Vintage shoe trends for men
Aug 22, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
As I’ve shared before, I have a devoted appreciation for a good old murder mystery – especially any story where Poirot is on the case! Hercule puts the detail in detail-oriented and his disciplined lifestyle naturally extends into his fashion choices. His spats are always gleaming white (despite the mucky circumstances he may find himself in during the course of an investigation). Hercule’s obsessive attention to appearance got me thinking – I may be fairly informed about the trends in women’s shoes – but what are some of the vintage shoe trends for men? With Poirot bravely leading the way, we’ll investigate a trio of trends…
Spats (short for spatterdashes or spatter guards) first became trendy in late 1700s England, but fell out of favor by the time the Jazz Age came into full swing. While their original purpose was to protect shoes and socks from environmental muck – these accessories made of white cloth or brown felt soon became the sign of a distinguished gentleman. For a brief period of time even the well-heeled women donned spats, but the look never did catch on for gals. (I mean, if you spent so much time and money on embellished shoes, you want them to be seen and envied by the public not hidden under cloth, muck or no muck!)
Some fashion critics blame society’s increasing informality as the killer of the spat, but others blame a royal culprit – King George V to be precise. Much like his grandma, Queen Victoria, George was a trendsetter and anyone who was anyone in London society followed his fashion lead. In 1926 the King shocked the fashion elite by abandoning both his frock coat and his spats during the fashion event of the season – the Chelsea Flower Show. Several attendees reportedly discarded their spats right then and there, leaving a street fairly littered with these once noble pieces of fabric. A sad day for the spat, indeed!
But perhaps the biggest reason for their falling out of favor is just as utilitarian as their original purpose – by the early 1900s society had come a long way in “cleaning up the streets.” I mean that quite literally – better sidewalk materials and less horse-reliant transportation meant going for a walk wasn’t the dirty endeavor it once was. These days the modern spat is confined largely to military ceremonial displays.
The origin story for the preppy standard in shoes – the penny loafer – is a bit mysterious. Rumor has it that in the 1900s students traveling abroad observed Norwegian fishermen wearing a moccasin-like shoe and this fateful observation gave birth to the penny loafer. Another version gives a feature article in Esquire magazine this honor. The records get a bit fuzzy on how either the magazine article or the eagle-eyed students met and inspired a budding shoe manufacturer in America by the name of G.H. Bass, but by 1936 the penny loafer debuted to the American consumer. (Some researchers give a New Hampshire family first dibs, crediting them with making a loafer for dairy farmers inspired by their Norwegian peers.) G.H. gave his version a long title: the Bass Weejun Penny Loafer (the Weejun part was a nod to its Norwegian lineage).
The design included a slot at the top of the shoe – now whether this was a purposeful design element (inspired by the morning kiss his wife bestowed on him) or a happy accident – we don’t entirely know, but that little groove was the perfect place to store a penny. Why a penny you may ask? Well, believe it or not, a phone call during the 1930s would cost you one penny. Just like our fellow fashion trend, the spat, the penny loafer was not only a bold look adopted by the most fashion-forward of gents, but it also had a practical side!
By the 1960s the penny loafer experienced a resurgence in fashion and even though the cost of a phone call had increased to a dime (or two), the loafer did its duty. Many of our modern shoe designs stand on the shoulders of the penny loafer and, much like the spat, women embraced this originally masculine shoe. However, where the spat fell out of favor with the female consumer, the penny loafer has largely maintained its status as an equal opportunity fashion staple. Next time you enjoy the ease of a slip-on shoe, be sure to give Norway a quick thank you!
Blue Suede Shoes
The iconic status of the blue suede shoe proves the enduring power of music (and the awesomeness of fate!). While everyone knows the Elvis hit that immortalized these kicks, you may not know that he wasn’t the first singer to tell tale of this footwear. Our story starts innocently enough in a cafeteria line. But this wasn’t just any diner – the patrons included Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Being observant gentlemen, when a fellow diner called out to “not step on my blue suede shoes”, they instantly saw the potential for a song. Fast-forward to a night in a dance hall, Perkins noticed a patron voice concerns over his feet being stepped on (seriously, was this an under-reported crime wave back in the day??) and he thought back to that lunch shared with Cash. Later that night in 1955, he wrote the tune. While Perkins did make the first recording, Elvis is credited with making it the hit we know and love today.
When the youth of the world heard this blending of fashion and music, the blue suede shoe became the trademark for the rebellious teen. What’s interesting about that is before the hit song, suede shoes were seen as particularly unmanly when worn by the general public (although their origins are actually based in the military). Talk about the power of perspective! As Elvis belted out this ode to footwear, young men all over the world abandoned their ties and suits and donned these simple shoes for a night of dancing with their favorite gal. Another fun fact about the iconic stature of this musical / fashion movement, the song was the first country tune to cross over into rhythm and blues and pop charts.
When we consider these vintage shoe trends for men, it’s fun to see that what may have started out for the boys soon became adopted by the girls. Kind of a cool trend in and of itself, particularly when we recall that in vintage times the lines between the genders were quite defined. Remember the riot Coco caused by designing pants for a woman?! What I also love, and it’s perhaps shown most vividly in the last trend we discussed, is how intrinsically connected shoe culture is to fashion and society’s expectations. Women were heavily scrutinized for their fashion choices (the flapper girls showed us that), but it seems men were also judged by their choices – all the way down to what they put on their feet! Let us know in the comments if there are other vintage shoe trends for men you’d like us to research and in the meantime, take a page from the playbook of the vintage man and make bold choices with your footwear!