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October 25, 2007

Technology and the Men's Dress Shoe

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The pace of change for men's fashions -- especially attire for formal or semi-formal occasions -- seems glacial. Look at a photo of, say, New York City office workers from 100 years ago. The men will likely be wearing suits. Those suits will not seem greatly different from today's business suits. Sure, shirt collars are not the same and the cut of the jackets is a bit different, especially for the lapels. But the gist of the attire is pretty similar -- more similar to today's suits than 1907 men's dress was when compared to that of 1807, 100 years away in the other direction.

While men's dress-up clothing was changing little, technology wasn't. Wool and cotton have been supplemented by various "artificial" fabrics. One of the happiest days of my life was in the late 1960s when I bought my first drip-dry shirt, freeing me from the expense (as well as the wear-and-tear) of clothes cleaning shops.

In recent years the most striking impact of technology on clothing has been for shoes. On my last trip to Europe I had only one pair of shoes -- the ones I was wearing. Those were a pair of Eccos from Denmark with cleated soles, running-shoe style rubber transition zone and tops made of leather and Gore-Tex. Very practical and comfortable. I could wear them in any weather and terrain I was likely to encounter. Their only failing was on the fashion front and that was because they didn't fit the traditional style expectations for men's dress shoes.

This makes me wonder. Those Ecco shoes are superior in every non-fashion respect to shoes made using the traditional technology of leather uppers stitched onto leather or leather-rubber layered bottoms. So how long will it take for fashion-reactionary males (and that usually includes me) to get with the program and wear running-technology shoes with suits. When will we all dress like Ben Stein?

Maybe never. As I've stressed, we males can be extremely conservative when it comes to dress-up clothing.

Or maybe sooner than one might think. Men also love comfortable clothing. "Casual Friday" long ago became a week-long deal at high-tech companies in Seattle and Silicon Valley. I myself practically live in jeans now that I'm safely retired. (For the record, I draw the line at shorts and short-sleeved shirts of the Hawaiian variety -- much to Nancy's distress.)

While researching this article I clicked through several men's shoes web sites and saw that traditionally-styled shoes still strongly predominate in the "dress" area. Nevertheless, there are inklings of a change: let's look.


Louis XIV - Hyacinthe Rigaud, 1701
He was the Sun King and could wear darned well what he pleased. In this case, silky, high-heeled shoes. Which demonstrates that men's fashions are capable of change.

Allen Edmonds "Park Avenue" model
This is to indicate what men's dress shoes tend to look like these days.

Cole-Haan "Air Conner" oxford
The Nike sports shoe firm now owns Cole-Haan, so bits of running shoe technology have seeped into the line. This is an example of what future dress shoes might look like if new technology finally breaks down resistance to fashion change. This is not a cheap shoe: it lists for $225.

Cole-Haan "Air Granada"
Less expensive ($165) and more running shoe-like: could this be a further evolution away from traditional dress-shoes styling?



posted by Donald at October 25, 2007


>Cole-Haan "Air Conner" oxford

Isn't that just . . . a running shoe with some broguing tacked on?

I'm sure you're right that dress shoes will become more sneaker-like as time goes on. Already, there are those bizarre looking "bicycle toe" shoes. They have leather soles, and they're made with proper leather and all that, but the styling has more in common with casual shoes than with real dress shoes.

As far as the integration of running shoe technology into dress shoes goes, though, I expect it will mostly be the sole. Soles may get a bit fatter and stubbier, to accomodate all the bulk that goes into the padding and so on, and maybe the authentic leather sole will go the way of the dinosaur.

The stylistic bounds of what is acceptable dress wear will probably shift too -- loafers (not opera pumps, suitable for true formal occasions, but ordinary penny or tassel loafers) are acceptable business wear. I wear them regularly, when I have to travel by airplane somewhere, simply because it's easier than undoing oxfords at the security line. But I don't think the dress shoes of the future are just going to be sneakers with some broguing tacked on, unless "dress" as a shoe category simply ceases to exist.

Possible, I suppose, but unlikely.

Posted by: taeyoung on October 25, 2007 7:41 AM

Such a great topic. First reaction: Wow, Louis XIV had something in common with today's heavy-metal rockers. Who knew?

I wonder if it'd be fun to draw up lists of occupations and situations and the men's shoes that are appropriate to them. My own media-biz office is about halfway between casual and businesswear. If you're arty or nonconformist or you aren't on the fast-track, you can wear sneaks and running shoes. If you want to move in the direction of management or even just be taken seriously, you wear nice shoes, though they don't have to be of the Wall Street Master of the Universe type. Me, I go to work in running shoes and change into OK black shoes once there.

Honestly, shoes are one of the reasons I chose (well, fell into) the field I did. I really can't imagine having to go to a job where heavy uncomfortable leather shoes are de rigeuer. I even remember being a kid and handling my Dad's office shoes, and thinking "I'm never going to wear anything like this unless someone holds a gun to my head." How did -- do -- men put up with those gunboats?

I'll wear ritzy shoes to weddings, funerals, and ultra-fancy restaurants. Will I wear them anywhere else? Hmmm. Don't think so. I suppose I'm bringing down the public classiness level a bit ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 25, 2007 8:57 AM

I'll be the first to admit that, contrary to its reputation, formal wear is more comfortable, as well as more stylish than casual wear, but shoes are a giant exception. The sooner the leather shoe goes extinct the better.

Of course, I do hope that doesn't mean that even formal shoes will start looking like sneakers.

Posted by: includedmiddle on October 25, 2007 9:42 AM

I wear wide-width shoes. Which is not a good thing, because even though a significant percentage of the population (I've heard >25%) wears wides, we still face discrimination. Whenever shoes are on sale, you can be sure that wides are not included.

Posted by: Peter on October 25, 2007 12:49 PM

Michael, Michael, Michael -- talk to Donald about the comfort of Eccos! They make the most pleasant-to-wear men's dress shoes I've ever come across -- I've got a pair that are, no joking, the most comfortable shoes I own, including sports shoes, hiking boots, and flip-flops. They feel like the antithesis of heavy and clunky, and they manage to look quite sleek (although no one will look at a pair of Eccos and think 'Italy', I must admit). They also build Gore-tex linings into many of them. This is perfect for all those days of torrential rain we get here in Hong Kong.

I hate to hand it to those Swedes, but they've got a good thing going.

Posted by: mr tall on October 25, 2007 10:07 PM

I'm with Peter on the Wide shoe thing. I wish I was with Donald on the Ecco thing but I can't combine the Wide with the shoe engineering of Ecco. So the Ecco comfort is illusionary to this wide-footed caveman.

I'm also a fossil as far as dress/footwear combinations go. Frankly, Ben Stein's look of suits with athletic shoes looks, well, idiotic. It's a "Look at me" style as opposed to someone on the cutting edge of male fashion. Do I hope dress shoes go out of style? Not a chance. I'm hoping casual Fridays (which are a daily work day thing where I'm employed) change soon. There's a degree of sloppiness in dress that seems to have affected some folks' work output/appearance as well. I'm all for non-constricting wear but casual is too broad of a term. Our H.R. staff spends at least an hour a day doing the fashion police beat getting folks in line. When the creeping underwear look becomes a daily sight at work you know things are going down hill. I've yet to see any "study" showing how relaxed dress codes have helped productivity or attitude. There may have been a blip but the long term affect, IMHO of our own company, is negligible. If anything, a reverse prejudice has arisen. If a woman or man dares to step it up past casual, dissing or heavy-hinting of "Oh, a job interview!" are in play.

So, dress shoes? Keep 'em coming. Personally, I've found if I put out a little more money, say $180-$225, for a dress shoe and make sure I rotate them, their fit is quite comfortable and my morale generally improves. I am not one for imposing a "Dress" day on anyone nor a "Casual" day at work. Just, please, PLEASE!, make sure either choice is not sloppy, not unwashed, and not un-ironed.

Posted by: DarkoV on October 25, 2007 10:49 PM

I really can't imagine having to go to a job where heavy uncomfortable leather shoes are de rigeuer. I even remember being a kid and handling my Dad's office shoes, and thinking "I'm never going to wear anything like this unless someone holds a gun to my head." How did -- do -- men put up with those gunboats?

This is kind of bizarre to me, because my experience is 180 degrees opposite. All the running shoes I have ever had have been these awful clunky things with so many layers of padding it's stifling, whereas some of my leather dress shoes are so light I almost worry they'll fall apart. Part of it is that running shoes have that gigantic puffed up plastic sole, whereas proper dress shoes typically have a thin-sole. There are exceptions -- my brogues are quite heavy, and I know there are a lot of shoes with thick double soles that have an extremely solid, heavy feel, although I don't own any. But those heavy varieties are by no means the only dress shoes out there.

Posted by: taeyoung on October 25, 2007 11:34 PM

Thank god for men like Darko!
When I see a man over college age (or a woman, for that matter) for a first time, and my glance falls on his keds, he's as much as dead in my eyes. This first evaluation never failed me; the guy will inevitably prove himself as untrustworthy, shifty, self-absorbed, nervous type with pretensions, and very probably impotent and porn-obsessed.

The Cary Grants types, on the other hand...

Posted by: Tatyana on October 25, 2007 11:35 PM

"I suppose I'm bringing down the public classiness level a bit ..."

Hmm. Michael, you do realise that if you're one of those men who is tired of seeing women in public wearing a) sweatpants in some form or other; or b) underdressed and with rolls of fat hanging out, you are doing your cause a disservice by wearing running shoes in the street and insisting on the "right" to comfort. If women did that, you'd never see a high heel on a pretty woman again. And wouldn't that be a pity?

The Law of Unintended Consequences says you must be careful not to support and spread precepts you don't want everyone else to follow too. If you want people to dress with restraing and a little elegance, you have to make some sacrifices to set them a good example.

Posted by: alias clio on October 26, 2007 12:48 AM

Thanks, Tatyana.

While we're discussing dress shoes for men, permit me to dovetail to another topic regarding dress. And this harangue goes out to both men and women.

Funerals and Wakes.
What the hell happened to the acceptable dress code at these events? Look, I'm not suggesting everyone should be in their tuxes and their finery. When I've been at the last 4-5 death events, the number of folks, of both sexes, who evidenced the lack of minimal social grace to attend as a show of respect to the family by coming in sweatpants and tops was unreal.

You could tell some of the family members, specifically the older ones, were upset by the "casual" look at these sad events. One guy's drawers were hanging out letting us know he was into plaid in a big way. Some people dressed as if they just came to the event after raking leaves or coming directly form the gym.
Sometimes appearance is all you've got to present yourself with, especially at funerals and wakes where most of us have no idea what to say to folks we've never seen and will probbaly never see again. Maybe I'm way old school (as in "walked through 5 ft of snow 2 miles both ways" old school) but first (and simultaneously last) appearances do matter.

Now, back to the previously discussed topic of Men's Dress Shoes.

Posted by: DarkoV on October 26, 2007 1:24 AM

Kudos to those who hold the line on fashion and standards. I worked at a cable news channel for 7 depressing, casual years and the one thing that changed my mood, aside form getting out of there, was suiting up for work each day. It’s easier to plan a wardrobe, looks more professional and definitely makes you appear more serious. In fact, my wife, who works in a “business casual” environment, becomes enraged when she sees me dress perfectly in the dark.

Whenever I see one of those artsy messenger-bag toting, diesel “shoe” and square eyeglass wearing hipsters, all I think of is patting them on the head. I realize that they may probably make ten-times what I earn, however they simply don’t earn my respect.

Posted by: Matt on October 26, 2007 3:03 AM

I have to second earlier feminine remarks---I think formal cap-toes on men are just downright sexy shoes. Sorry to hear they are gunboats. But they look great!

I haven't been to a funeral in quite sometime---think goodness---but sweats and t-shirts??? You're kidding! Last time I attended, I was surprised simply by how far people have strayed from wearing subdued colors---why would someone show up in yellow or red? But at least they were dressed up.

Posted by: annette on October 26, 2007 3:20 AM

Very interesting topic!

As someone with very difficult to fit feet (e.g., very wide, low arch, right foot is 1/2 size larger than left foot, etc.), I've always had a problem with standard dress shoes. But two solutions that I've found to have worked for me, at least to some degree, haven't been mentioned yet, and I see them as possible ways out of the casual / running shoe vs. dress shoe conundrum:

a) Earth Shoes

b) more individualized shoe lasts

Regarding Earth Shoes:

I've found that for my feet, Earth Shoes (i.e., negative heel shoes) are a very comfortable "mass market" (i.e., non custom made) type of shoe -- and they do come in dress shoe styles. It does seem, however, that even the dressiest versions of the Earth Shoe may not be considered dressy enough with certain kinds of dressy clothing. But still, for people who find these shoes comfortable, as I do, they are still much dressier than running shoes.

Regarding "customized" (i.e., better fitting) dress shoes:

I've found that the particular shape of a shoe's last greatly impacts on my comfort. There is one brand of very expensive dress shoe, for instance, that comes closer to the shape of my feet than other mass market (i.e., non-customized) shoes, and I've found these shoes to be pretty comfortable.

So it seems to me that one possibility for the future is a more computerized shoe industry that is able to offer more customized (and therefore more comfortable) dress shoes at a reasonable price.

For example, there are shirt manufacturers that for a minimum order (e.g., four shirts) make semi-customized dress shirts (e.g., customized neck size, sleeve length, etc.) that are pretty reasonably priced. And I read a year or two ago about a blue jeans manufacturer that was using computerized technology to create reasonably priced semi-customized blue jeans.

P.S. -- This being the season of Jane Jacobs, it should be noted that Jane Jacobs was a big believer in this type of production and writes about it towards the end of her second book, "Economy of Cities," I believe. (I forget the technical name that she uses for this type of production, but she contrasts it with a) craft production and b) mass production.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on October 26, 2007 3:25 AM

Schoolchildrens' clothing has changed a lot in that time. I have my father's school uniform from the 1920s - top hat and tails.

Posted by: dearieme on October 26, 2007 2:43 PM

I will second mr tall's comment about Eccos. They're extremely comfortable shoes, and they make some great rubber soles which while not quite dressy, aren't obscenely athletic.

The reverse snobbery thing that DarkoV mentioned is a real killer in the tech industry. Dress too nicely and you'll instantly be marked as a "suit".

Oh, and taeyoung, you're not the Tae who went to Harvey Mudd by any chance, are you?

Posted by: includedmiddle on October 26, 2007 3:02 PM

I guess I'm at the other extreme: a Silicon Valley denizen who works in shorts and T-shirts, but who manages 15 people on three continents. But when I need to dress up, especially on trips to Asia, I do so. It is a fairly simple protocol: when going to work, I wear "Silicon Valley very casual", when visiting customers, I wear khakis, and when going to Asia, I wear suits.

In the Valley, wearing a suit to work means you've got serious confidence issues. Or you're about to quit because you've been going to job interviews.

But for weddings and funerals, I do wear one of my highly conservative "Tokyo suits"...

Posted by: Foobarista on October 26, 2007 4:10 PM

Have to agree with the conservatives on this. Sneakers are perfectly appropriate in casual settings but the idea that you could somehow cross them with dress shoes to produce something semi-formal is ill-advised and the results are painful to look at. It's a bit like suggesting you could cut jeans like dress slacks and this would make them semi-formal. Amazingly, I think this has actually been done. I have also seen weird hybrids between a blazer and some kind of military-style outer coat--what is that all about? A garment is EITHER one thing OR the other, and each has its proper place.

PS I was going to tell Matt that hipsters don't wear shoes like that, but then I realized that I live with one who does (though he doesn't make any money). Most prefer classic sneakers though.

Posted by: BP on October 26, 2007 4:19 PM

Sneakers don't look dignified or imposing enough to catch on. Neither do most Eccos I've seen. I'm wearing a leather upper / leather sole shoe, and it's only clunky because of the heel -- if you bought some w/o heels, they wouldn't be clunky at all. So I don't see what the big deal is.

If you have to walk a lot, you can buy ones with rubber soles. Many ankle boots have rubber soles and hiking boot technology for comfort -- but on the outside look like other ankle boots.

"Dress" shoes have better technology on the inside as well. None of my shoes look disgusting on the inside, even the few pairs I've had for 5 years. I remember when I wore sneakers up through senior year of college, and after 5 years they would've looked like a science fair project. Leather uppers are also more pliable -- they're skin -- so they fit your foot better and allow for less awkward movement.

Alias Clio is right about setting a good example. If you look particularly above the local average, you will see very quick results, as people get the hint more quickly. I don't do anything snobbish, like glaring about people in sweatpants -- as others have suggested, snobbery (at least for the past 100 years or so) always comes from the inferiors, directed at their superiors, to try to put them in their place.

Re: high heels, though, I wouldn't mind if they disappeared. I don't get what's sexy about them. Unless they're boots, in which case they're damn sexy. Even when the weather allows for both, American women overwhelmingly choose high heels rather than heeled boots. Yeah yeah, more anti-American comments, but still, you can't behold the wonder of a Frenchwoman in boots and tell me we're not missing out on something, as M. Blowhard might say (and probably has said).

Posted by: agnostic on October 26, 2007 7:49 PM

"Re: high heels, though, I wouldn't mind if they disappeared. I don't get what's sexy about them. Unless they're boots, in which case they're damn sexy. Even when the weather allows for both, American women overwhelmingly choose high heels rather than heeled boots."

Damn, high heels. Most young women in New York City prefer to wear flip-flops These days when the weather is 50F or above, no matter if it's raining or not. I'd imagine a woman from Argentina or Brazil might be able to walk sexy in flip-flops, but most Gotham girls waddle like ducks.

Oh, men's shoes. Whenever I wear sneakers I feel like a slob, less inclined to stand up straight. Fortunately dress shoes are much better designed these days. A Swedish company called Born makes particularly attractive and sturdy models.

But lots of men are wearing sandals and flip-flops, too. It seems both sexes in this footwear most entitle themselves to put their feet up on facing seats in the commuter trains, while people dressed better tend to be less rude. Too bad the latter are a dying breed.

Posted by: James M. on October 27, 2007 11:27 AM

Dress shoes or dress sneakers? If you have to ask, you have no class.

Posted by: The Social Pathologist on October 27, 2007 5:04 PM

I lament the state of men's shoes these days. I can't find a decent pair that aren't at least four hundred dollars--and I have a hard time justifying that kind of expense on a sartorial item that's going to fall apart before they should. And those sneaker looking 'dress' shoes seem to be styled for men who can't (or don't want to) grow up. They are ugly. I don't care how practical they are. They make me feel like I'm supposed to want to dress like a teenager again.

Posted by: Robert on October 28, 2007 5:03 AM

Oh, and taeyoung, you're not the Tae who went to Harvey Mudd by any chance, are you?

Yes, yes I am, actually. Uh, who are you?

Posted by: Taeyoung on October 29, 2007 11:29 AM

Tae -

I was a sophmore who shared a suite in Linde with you your senior year. If it helps jog your memory, I was also a fellow Animotion member, and you let me have that painting of a man riding a lizard while waving a red flag emblazoned with a golden double-headed eagle.

I'd give my name, but I don't want Google associating it with my pseudonym. If you care to get back in touch, my email address is buried a layer down on my webpage.

Posted by: includedmiddle on October 29, 2007 12:39 PM

Being a non-native, I am at a loss to figure out what exactly is a dress shoe and what is not a dress shoe. Are there guides anywhere? I live in Silicon Valley, and manage to get by with wearing the cheapies, such as the Florsheims and the Nunn Bushes. To my eye, they end up looking better than tennis shoes on pretty much any pair of pants. I only wear sneakers with blue jeans or shorts.

Posted by: JM on October 29, 2007 2:51 PM

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