I don’t profess to know a lot about the intimate details of construction and the history of all the respected brands, so don’t expect that from me. What you can expect is an rambling essay on my thoughts on shoes!
Much like suiting, the main thing that appeals to me for shoes is the aesthetic and silhouette, but it was way more aspirational. While I aspired to get belt backs and tweeds in different colors, I only needed shoes to get me to finish off the outfits I wore. I mean, I couldn’t exactly wear brown shoes with a minimal, sleek outfit (where I believe black is the better choice).
As a result, my shoe collection was quite modest for a long time. It mainly consisted of oxfords for formal stuff and penny/tassels for casual, both models in black and brown. Nothing special in anyway, but it got me where I wanted to go. But like with all things, tastes change, and I felt like I needed to invigorate my shoes. I did get a chance to review some loafers and oxfords, and while they were nice, I felt myself drawn to other pieces. After some prodding from friends, I decided to my shoes with a purchase of the Armoury Jubilee, their private label split toe derby. But let’s first delve into where this fascination started.
Until recently, I used to never want bluchers or derbies because they were too “casual”. In fact, I mainly wore tassel loafers for a majority of my everyday outfits (even formal suiting) while oxfords were for “traditional looks”, namely more vintage/period-accurate outfits where loafers would be out of place. But I soon found myself drawn to the shoes frequented by the Drake’s crew. The fact that I wanted to ween myself off from loafers (due none never fitting quite right), made me think that I needed to find a way to get the “effect” of tassel loafers with the ability to lace-up to my desired fit. I found that in the form of the Norwegian split toe.
The Norwegian split toe has been written about from other blogs (like Put This On and Die, Workwear) as the sort of “darling” shoe of classic menswear that some think is a little ugly. Honestly, I used to hate it too, since it reminded me of the orthopedic Rockports that my father would wear, even though they didn’t have the split toe. In fact, those ugly dad shoes turned off any Plain Toe Blucher (PTB) for me; I would only consider cap toe or wingtip derbies and even then, I’d rather get an oxford.
But after Drake’s started posting them all the time (they’re almost on meme status, like their Alden chukkas), my mind began to change. Almost always found in the deep burgundy of shell cordovan, Michael Hill and the rest of his Drake’s crew wear them with everything from odd trousers in chino/flannel to a corduroy suit. I finally saw the beauty: the open lacing evokes a casual vibe (which helps it work with textured fabrics) while the apron and split toe bring the chiseled shape of the tassel loafer to mind. In a sense, it really combines the best of a loafer and a lace-up to make a versatile piece of footwear.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the chunkiness. Firstly, derbies/bluchers and chukkas differ from loafers as the latter has a “lower foot profile; loafers don’t really have a high vamp and expose more of your foot. Now that might be a no brainer, but hear me out. Oxfords take up a lot of your foot, but the closed lacing and brogued designs tend to make the foot appear streamlined, almost like an arrow drawing the eye to your toes. So while derbies have the same general profile as an oxford, the lack of closed lacing and detailing and often make them appear chunkier, as there is much more “plain leather” that is visible.
This chunkiness and more minimal design is what appealed to me most. It’s most apparent in the PTBs, giving an almost rugged feeling to sartorial (or sartorial-casual) outfit. It seems vaguely European and even punk like, since those cordovan PTBs could be seen as a dressier and cleaner Doc Marten. Or maybe I’m just crazy and this is all just me trying to find a way to rationalize why I suddenly just like derbies and bluchers!
Just a note: I’m including the infamous Alden Chukka boot because I think they share a lot of similarities with the suede PTB just in a boot form. They still have that chunky, minimal feel to me, which is right in line with the PTB and NST, but they aren’t inherently boot like thanks to the fact that they sit pretty low on the foot (compared to other boots) While I don’t own the Alden ones (which are unlined), my Loake Kemptons get the job done.
Another contributing factor to my love of chunky footwear for classic menswear, probably stemmed from when I started to look at the P204 Wallabee boot. It has a blucher-esque vamp (similar to a chukka) but a solid crepe sole instead of the typical heel+arch sole you see on any other shoe. While I do love my Wallabees for that odd 70s/casual ivy look, I was intrigued when I saw guys from Male Fashion Advice wear Paraboots. Needless to say, I was really into it despite the fact that it wasn’t worn with outfits that I’d typically wear.
These Tyrolean shoes have the charm of the P204 with a few alterations: the silhouette is more like a regular shoe (rather than hitting near the ankle like the Wallabee) and they have an extremely outdoorsy rubber sole. This subversion (if you want to call it that) makes them appeal to adherents to Japanese workwear, as they function as a “dressy” outdoor shoe. However, the reverse is what appeals to me; I see them as a more casual derby, even more so than the PTB.
Luckily a quick search on the internet gave me some more sartorial inspiration (and confidence if I ever made the leap), though you can see that the Paraboots are best served with either a slim trouser or a cropped wide trouser. Paying attention to silhouette is extremely important.
Almost as a response to the thoughts in my head, Drake’s revealed earlier this year that they were now going to be selling a few select models of Paraboot (along with an exclusive loafer). The Avignon combines the classic lug sole with a NST upper, a detail that will hopefully appeal to more traditional menswear enthusiasts. And if you needed that push, Drake’s definitely brings some great inspiration.
So Let’s Look at My Shoes
Don’t think that I just decided to buy a bunch of bluchers on a whim. For a while, I’ve honestly just been naturally moving away from loafers, as we get closer to fall/winter.
Even though I had always liked the idea of more bluchers, I was definitely hindered by income! Almost all my shoes are from Allen Edmonds since it’s a decent brand with goodyear welt that can be found very affordably on eBay. I paid close attention to the silhouettes since they make both classic menswear shoes and dad shoes. More often than not, their non-oxfords suffered from bad soles and an unflattering last.
However, I did get lucky a few times on the Bay and these shoes have rapidly become my everyday wear. The loafers and especially the oxfords now gather dust.
The Chunky Wingtip
This chunky wingtip was actually my first real blucher. To me, wingtips are more casual than cap toes, which is why I tended to gravitate to these when I was going for “casual” footwear. I did thrift an old shell cordovan pair (Florsheim Imperial) that promptly cracked after a few days but it was replaced a few months ago by an AE burgundy pair (not shell cord). I’m not sure if it’s just me, but these appear to have a really chunky sole, almost like a double welt. As soon as I had these, I was hooked!
I wear these semi-often, with suits/separates and especially with tweeds and flannels. My only real rule is that I wouldn’t wear these (or any blucher/derby) with a DB jacket. It’s weird but I think that DB suits need an oxford and DB odd jackets need a loafer.
The Split Toe
While I had no problem with a wingtip blucher, the split toe was the one that took a little while for me to get around. Like I said before, they really reminded me of a cheap dad-shoe because they were so plain and “fake” split toes are so common on rockports and other orthopedic shoes. Luckily my mind changed after I got to see the NSTs in person, worn by a couple of friends, who swore by them. Now I find them as a great “minimal” shoe that still has enough detail to keep them interesting. You’ll notice that they add a good solid block to the bottom half of the outfit.
Obviously I couldn’t afford to get the Alden or Saint Crispin ones (even second hand). It took me a while to finally get some courtesy of the Allen Edmonds Bradley in a nice chili that sort reminds me of Paraboots. It has a traditional design that has heavy stitching on the apron and split, which makes them similar-ish to the Alden ones. If you’re looking at trying to thrift/eBay a pair, keep this in mind as “smooth” split toes tend to look cheap (at least in my opinion).
I actually wear these quite a bit, more so than the wingtips. The chili color was a bit more saturated than I was expecting (I typically wear dark burgundy footwear to evoke shell cordovan) but it’s meshed well with a lot of separates outfits. I try and take cues from the Drake’s inspiration and wear them with more ivy-leaning combinations, especially with chinos and denim, though I don’t mind them with full trousers.
These later inspired me to purchase a pair of suede split toes from the Armoury. The Jubilees have a more elegant last and fit more in line with a formal combination, which is why they aren’t included in this post. I think that the AE’s get a different job done and are more similar to the Alden PTB.
The 1950’s Casual Blucher
These fun shoes were actually purchased on eBay after seeing it listed on the weekly PTO eBay roundup. According to the listing, these bluchers are from Miner, a Canadian shoe brand in the 1950’s. The pictures showed that they were in perfect condition, with no rotting on the dark brown leather; they were basically deadstock! Intrigued by the rubber crepe sole and the contrast orange stitching, I was able to get them for $60. If you can’t tell, I wanted something to evoke the casualness of the Paraboots and these were similar, just not too chunky or rugged.
They were a little bit big when I first got them, but that was solved with a cheap insole (which is what I usually put into my shoes since I have tiny feet). It’ll took a while to break in and get the leather to soften, but it’s now one of my favorite shoes. Due to the last and casual nature they work best with tapered trousers that are hemmed a bit higher than my norm. They also naturally mesh well with denim!
The Shell Cordovan PTB
When I started writing this, shell cordovan PTBs were just a dream since I didn’t have access to Alden’s. Then one fateful day I came across a listing on eBay: shell cordovan PTBs in the form of the Allen Edmond’s Leeds with a starting bid of $150. In the end, I actually got them for $175, which was definitely a fair price. Sure they were used and need a polish, but that means I didn’t have to go through the hearty break-in process. Upon receiving the PTBs, I knew I was going to be hooked on shell cord.
From first glance, they look almost identical to the Alden 990s Barrie last (which is what you’ll see on the Drake’s inspiration earlier). I’m by no means a brand groupie, so I’m perfectly happy with my shoes. It’s probably the most minimal shoe I own, with a great rounded toe for that casual, almost punk-esque approach to footwear. As you can see, it works great with slightly tapered trousers and denim.
They’ve rapidly become my favorite shoe because of how versatile they are, rivialing my tassel loafers. I haven’t shot them much (because I’ve been busy with other articles and trips) but you’ll see them more soon enough.
I can’t believe it took me this long to get behind bluchers and derbies; you’ll probably have to thank those ill-fitting Loakes (a $250 mistake on my part) that made me reevaluate my loafer future. But while loafers will always be the cool/effortless option for most of my outfits, I appreciate the charm of a non-oxford lace up. It leans more workhorse and doesn’t draw attention to itself, acting more of an “old school” approach too footwear rather than the flashy method done by most. To be quite honest, I can’t even remember the last time I wore a true, closed-laced oxford shoe.
For guys who prefer wearing separates over full suits, I can’t recommend bluchers and derbies enough. Looking back over this article, I realize I may have spent a lot of time over the NST, but you shouldn’t feel like it’s something you have to have. I certainly don’t have a true NST other than my AEs in chilli, and I’m fine with that (for now). A wingtip blucher or a PTB (which I know gratefully own) would be equally great additions to a classic menswear wardrobe that focuses on chinos and denim rather than full suits. I also wouldn’t be opposed to some chunkier styles like Paraboot.
I’m pretty satisfied with my current rotation of derbies and they get most of the vibes I want to accomplish (which is basically just Drake’s inspired at this point). Check out what you can get on eBay; it doesn’t always have to be Alden or Paraboot. Just make sure that the silhouette is up to snuff. I definitely don’t want you guys to end up with some Rockports!
Always a pleasure,