This is the second in our efforts to digitize the work of G. Bruce Boyer, whose many fine articles on menswear have not yet found their way onto the Internet. Titled simply “Loafers,” this piece originally appeared in the July, 1982 issue of Town & Country, and was collected in Boyer’s 1985 book “Elegance.”
Boyer was kind enough to provide a few remarks on the piece by way of introduction; they are followed by “Loafers” further below.
It’s been almost a quarter century since this piece was published in “Elegance,” and I read it again with mixed emotions. On the happy side, I think the broad idea of comfort’s influence — footwear serving as a synecdoche — is seen to be truer now than ever. On the less happy side, comfort’s influence seems now to be mostly the only influence.
Not quite true because the overriding rule of fashion is that we will continue to dress like those with whom we wish to be associated. But then of course, why shouldn’t comfort be the overriding concern? The answer to that question is another paper I’d like to present to The Academy of Arts & Sciences some day.
I still think “That Touch of Mink” made a sartorially interesting point, and that Kipling is more right than ever about 49-year-old women. I haven’t seen any stats about what dress shoe is the most popular, but I would still put my money on the slip-on. Will men really turn completely to those hyper-designed sports shoes, even when produced in black leather or dark suede? Most shoes are now made of synthetics.
What continues to surprise me, though, is how conservative we continue to be in our dress, how slowly we change. The style of business dress has changed only minutely in over a century. Only the Medieval cloak seems to have had such a track record in the past 800 years or so of male attire. When we think of all the incredible, unimagined inventions within the suit’s history — radio and TV, telephone, airplanes and cars, computers, organ transplants, superconductors, outer space travel, and on and on — how is it that men are still wearing the same style jackets and trousers and shoes and shirts and neckwear they did over a hundred years ago?
In so thoroughly materialistic a world, it’s intriguing to think that we continue to be intimately surrounded by objects of such incredible symbolic worth.
Me? I’m still wearing my Alden cordovan penny loafers, model #986. — G. BRUCE BOYER
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I’ve often thought that what I would like to do sometime is write an article about all those little touchstones that mark changes in our lives and yet go completely unnoticed, all those unsung but pregnant little moments that signal or symbolize a shift in the old modus operandi. There is one such touchstone in a wonderful scene from the film “That Touch of Mink,” when Cary Grant — paying the familiar international corporate head — saunters into his Madison Avenue wood-paneled office of an average morning. He’s wearing his familiar dark, impeccably cut business suit, white shirt, conservative tie, and black straight-tip oxfords. He is the very glass of business fashion and mold of form.
It’s important that you get this picture in your mInd, because what he does next, coming as it did back in the early 1960s, was an absolute clarion call of liberation comparable in the minds of young executives everywhere to the Boston Tea Party. Grant next removes his suit jacket and town shoes and dons a discreet but obviously very comfortable lightweight cardigan and pair of tassel loafers! Right there in the office!
I realize that today this all has a rather quaint ring to it, but I mention it as an example of those less-than-earthshaking events that mark the road we have traveled. The point is, of course, that until that time this was not the sort of attire a serious-minded man with a correct sense of his own dignity and place in society would want to make his appearance in. Not outside the privacy of his own castle, that is. Casual clothing was still not exactly the thing to wear in the business arena. One of the most prevalent, and certainly picayune, criticisms made of the advisers John F. Kennedy brought to Washington with him was that so many of them were in the habit of wearing sports jackets — which became a symbol of a renegade, intellectual approach they were thought to have taken. Some found it invigorating, others merely brash.
Actually, the sports jackets, the cardigans, and the loafers are telling symbols of both outmoded Edwardian standards of propriety and the rising tide of comfort that after World War II finally reached into board rooms and presidential offices. Even the first-class compartments of planes, which twenty years ago would have been uniformly filled with gentlemen in business suits and ladies in traveling suits and dresses, are awash with unisex jogging outfits. Times have changed.
At the turn of the last century gentlemen were still wearing heavily padded suits, starched collars, top hats and high-buttoned shoes. How terribly uncomfortable, we would think, and yet our Edwardian ancestors did not really expect comfort from their clothing in the degree that we do. Propriety and dignity were all that was available. Gentlemen were supposed to be solid, stolid, and serious if they were to be taken seriously. It was not thought they should be buddies to their sons, and dressing younger than one’s years was a clear sign of dementia. Even the ladies, if one can use Kipling’s poem “My Rival” as evidence, thought forty-nine the perfect age for womanhood. Dignity was in fact antithetical to comfort and it is comfort that differentiates twentieth-century clothing from its predecessors. Because of paved streets, convenient transportation, climate-controlled buildings, a growing awareness of the value and benefits of hygiene, and various technical developments in the production of clothing, our wardrobes are considerably different from our grandparents’.
Today high-buttoned gaiters and crinolines are a thing of the past, and for footwear the past began to end in the first decade of this century. In fact, almost every form of contemporary footwear for men seen today was established in the first ten years of this century. By 1915, for example, the legendary Brooks Brothers catalogue contained practically all the shoe models the store now regularly stocks: patent-leather oxfords for formal occasions, black calfskin wing-tip town shoes, white buckskin, and canvas tennis shoes with rubber soles, as well as black and brown toe-cap oxfords, along with a variety of the more old-fashioned laceup gaiter types that had been in style for the previous several decades. To see these newer low-cut shoes side by side in the Brooks catalogue with the then more traditional higher-cut shoes is to realize immediately that back in 1915 the tide was unquestionably turning — had already turned in reality — and that men were allowing themselves more comfort in their dress. Heavy suits and boots, stiff collars, and high hats were all on the way out. Lightweight tweeds and flannels, button-down shirts and soft golf caps, shetland sweaters and white bucks, had arrived.
The only noticeably absent shoe from that 1915 catalogue is the loafer (a.k.a. moccasin, slip-on, and casual), which is the logical extension of this trend for comfortable and casual dress that marks the current century. The loafer didn’t become popular until the 1930s when, as everyone knows, it arrived here from Norway.
Oh, you didn’t know that? Well, yes, truth is that the loafer (even though the word “moccasin,” of Indian origin, is equally used to name this shoe) is really a model of a Norwegian peasant shoe: a laceless leather shoe of soft construction, in which the vamp (top front part) is sewn to the sides in a single piece, and with a strap over the instep. First worn by Norwegian fishermen, who made it for themselves during their off-season winter months, this casual shoe became popular with Englishmen and Americans traveling in Scandinavia after World War I. Loafers became particular favorites of young men, who by the 1940s made them the predominant footwear on campus. Along with khakis and crewnecks, they became part of the de rigueur undergrad outfit and were known first as “weejuns” (which is of course a corruption of “Norwegian”), and later, as the fad of keeping pennies in the instep slot caught on, as “penny loafers.” There was virtually not a middle-class young man or woman in the United States who did not own a pair of oxblood-colored penny loafers in the 1950s. At Brooks this type of shoe has always been called a slip-on, but the English custom shoemakers (firms such as Maxwell, Lobb, Poulson-Skone, and the rest) are rather traditionalist about it and still refer to it as a “Norwegian slipper,” a generic term for a laceless shoe of moccasin-style construction.
Also in the first decade or so of the post-war period there was an increased emphasis on summer and resort clothing higher wages allowed more people resort vacations and the new slip-on lightweight loafers became an important item in the warm-weather wardrobe, a trend that soon included sandals, rope-soled espadrilles, tennis sneakers, boating mocs, plaited and perforated leather town shoes, white bucks with red rubber soles, spectator-styled black-and-white oxfords, and cloth-and-Ieather casuals. In some cases, where shantung or sailcloth was used, there was an attempt to match up the fabric of the shoe with the trouser or jacket. The era of the casual shoe, which so dominates our own day, had arrived.
None of these informal innovations, however, came close to challenging the penny loafer as the favorite campus casual. It’s perhaps an obvious point to make that even today when the college grad enters the business world he must to an extent change his wardrobe, retiring the penny loafers, tweed jacket, and khakis in favor of three-piece suit and town shoes. The former uniform he relinquishes reluctantly, inasmuch as it has not only accompanied him through so many formidible and exhilarating experiences but also accords him so much maintenance-free comfort. What is perhaps not quite as obvious, though, is that for the comfort-loving American young man there has always been the attempt to bridge the gap between business- and pleasure-wear, the movement in the direction of comfort constantly encroaching on the business end of the spectrum. In the mid-1950s there was a development of the Gucci slip-on. There is no question but that this now legendary shoe deserves its reputation for having revolutionized casual footwear, which is the reason a Gucci slip-on is included in the costume collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum.
The Florentine leather firm of Gucci began as a saddlery in the first decade of this century and quickly achieved a considerable reputation for high-quality craftsmanship, detail, and design. The family-owned firm then turned to luggage, handbags, and other small leather accessories, acquiring more cachet along the way, and inevitably began making high-quality and stylish shoes. The famous Gucci slip-on was actually designed, coincidentally enough, in the late 1930s just about the time “weejuns” were first being seen on campus. Although the original version was constructed of a heavier saddle leather, the design was what it faithfully remains today: a successful effort to retain the comfort of the moccasin while adding the fashion and elegance of a dressy shoe. In short, it was the shoe that first bridged the gap between casual and business footwear. This dressy slip-on was refined with fine, lightweight calfskin, a pared-down shape, and a metal snaffle bit, and as such it became avenue-elegant and gained acceptance in corporate board rooms and country clubs alike.
At the same time that the Gucci shoe gained its first whiff of status, the tassel loafer was being noticed. This casual slip-on was originally the design of the English custom shoemakers, and it was much favored by men who found it a wonderful compromise between the traditional town oxford and the too-casual penny loafer. Also made of expensive leathers and skins, the tassel loafer maintained a small cult following throughout the 1960s, when in the wake of the Gucci success it began to be embraced by more and more men as an alternative to dressier shoes of more traditional styling. Cary Crant’s tasseled soles of discretion were merely a step ahead of general trend. Even the penny loafer has now gone that same exact route, from peasant footwear and campus casual of moderate price to upscaled city shoe. Every good men’s shop now stocks expensive penny loafers, hand-lasted and with handsewn vamps in fine calfskin (with or without kiltie fringe, snaffle bit, striped canvas inserts, or even pennies). In fact, statistics show that the best-selling dress shoe now is the quality loafer, not the dress oxford, by as much as four to one.
While the classic cordovan penny loafers still seem a bit too casual for the board room, a pair of black box calfskin tassel slip-ons is no longer the anathema it once was. There is another advantage to these dressier casuals. A businessman needs a compact wardrobe when traveling, and shoes are notoriously heavy to pack. A lightweight loafer can serve triple duty, worn with a suit, sports jacket, or even jeans if it comes to that. This type of loafer has been known to be pressed into service as beach shoe and bedroom slipper, and it seems to slip on and off easier during those tedious long-distance flights when anything to increase comfort becomes a tender mercy indeed.
The history of the loafer, it seems to me, takes issue both with the opinion that decent standards of dress are melting like butter and the world is going to hell in a hand-basket and with the theory, on the other hand, that we are entering a new age of formalism. What it does simply indicate is that our material lives are potentially more comfortable than were our grandparents’, and that proprieties are perhaps a bit more flexible and subtle than our Edwardian ancestors’.