Most rarely think about it, but in many cases there are practical, utilitarian reasons that shoes look the way they do nowadays, and we’ve been used to it and think it’s the right and beautiful way. Learn the historic functional reasons why we have derby shoes, a lot of brown shoes, built-up bevelled waists, natural sole edges on workwear boots and why rugged boots have high toe spring and sleek dress shoes low toe spring.
For most, there’s just two types of classic lace-up versions, the oxford and the derby, and that’s that. Oxfords are more formal, derbys more casual. Most know that derbys are better if you have a high instep, but this is actually also the reason that the shoe model exists. Now, as always when one go back far in history things become vague, and there’s certainly been sort of derby style shoes with various versions of open lacing way back in time, but if we look at the “modern classic footwear” and the foundation of the derby shoes we see today, one are pretty sure why it came about.
We are in the first half of the 19th century, and the 14th Earl of Derby, Edward Smith-Stanley, who had a high instep, he hated wearing the closed lacing boots that were standard of the time. He had open lacing boots made which could easily handle his high feet, and since then, the open lacing footwear has been known as derbys. The fact that it’s seen as a more informal shoe is since it, also mainly for functional reasons apart from fitting easier things like slightly better water resistance (especially if gusseted tongue) etc, relatively quickly became the standard for military boots and leisure footwear, e.g. country shoes, which were worn on weekends out hunting and similar.
I’ve been writing more thoroughly on this topic before (read this article here), that the reason we see so many brown leather shoes, and brown leather products in general, is due to the fact that the main tannins used for about 5,000 years was from brown bark from trees. Since leather is much more complicated to have coloured than fabrics, in general it was mainly various types of brown that one only saw leather in, basically all the way up until the 1500s when a new effective colouring method was discovered using logwood to dye black, which quickly became popular and made black regarded as a formal color, which remains true still today. In 1800s both chrome tanning and aniline dying was invented, and it’s basically only since then that one was able to colour leather easily into any colour imaginable. But by then we were so used to seeing shoes in various types of brown leathers, with black especially for formal occasions, that it still lives on today and is perceived as “right” by the human eye.
Built-up bevelled waists
First of all, we should define what I mean with a built-up bevelled waist here, since there’s so much confusion on this (read this article which clarify things on square, bevelled and fiddle back waists). We talk about slim waists with rounded, bevelled edges and a built up rounded or ridge shaped (what one often call fiddle back waist today) bottom of the waist, with or without a blind welt edge (when the welt and upper part of sole stitch is covered by the sole). So basically not necessarily what historically would be defined as bevelled waists (which always were blind welted), but what is often today. Again, read the article linked to above to have the definitions clarified and historically correct ones explained.
When one back in the days started slimming off waists to enhance an elegant look of shoes, it became obvious that the shanks of leather or wood one used to stabilise the waist wasn’t always enough, especially if the waist was very narrow and if the wearer was a rather heavy man. So, if you remove material on in one direction, width, one could add in another direction, height, to keep same strength. One therefore built up the waist higher with more layers of rigid leather all the way in under the heel, which created the roundness (later also sometimes shaped into a ridge in the middle). This wasn’t visible when wearing the shoes, so the actual build-up didn’t have an aesthetic purpose, only functional to give enough strength to be able to do the waists very narrow, which was the aesthetic thing one was after. Today, we love also the look of a heavy build-up under the waist, but back in the days one in general wasn’t as superficial to care about things that didn’t really show. Also, with the strong metal shanks we have today, one can have very slim waists which aren’t too built up as well, even if it’s never a bad thing with the extra strength.
Natural sole edges on workwear boots
During the first half of the 1900’s various types of heavy work spheres – factory workers, loggers, miners, navvies etc. – took over and / or re-developed different military footwear and created what we today talk about as traditional workwear boots – like service boots, engineer boots, moc toe boots and so on. In military boots were commonly reddish brown, especially in the US where it wasn’t until late 50’s that black military boots became common, and standard was to have a dark dye on the sole and heel edges. When workers wore these types of boots one soon noticed how much all the scratches and dents shown on the edges, with the light brown coloured veg tan leather underneath being displayed. Hence, one stopped dying the sole and heel edges and left them in a natural colour, which made marks less visible (this also became more common on brown military boots as well, the boot in the top photo is the last American service boot style, introduced in 1943, where edges were natural). And today, this is how we picture this types of boots, the natural edges are standard even if most who wear workwear boots today don’t really use them the way they were used back in the days.
High toe spring on rugged boots and shoes – low toe spring on sleek dress shoes
If you look at most sturdy, heavy boots and casual shoes today, the toe spring (the height of the tip of the toe above the ground) is rather high. It’s seen as the natural look for this type of shoes, and comes from the functional fact that when one did heavy footwear with thick soles – usually super thick insole, thick midsole and thick outsole – it’s a shoe that won’t bend easily. So, to not have to force the wearer to bend all these layers in every step, one raised the toe spring meaning that more of the curve the shoe needs to have when taking a step is already there. Nowadays, even if the soles aren’t necessarily that thick at all times and outsoles could very well be of softer rubber compounds, it’s still the normal style with rather high toe spring on casual boots and shoes.
This is a bit of a curve ball, the part on the low toe spring dress shoes, since here the historic base of this is not really of actual functionality – but the opposite. It originates from the desire to intentionally show that ones footwear weren’t functional. Because essentially, to have a shoe that is comfortable to walk in, you have to have some toe spring, otherwise the whole front part of the shoe will sort of clash into the ground at once, making for a very uncomfortable and non-natural step (trust me, I’ve tried shoes with zero toe spring, and it’s shit to walk with). But, if you were a very rich person in the the 19th century, who had staff to do all the work for you, and all you basically had to do was sit around, have drinks and smoke cigars, you wanted to show this. One way of doing it was to wear shoes with super thin soles, to show you didn’t have to be walk outside, and with no toe spring, to show you didn’t have to walk at all. And as we know, back in these times most looked at the most rich and influential to mimic what they did, which is why the classic dress shoes also for “regular people” were developing this look, so a low toe spring is seen as neat and correct on dress shoes still today (also of course the thin sole and lighter shoe in general makes it work better with low toe spring as well). Thankfully not zero toe spring though, functionality did indeed win over vanity here.
Such an interesting read!
Rob Dunton: Glad you think so, cheers!
i was researching about today and came across your website-great collection of high quality
Faizan Kazmi: Thanks a lot!
Hm, vegetable tanning is only proven to exist since +/- the 3rd century BC. Other tannages like brain/oil/smoke tanning are way older of course – I guess that is what yourefer to above. Also note that shoes existed in bright reds and greens in Pharaonic Egypt, and white, black, red and purple shoes are mentioned in ancient Romane literature. Nice specimen in red, white and black from late antiquity are known from the Coptic era of Egypt. In short, colored leather was around a long time before 1500.
Martin Moser: Correct on the tanning agents, rephrased now. On colouring I know it was done way before 1500, but brown was the clear standard, that’s why I write “in general it was mainly various types of brown that one only saw leather in, basically all the way up until the 1500s when a new effective colouring method was discovered”.