How The White-Shoe Law Firm Got Its Name

Now that summer is over and the punctilious will put away their white bucks until next Memorial Day, it’s time to honor the collegiate tradition of wearing scuffed-up white bucks in autumn, preferably with grey flannels.

The fashion gave birth to the term “white shoe,” usually applied to a law or financial firm that hired WASPy guys from elite universities and catered to an Old Money clientele.

In 1997, language expert William Safire wrote an essay in the New York Times on the origins of the term white shoe:

The source is white ”bucks,” the casual, carefully scuffed buckskin shoes with red rubber soles and heels worn by generations of college men at Ivy League schools. Many of these kids, supposedly never changing their beloved footgear, went on to become masters of the universe on Wall Street and in the best-known law firms.

In its early days, the adjective was used in an envious, resentful way by those with less-privileged backgrounds; now it is either a dispassionate description of elitism or a passionate derogation of old-fogeyism. However, some of the nouveau-riche derogators of the old-line firms are classed by a different and more expensive shoe, the loafer with a brass link ornament made by the Gucci firm in Italy. In Washington, K Street, where many lobbyists make their headquarters, is known as ”Gucci Gulch.”

The Economist has also examined the archaic term “white shoe,” noting:

I was tempted to put “white-shoe” on our journalese blacklist, but I’ll hold off, and just file it under frozen terms. There isn’t a great replacement for it. The term used to hint at WASPishness, the kind of place that didn’t promote Jews, but times have thankfully changed. Still, the term wraps up not just prestigious professional-service and financial firms, but big, old, east-coast and fairly traditional ones. It’s faster to write “white-shoe” than “big, old, east-coast and fairly traditional.” So despite the fact that you’re more likely to see casual-Friday khakis than a white pair of shoes on a man at a white-shoe firm, we’ll give “white shoe” a pass.

In “Franny and Zooey,” JD Salinger has a character speak this line, which Salinger wrote in 1957:

“Phooey, I say, on all white-shoe college boys who edit their campus literary magazines. Give me an honest con man any day.”

Tomorrow we’ll present an historic article, kindly provided by Esquire and herein digitized for the first time, that explores the broader use of the term “shoe,” which in the 1950s was slang for the coolness hierarchy on campus, with White Shoe at the top of the pecking order, Black Shoe at the bottom, and Brown Shoe somewhere in between. — CC

20 Comments on "How The White-Shoe Law Firm Got Its Name"

  1. Thanks. Count me as punctilious–I put away my white bucks Saturday morning. The dirty bucks went, too!
    Regards,
    Don

  2. Because of the fact that they murdered my heels, my new white bucks did not get nearly enough wear over the summer, so I will be keeping them in the rotation until it snows.

    The atrocious Gucci bit loafer is ubiquitous in the financial industry as well, where guys love to accent their dress primarily with superfluous metal. The sonic effect of the shoe is akin to the jangling of a spur on a cowboy boot, or more like the jangling of a bell around a cats neck, which is appropriate, as people need to be warned of approaching investment bankers for roughly the same reasons that squirrels need to be warned of approaching cats.

  3. Good story on the term. I love that stuff. I also must say, as a Washingtonian, “Gucci Gulch” is a very apt description of K Street.

  4. As someone who attends an ancient 8 I can remember one occasion when I saw a pair of white bucks and they were worn my buddy’s father who was also sporting a seersucker suite.

  5. ignorancearbitrage | September 6, 2011 at 6:17 pm |

    Interestingly, “white shoes” also appear in Lorraine Hainsberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” when Walter Younger meets with George Murchison (played by Louis Gossett, Jr in the 1961 film), a college student from a prominent black family who is dating his sister:

    “Walter (looking Murchison over from head to toe, scrutinizing his carefully casual tweed sports jacket over cashmere V-neck sweater over soft eyelet shirt and tie, and soft slacks, finished off with white buckskin shoes). Why all you college boys wear them faggoty-looking white shoes?”

    He continues by raising the point that white shoes in the fall/winter Chicago climate are ridiculous.

    Interesting how all the class resentments are condensed in the white bucks.

  6. Interesting post, that I enjoyed. What are some brands of the white bucks?

  7. Hmmm, I always have pushed my usage of white bucks into the fall and usually retire them about the same time as I put away the coloured chinos (mid to late october) I appreciate the knowledge that I am not alone in wearing them past labour day as summer just isn’t long enough.

  8. To ‘Blake': If you’d like a really nice pair of white bucks, you can go with these by Crockett & Jones from Ben Silver:

    http://www.bensilver.com/The-Bermuda-White-Buck,1660.html

    I just bought a pair at half price ($148.00) at Brooks. For as much use as they will get from me, these are fine but they’re going fast:

    http://www.brooksbrothers.com/IWCatProductPage.process?Merchant_Id=1&Section_Id=494&Product_Id=1533388&Parent_Id=305&default_color=White

    Crockett & Jones are made in England and the Brooks version come from China.

  9. Used to wear the white bucks in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, never to the office. I never saw anyone wearing them. However, I never worked for a prestige accounting firm. They indeed were very sharp with seersucker slacks. (I could never get comfortable with the whole seersucker suit.) I quit wearing the white bucks when my sister-in-law rolled her eyeballs at me while I was wearing them, and she worked for Merrill Lynch. Obviously, no one at her office wore them.

    I read that in his early days of golf, (1910’s or 20’s) Walter Hagen wore red soled white shoes for golf. A real dandy for his era, I would guess he wore white bucks. I don’t know whether shoes for golf could be bought with spikes or one had to add them himself. Golf shoes with spikes became popular in the 1930’s. (I believe Johnson and Murphy Aristocrafts were the ultimate. Cheers!

  10. Cool piece. I actually prefer bucks with a leather sole (Alden makes them, for one…) – I know the crepe sole is more traditional, but they barely last two seasons and it’s becoming tougher and tougher to find a cobbler who will resole red, crepe soles…at least near me.

  11. Puff Daddy played Walter in the TV version. When my grandmother saw it she says “He does not need the money.” in reference to Puff. shes 86

  12. Thank God! I finally have a definition for this term, which seems ubiquitous in articles and legal thrillers. I could not imagine ANY lawyer wearing such casual shoes, which seemed to me to go only with a seersucker suit!

    It never made sense to me, but the lawyers I worked for were Senior Executive Service Government types. The most casual shoe I ever saw any of them wear was an eyelet style Oxford!

  13. Then there’s the brown-shoe Army – i.e. pre-1960. In Vietnam, those were our colonels and sergeant majors.

  14. Mitch McDonald | July 2, 2012 at 9:02 pm |

    I long for the day after law school to become a white buck wearing attorney. Until then I guess a buck collegiate I will be.

  15. A US Navy officer wearing brown shoes is a pilot. Everybody else has to wear black shoes (and socks!) with their khaki uniforms.

  16. Henry, I thought the US armed forces all went black shoes after WWII.

  17. MAC,

    Sorry for the late response. I am involved with the US military professionally, and see military personnel (all branches) daily. While most non-boot shoes are black patent leather bluchers (blech), the Navy, as always, does things differently. In the Navy, pilots wear brown shoes with their khaki pants & shirts, while everyone else wears black shoes & socks with the same outfit. (Pilot’s socks match, more or less, the pants.) Pilots (and flight crews) may also wear leather jackets. Everybody else has to wear black fabric bomber jackets with their khakis.

    Black and khaki: what an awful combination!

  18. All black shoes (and accessories) were mandated by Secretary of Defense McNamara in the 60s. Navy aviation did not comply. As a Marine, I had to replace all of my brown belts, sword frogs, chin bands, visors, gloves as well as oxblood shoes with black. The expense of replacement was borne by the individual. The Secretary’s response was, “Buy black dye”.

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  20. Today’s NYTimes makes reference to white shoe law firms for Christie so I guess it is currently used…….

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