In The Declaration of Love, Jean-François de Troy’s 1731 oil painting, young patricians flirt idly with one other in a garden. The work is notable for its depiction of the elaborately detailed clothing favoured by 18th-century French aristocrats, but look closely at the young man in the foreground and you’ll see he’s wearing a pair of remarkably simple black dress shoes. It’s a detail that’s easily ignored, and justifiably so—unless you are a man who occasionally wears a suit, in which case the shoe is the part of the painting that matters most.
Fundamentally, men’s dress shoes have changed little in 300 years—and hardly at all in the past 100. By the 19th century, the buckles on our aristocrat’s shoes would have been replaced with laces, but otherwise, they are not unlike the black lace-ups that appeared this year, in Louis Vuitton’s fall 2012 collection. Similar shoes were seen in Giorgio Armani’s fall show, and at Salvatore Ferragamo, and even at Jil Sander, where designer Raf Simons paired them with futuristic glossy leather shirts.
It’s not that black lace-ups are particularly fashionable right now; it’s that they defy fashion. “The toe-cap oxford, the loafer, the wingtip brogue, the plain-fronted five-eyelet Derby—they are all very, very classic,” says Tim Little, owner and creative director of the British footwear brand Grenson, which was founded in 1866. “All of the shoes that I design for the collection are based on the shoes we were making over a century ago.”
The resilience of men’s footwear styles may seem a gift from the ever-fickle fashion gods, but according to Elizabeth Semmelhack, senior curator of Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum, it’s more likely a product of the Enlightenment. “Over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, masculinity and rationality became intimately linked. One way of expressing masculine rationality was to turn away from fashion,” she says. “The ossification of men’s fashion began at their feet.”
If shoes continue to signify good judgment, then no shoes could do this more effectively than those produced in Northamptonshire, England. For well over a century, a range of men’s footwear brands—Grenson, Church’s, John Lobb, Tricker’s and Crockett & Jones, among others—have called the East Midlands region home, producing more or less the same shoes, more or less the same way.
A hallmark of Northamptonshire shoemaking is a technique called Goodyear welting, in which a welt—a strip of material—fastens all the upper layers of the shoe together before they meet the sole. It means the shoe can be resoled without losing shape, and it’s how a pair of Northamptonshire shoes can last for two decades, or longer.
Spending upwards of $800 on shoes that improve with age, can easily be revived when normal wear and tear occurs and will never go out style isn’t merely sensible—it’s good business practice.
Benjamin Leszcz is based in London, U.K. In 2007, he spent 2% of his income on a pair of shoes.