And you thought bit loafers were polarizing? Precocious menswear buff Al Castiel III, a Boston University student spending his summer interning in New York in the Paul Stuart custom department, herein offers an ode to the dainty, delicate footwear specimen known as the Belgian Shoe.
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Just off the corner of Park Avenue lies a secret club of sorts, one that rarely advertises its existence and seems to be happily stuck in a bygone era. This club isn’t one of those old-boy institutions (even though some of those clubs’ members are lifelong patrons), but one of a sartorial nature. Earlier this summer I gladly became a part of the “Manhattan cognoscenti” when I slipped on my new Belgian Shoes.
While generally restricted to “post-collegiate” status, I couldn’t resist getting a pair of the soft-soled Mr. Casuals that I had long been lusting after. Yet my embarrassment over purchasing a pair of the luxurious slip-ons was diminished when I learned that Paolo, the younger of my two bosses at Paul Stuart’s bespoke department, had purchased his first pair at the tender age of 20. Marching back to Paul Stuart from my lunch break, newly shod in my Belgians, I proudly joined the ranks of captains of finance and industry, real estate brokers, the New York Social Diary set, interior decorators, and #menswear enthusiasts.
Belgian Shoes was founded by Henri Bendel in the 1940s. Much like with the Bass Weejun in the ‘30s, his goal was to market the Belgian peasant slippers to upper class WASPs. They quickly caught on, becoming a staple everywhere from Palm Beach and the Hamptons to Grosse Point. Every pair is made by hand in Bruges and is only available at their Manhattan store. The slight imperfections in stitching add to their old-world charm. Belgian Shoes come in a vast multitude of materials and colors, from black velvet for eveningwear and burgundy calf for the more conservative, to green lizard or leopard print for the more brazen. Special orders are even available (for an additional fee) for those who aren’t satisfied with the countless color combinations in stock.
After purchasing their soft-bottomed Mr. Casual model (the original model) and thoroughly wearing them down on the pavement, you return to the store and have a rubber pad applied to the shoe’s sole for added durability and support. This increases the shoe’s life considerably and they can be re-rubberized as many times as needed.
I remember the first time I knew I had to have a pair. The summer I turned 17, my parents and I were vacationing on the Cape and visited Nantucket for the day. On the back way to the ferry, I spotted a gentleman wearing a pair of Nantucket Reds, a light blue gingham cutaway collar shirt, and navy blue Belgian Shoes. From that point on, I knew that a pair of Belgians would eventually be on my feet. More recently, my yearning was intensified by observing a khakis and blazer-clad gentleman on 5th Avenue in a pair of chocolate brown Belgian Shoes (the exact same pair I ended up purchasing) on the first day of my internship at Paul Stuart. He also carried a monogrammed tote bag with multiple squash racquets in it, to complete the picture.
Since coming to Manhattan at the beginning of the summer, I have seen a substantial amount of Belgian-wearers on the street. Not a week goes by when I don’t see a pair on a nattily dressed gentleman’s feet in Midtown. I even encountered a young gentleman wearing a pair with beat-up khakis, a polo shirt, and a baseball cap at a pizza place in the West Village. After striking up a conversation about our similar footwear choices, I ended up seeing him a few days later at Paul Stuart. As it turns out he was a regular customer.
The scarcity and polarizing design of Belgian Shoes have given them a cult following, and devotee swear by their comfort and quirky elegance. Menswear author and designer Alan Flusser (who’s rarely photographed without a pair on his feet these days) sang the shoe’s praises in his 1996 book “Style And The Man.” Even though they are inherently casual, many wear them with a suit, including myself. They add a jaunty twist to an otherwise more formal look. The shoes also pair great with white denim for the summer months. I also find myself wearing them sockless with shorts and a Lacoste shirt on weekends.
Regardless of how ostentatious the shoes may seem to many, I have solace in the fact that my feet are insanely comfortable and in good company. — AL CASTIEL III
Castiel runs the website Regattas & Repp Ties. He is pictured above in blue OCBD, white denim, Belgian Shoes, and jacket from The Andover Shop.
Looking sharp – you give me hope for the next generation!!!
Yes, but is it ugly-shoe month at Ivy-Style? Wallabees, bit loafers, and now these? What’s next? Alligator double-monks? I’m going to have to spend a few hours on Crockett & Jones’ website to recover.
Wallabees and Belgians are “ugly” in such different ways!
There’s probably a litmus test where you’re forced to wear one or the other for a day and it reveals your political leanings.
I would be very grateful if you could learn Prof. Boyer’s opinion of these shoes.
Like the Stubbs & Wootton slipper from Palm Beach, these are indeed polarizing. I own the former, but wear them only at home or for black-tie resort wear (a concept that hardly exists these days). As for the Belgians, I have ogled them in the shop and admired them on the feet of friends, but never taken the plunge. I have to admit that they look great on young Mr. Castiel. Perhaps I will start saving up for a pair.
Love ’em or hate ’em, at least Gucci snaffle bit loafers are unmistakably shoes. When i look at these babies all I see are up-market fireside slippers. Can I see G the Bruce wandering abroad in a pair of ’em? I’d rather hope not. But what he does in the privacy of his home is, of course, another matter entirely.
I have only seen one pair here in Virginia on a young fellow was dropping off his daughter at our children’s school. I thought they had a thin leather sole. I thought that I would have a very difficult time pulling these things off being more of a sack suit, Harris Tweed wearing traditionalist. The thing that solidified my feeling was that he was driving a Porsche supercar while I drive a VW station wagon.
I have never been able to decide if I like these; I walk by their shop fairly often and always stop and peer into the window. I guess that when I wish to wear loafers, there are others I prefer.
I too have a pair of the Stubbs and Woottens, Jolly Roger ensign. I wear these only when I am hosting a party.
Dainty. Precious. I’ll pass.
Will — I am a sack suit and tweed (or currently seersucker) type myself. Perhaps my lack of a supercar explains why I have never pulled the trigger on the Belgians.
Vern — Party hosting is the perfect occasion for S&Ws. I have a couple of pairs and some Church’s black velvet jobs, any of which look great for a dinner party at home, but they have not seen the light of day or the high street. A friend has some leopard print Belgians that he wears for an annual black tie party he hosts at his home, but I would counsel against wearing them with a business suit.
Too continental for my taste.
Continental indeed! Nice look Al.
I never thought I’d miss Muffy Aldrich.
I even miss “Richard” of WASP 101.
A pernicious aspect of misappropriated ASP culture is the over use of objects in manners they were never intended to be used. For instance, Belgians and Prince Al slippers were designed for light use (around the house, pool, lounging) not hustling down the lower east side. Those whom we see doing so are engaging in sprezzatura. Keep your Belgians to around the house and only if stepping out of your pied a terre briefly.
P.S. I wonder what Muffy would have to say about Belgians? (sarc.)
Like bunny slippers?