What Are Formal Shoes, Anyway?

what are formal shoes

Wearing a sneaker with a suit would have been a huge sartorial faux pas in the past. However, as the rules of dressing are being redefined for the modern era, the sartorial conditions are relaxed enough that no one actually has to wear formal shoes but chooses to wear formal shoes!

And so it’s hard for many to think much about what makes a true dress shoe, knowing it isn’t a benchmark anymore! And, well, that is why the role of dress shoes fades into the background. But as you are reading this article, we suppose you are interested in dress shoes. 

Writers and sartorialists often wax poetic about their favorite pairs of dress shoes, but not much has been said about “what a dress shoe is?” Understanding dress shoes would actually stimulate that much-needed pull and enhance your enjoyment of pairs that has remained an afterthought your entire life. 

Here at BestShoe99 studio, a cadre of editors, who have chosen to make “formal shoes” a big part of their life, are very much into inspiring a lifelong love of dress shoes. Chances are that you may never see dress shoes the same again, so if you prefer to maintain your blissful ignorance, it’s best to stop reading now.

What Constitutes A Formal Shoe?

Is it the ostentatious spending on any masterpiece commissioned in Black leather, or investing in unique pieces associated with John Lobb? Is it a concept rooted in Patent pumps and lace-ups? Or today, in a formally relaxed world cluttered with sneakers, athleisure, and logos, is it something that’s not a Jordan?

Well, it might depend on whom you ask. The English introduce their children to formal shoes at an early age. For ’em, anything other than a patent black leather opera pump (a.k.a formal pump or, in the UK, men’s court shoe) dilutes dressiness. 

Those of us raised outside a suit-wearing country approach the subject rather differently. Any slim silhouette in darker colors is good enough to enhance the appeal of a formal outfit. In fact, the ethos of a dress shoe ranges from country to country.

They are all fine examples of what formal shoes should look and feel like, but there are some century-old rules around what makes a true dress shoe. Whilst some of these may be open to interpretation, most agree that for a shoe to be considered formal – it needs to be black, heeled, and simple in design.


A Slender Profile

what are formal shoes

The formal shoe is so named because it’s designed to enhance the appeal of a formal outfit. While one may expect a dress shoe made for formal occasions to feature flashy characteristics, the dress shoe subverts this expectation. 

While the existing order of the day calls for flashy complications—for brands to showcase their distinctness in fine shoemaking—actually a dress shoe is commissioned to complement one’s best clothing, rather than outshine them. Dress shoes tend to be slender, elegant, and understated. 

This approach inspires all parts of the dress shoe, from the materials of the upper to the construction method. In dress shoes, complexity doesn’t suggest hard work and diligence. Neither any huge clumpy aesthetics would elucidate the dressiness of quintessential formal shoes that quietly commands attention.

The slim and simple peculiarity of dress shoes takes equal if not more time and dexterity to come to life. After all, when there is nothing to distract the eye – everything is on the material and craftsmanship to form something that exudes minimalistic charm while still being powerful enough to upgrade formal attire. 


A Black Dyed Leather 

what are formal shoes

Wool, wood, canvas, denim, rubber, or even plastic bottles—there’s actually nothing that a shoe can’t be made from. Though most men will recognize the sense of dressiness a black leather dress shoe evokes.  

In its 5,500-year-old shoemaking heritage, leather has molded not just our feet but our society in many profiles. What began as the only material to wrap around the foot has evolved into an opportunity for kings to show off their social status. 

It is not a tradition to craft dress shoes from leather, even suede and other fabrics joined the ranks of favorable materials. However, the world has yet to find a more formal and dressier alternative to leather. Leather naturally oozes dressiness. 

Despite leather’s execrable workability, best dress shoemakers still choose quality leather over everything else as they are unique in its ability to combine durability, understated appeal, comfort, practicality, and beauty (that enhances as it ages).  

If there is anything that sets the formality level of leather—it must be the color a hide is dyed in! Before 1950, leather was coated with lacquer for the typical glossiness of the dressiest pumps. Consequently, a well-polished calfskin became an acceptable alternative. 

Among the endless variety of colors and combinations that leather can be dyed in, no other shade would have sent such a clear message of dressiness like one dyed black.

There is nothing about black that inherently signifies dressiness, but unlike red and green, which represent specific wavelengths of light, black isn’t exactly a color; it’s what we see when an object absorbs all visible wavelengths, putting black in the subtlety that formal attire demands. 


Closed Lacing And Heel

what are formal shoes

Pumps, still, are a distinctive part of the dressiest attire… to those who can afford to commission a bespoke pair that fits like a second skin. In the ready-to-wear venue, shoes with a close-lacing system emulate the intensely sleek profile of the dressier pumps.  

The facings of those shoes fully incorporate into the upper as quarters are sewn under the vamp. The facing opens very slightly but gives the shoe a dressier appearance, which is why Oxfords are generally worn with a suit or straight pants, as they visually extend the length of the leg. 

Now there is nothing to say that a casual piece couldn’t have a “closed” lacing, however, an inch-thick heel, along, would display a distinctive formal design.

Designed by the Persians in the 10th century to keep shoes in the stirrups, but since owning horses was a symbol of wealth, heeled shoes came to signify status.

After many rounds of boycotts (as a reaction against heels’ perceived feminization), and being rocked by rockstars—the inch-thick heel is still very much part of formal identities, however, anything higher will raise a rough, rocker aesthetic.


The Finer Points Of Formal Shoes

Dress shoes are always presented with certain details to complement the dressier vintage mood of the leather piece. While broguing can be seen as a fancy and luxurious dress shoe detail, they aren’t for a traditional dress shoe.

There should be no excesses—no extra decoration that could cause distraction or extra features where it appears that there’s too much going on the shoe. As a general rule of thumb, the more broguing on the shoe, the less formal it is. 

The whole point of having a single (black) leather outsole is to complement the slimmer silhouette and sharp lines of the overall shoe design. Yet, the thickness of a single leather-soled shoe ranges depending on how the sole is attached to the shoe.

A single leather sole on a Goodyear welted shoe is sewn onto the welt, so if you look from the side you see two layers of leather. However, the top layer of leather instead of the welt is a thinner midsole, while a welted shoe has that single leather sole which is enough to fulfill the criteria. 

Apart from the thickness, how close the sole is trimmed to the shoe either kills or keeps the formal charm alive. Anything kept too wide, to actually allow more space for the outsole to be sewn, ruins the sleek profile of the dress shoe. 

The “Culture” Placed Details

what are formal shoes

A shoe, that manages all the stringent rules we’ve listed so far, could be believed “formal” with a grain of salt! We’ve mentioned earlier that “what constitutes a formal shoe” might depend on whom you ask. Despite universal agreement that what a typical dress shoe should be like, there have long been intriguing geographical variations.

A pair with a Cap-toe (an extra piece of leather added across the toe box) could feel strongly like the dressiest shoe in the Middle Eastern, African, and Asian context. While European shoemaking famously acknowledges the plain-toe oxford, in black patent leather, as the number one choice for evening shoes for black tie and white tie.

The much wider evening shoelaces—made with fabric (mostly velvet) that will match the black bow tie—is another unimpeachably European bit of kit and, while flat waxed laces, woven from 100% cotton, around 2.5 mm wide, would be dressier enough to uphold the formal look for the rest of the world. Not better, not worse, but definitely different.


The Care

So these are some very stringent rules when it comes to rounding up dress shoes. Some of ’em might be not purposeful but subtle reminders of the shoes’ formality. While there can be certain exemptions, there’s always room for interpretation. But unlike a suit, dress shoes’ canvas is not blank enough to express yourself. 

Proper shoe care and consistent shoe shining spells do allow a dress shoe to be personalized. However, pairs in patent leather would confiscate any possibility of doing things your way. But as the rules of dressing are being redefined for the casual era, today, patent leather will look especially flashy in many circumstances. 

Though a graciously buffed calf leather will peacefully command attention. Even if you go bespoke—which apart from ensuring a perfect fit, allows you to work with the makers for other personalized touches—it’s the mirror shine that actually reflects the shape and lines of the shoe’s last, whether that’s accenting a chisel toe or the sweeping lines of a classic almond toe. 

Apart from fulfilling the growing desire for exclusivity; by shining a dress shoe, you are actually shining the formality of that shoe. In fact, you can’t appreciate the dressiness of a black cap-toe oxford immersed in dirt and dust. A formal shoe’s dressiness elevates with the right care and attention. 

It also shows that you care. Putting time and effort into something can clearly be seen in the results of a shined pair of dress shoes, and this reflects positively on you, too. A mirror shine shows you approach the formal attire with care and purpose, honor traditional pieces and invest time in ’em. 

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