifications such as a capped toe or broguing if formality is the goal.

Fig. 1 – The Oxford Dress Shoe (Source: Business Insider)

Fig. 2 – The Derby Dress Shoe with Broguing Details (Source: The Gentleman’s Gazette)

Another important construction characteristic of the men’s dress shoe, or any shoe for that matter, is how the sole is attached to the upper of the shoe.  The upper is just that, the “upper” portion of the shoe that covers the toes and the rest of the foot.   The cheapest method to do this is cementing the sole to the upper.  The advantage for the manufacturer is cost and speed of construction.  The disadvantage for the wearer is the inability to have the shoe re-soled and, depending on make and model, comfort.  Cemented soles on dress shoes tend to be more inflexible and not as comfortable in general.  Cheaper dress shoes are almost universally constructed in this way.  However, buyer beware: Some more pricey “fashion” brands do this as well and can cost just as much if not more than dress shoes constructed in a superior fashion that I’m going to describe now. The better way to attach the sole of a dress shoe to the upper is by sewing the sole to the upper.  There are two methods to do this: Goodyear welting or blake stitching.  Goodyear welt construction involves stitching a welt (made of leather, rubber or plastic) to the upper and a strip of preformed canvas like a “rib” that runs all around and bottom of the shoe (known as gemming).   This serves as an attachment point for the sole of the shoe.  Depending on technique, this could be the out sole or midsole but we’ll spare you those details.  The machinery used for this process was invented in 1869 by Charles Goodyear Jr., the son of Charles Goodyear, the manufacturing engineer that developed vulcanized rubber.   In 1898, almost four decades after his death, The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company was founded and named after Goodyear by Frank Seiberling.   A shoe with Goodyear welting is a sign of quality shoe craftsmanship.  Such shoes are longer lasting, more robust, more impervious to the elements and may be resoled.  The second method to attach a sole of a shoe to the upper is via blake stitching.   A blake stitched shoe is also a sign of good craftsmanship.  No “welt” is involved.  Therefore, the sole of the shoe is sewn directly to the upper on the “inside” of the shoe.  Like Goodyear welted shoes, blake stitched shoes can be resoled but require special equipment to do so.  In contrast to the Goodyear welted shoe, a blake stitched shoe tends to be lighter and more flexible compared to those that are Goodyear welted.  With all of this said, It should be noted that casual shoes, sneakers and athletic shoes require cementing of the sole with really no work around because of the sole’s material and thickness.

So what does all this mean for your feet?  Time for our medical tie in.  Recall that an Oxford shoe is made in a “closed lacing” manner in contrast to the Derby shoe that uses “open lacing” construction.  In general, shoes with open lacing (Derbys) can more easily accommodate orthotics (which are additional insoles either over the counter or custom made) compared to shoes with closed lacing construction (Oxfords).  Also, people with higher arch feet and wider feet may find Oxfords not as comfortable as Derbys.  Please note that variation certainly exists and what I’ve described is a starting point.  Certain Oxfords can accommodate orthotics and high arch feet.  I’ve seen this first hand in my practice.  The reverse is true as well.  Depending on the manufacture, some Derbys may be uncomfortable for people with a high arch or wider foot. Regarding blake stitched shoes, gentleman that need more flexibility in their dress shoes because of certain foot conditions or foot shape may find such shoes more comfortable.  In contrast, goodyear welted construction can mean more support regardless of insole.  And in general, a Goodyear welted shoe can last longer and take more abuse than it’s blake stitched colleague.

Bottom line is no one shoe type is universally a better fit for a particular foot.  Try before you buy.  And when it comes to better made shoes constructed in the manner as described above, I personally believe you do get what you pay for.

Good shoes will take you to good places… 

R Napolitano 3-19-19 croppedDr. Napolitano is a double board-certified podiatrist and wound care specialist physician. (CWSP).  He specializes in medicine, surgery and wound care of the foot, ankle and lower leg. He was the first podiatrist in the state of Ohio to earn the board certification Certified Wound Specialist Physician (CWSP).

“I strive to educate my patients thoroughly about their problem and offer a comprehensive and holistic treatment plan both medical and surgical.  I believe healthy feet are the foundation for healthy living and will do my very best at all times to keep you active and moving along life’s journey—whatever your interests and wherever your feet may take you.”