Observe the terminals,” Frank Lloyd Wright once said, speaking not of architecture but of clothes, “they are the most important.” He was right, and especially right about men. A good suit is reassuring – even beautiful – but people examine the perimeter more closely. So it’s a shame that our culture’s slide into pretentious informality has all but taken away the main tools for decorating the head, hands and feet. Hats, except for the most informal kinds, all but disappeared decades ago. The tie is showing clear signs of going the same way. On the wrists, cufflinks grow rarer too, and those most commonly seen are often wearyingly self-conscious and arch (skulls, Monopoly pieces, little bulls and bears). Watches are in the ascendant, an opportunity generally squandered on huge, sporty models that make sense, aesthetically and practically, for astronauts and deep-sea explorers but not for the intervening altitudes. The remaining refuge of the stylish man? His shoes.
It is not a coincidence that the British shoe industry is experiencing a renaissance. Simon Bolzoni, the last-maker at custom booter Foster & Son, says his company is having a great year. Until recently, he says, “shoes had become just accessories – but they are not. They are the foundation of everything.” Look at a man’s shoes, Bolzoni says, “and you know everything about him.”
Let us look, then, and see what we find. A walk around the City of London, where there are as many good shoes per block as anywhere in the world, is a good place to start. You will note that a certain conservatism still reigns – among the young, not the old. Plain black Oxfords with black socks and a dark suit is still the uniform of a twentysomething banker on the make. This is unsurprising, as young bucks must prove that they fit in. Loake does well as the entry-level Real English Shoe. The cliché of “no brown in town” still applies too. One longtime City observer put it to me succinctly: “Brown shoes are fine if you are a foreigner. The persistence of British snobberies is due to their flexibility. Even slip-on shiny shoes are perfectly acceptable, if you are Italian.” My friend also notes that if the young man has some sense – and works in a customer-facing role – he won’t polish his shoes too carefully. “Super-shiny shoes are spivvy. The best salesmen don’t look like salesmen.”
It is the older bloke who is more likely to risk more casual Derby shoes rather than Oxfords. This is not just because the Derbys, with their open lacing, are more comfortable for his ageing feet. Rather, he knows the rules, but has made enough money – or at any rate hung on long enough – to ignore them. (He has a pair of black Oxfords, of course, from John Lobb if he’s done more than get by, but he need not wear them out of obligation.) His suit might be more interesting too.
The hedgefund types with offices back in Mayfair are so rich that they might not wear socks with their suede loafers, which fit with their chinos and plaid sport coats with unstructured shoulders. They look good, in an “I pay a personal shopper” sort of way.
Loafers have become more prevalent in the City because they make airport security checks easier. The consultant’s matte-black laceless shoes signal his status as a road warrior.
The question of socks is a tricky one. Men’s choices here often defy logic. The fine-gauge silk or wool black sock remains the standard. But as the walls have closed in around men’s style choices, the pressure to say something with socks has increased. Brightly coloured versions can now reflect a certain level of seniority, or at least indifference to rank, in the same way as moving beyond black Oxfords does. The Catholic Church, which knows something about style, has long appreciated the sock’s power as a symbol of rank, with priests wearing black, bishops in purple and cardinals in red. So colourful socks are more common among older men. They are also more likely to wear knee-high socks; Mr Bolzoni calls them an “addiction” among aficionados. They feel great and they stay up. The latter feature means they look more formal and correct. Your lawyer should wear knee-high socks. Patterned socks are, in general, a sign of bad judgement. They distract from the shoes, which ought to be the main attraction. A man who matches his socks with his tie – or, God help us, his pocket square – is vulgar and precious and probably works in journalism or some similarly hopeless trade.
That guy in tassel loafers can only be an American, whatever socks he has on. His nationality, once again, gets him a pass. This forgiveness does not extend to bit loafers, which are without parallel a way to say “new money”. The man with shoulder-length hair strolling by in Chelsea boots is British enough – works in the media, though, or has made enough in finance to retire before he turned 50. In any case, he’s divorced and watches his diet, which helps him to squeeze into those slim-fit trousers.
But what about the high-end sneaker (Common Projects perhaps) worn with green socks and Japanese denim? He’s the techie (recently redubbed a “data scientist”) who works for a portfolio manager – a hierarchy that he expects to invert within a year or two. He not-so-secretly thinks that grown-up shoes are for suckers. His girlfriend of six months secretly wishes he would grow up.