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There are dozens of dress shoe styles, which is understandably confusing when you’re trying to buy a pair. This guide will explain the difference in various types and the terminology behind them.
The Oxford is the most common type of dress shoe and was named for Oxford University where it was popularized in the 1800s. Oxford shoes are available in dozens of colors, materials, and styles.
An Oxford shoe has closed lacing, which means that the bottom of the left and right facing are attached to each other. The facing is the part of the shoe where the eyelet laces are located, and tightening the laces pulls the left and right facing toward each other. This is considered a more formal style, but may not be as comfortable because there’s less adjustment compared to open lacing.
The Market Cap (above) uses closed lacing, making it an Oxford shoe.
A Derby shoe is similar to an Oxford shoe but has open lacing instead of closed lacing. With open lacing, the left and right facing are not attached to each other and are instead attached to (or part of) the shoe’s vamp. This can be more comfortable because it allows for more fit adjustment. Traditionally open lacing is less formal, but today most people would be hard-pressed to notice or tell the difference. A Derby is technically different than a Blucher, because of the way the facing is constructed (keep reading to learn the difference between the two).
The Founder (above) is a Derby, because of the open lacing and the way the vamp is constructed.
A Blucher is similar to a Derby, and the terms are often used interchangeably. A Blucher has open lacing (like a Derby), but differs in the way the facing is constructed. On a Derby, the facing is created by sewing a separate piece of leather onto the vamp. With a Blucher, the facing is part of the vamp. The Blucher is named for Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher who invented the style during the Napoleonic wars in the 1800s.
The Royal Scot (above) uses an open lace design, and the facing is part of the vamp, which categorizes it as a Blucher.
A loafer is a moccasin-style slip-on shoe with an open top and no laces. Notably, not all loafers are dress shoes. Casual loafers are often made of canvas or fabric, while formal loafers are typically made of leather or suede. Moccasin-style construction means there is an external seam that goes around the front of the shoe above the toes. Loafers can be worn with or without socks and come in multiple types with different decorations. The fit on loafers is critical because there is practically no fit adjustment.
A plain loafer is a simple slip-on loafer with no decoration or ornamentation.
The penny loafer is the most common loafer variation and has a strap of leather across the vamp with a small slit cut into it. In the mid-20th century, it became common for students to wedge a small coin into the strap, hence the name. The Ivy Legend is a classic example of penny loafers.
The tassel loafer is essentially a plain loafer with a decorative tassel on the top of the vamp, where laces would traditionally be located. Similar to boat shoes, tassel loafers may also have a decorative lace that weaves up the side of the shoe. Unlike boat shoes, however, this lace is not functional.
The bit loafer was invented by Gucci in the 1960s and is sometimes called the “Gucci loafer.” It has a metal “bit” across the vamp, resembling the bit of a horse (a piece of metal that’s part of the bridle, used by the rider to help control the horse.) Some designs will place a strap of leather under the bit, similar to a penny loafer.
The monk strap is a unique shoe that uses buckles instead of laces. Monks traditionally wore buckled sandals and invented the monk strap shoe because sandals didn’t provide enough protection for farming and working in the fields.
Monk strap shoes are available in single or double buckle and often become the centerpiece of an outfit because of the way they draw attention. They may also have other features like brogueing or a cap toe (keep reading to learn about what that means).
Monk straps are suitable for most formal situations and can be worn with a suit, or can be used to dress up a more casual outfit like jeans.
An opera pump is an extremely formal and very specific type of dress shoe. It resembles a slipper with a long open top and a bow tie at the front of the shoe. Opera pumps are typically velvet or patent leather and are almost never worn without a tuxedo.
Brogueing is a style of construction where a shoe’s leather has decorative perforations and “pinking” - typically a zig-zag pattern cut into the leather’s edge. Brogues were invented in Ireland and Scotland to be worn outside while working in the wet peat bogs. The holes in the perforations allowed water to drain from the shoes.
Brogueing can follow almost any pattern, but brogues are typically classified as full, half or quarter brogues based on how much brogueing is present. Brogueing is a type of decoration, not a shoe style by itself, and almost any style of dress shoe can have brogueing. One deterrent is that brogues can be more difficult to clean and polish based on the number of small perforations. (I would not say this is true.
A full brogue is more commonly referred to as a wingtip shoe, where the toe cap extends down the sides of the shoe towards the heel, and forms a “W” or “M” shape above the forefoot. A full brogue also has brogueing throughout the shoe’s upper.
Above: Both the Tipping Point is a full brogue design.
The half brogue is a more formal version of the full brogue. The key difference between a half brogue and a full brogue is the toe cap. Whereas a full brogue uses a toe cap that extends far past the toe of the shoe, the half brogue uses a traditional toe cap that stops at the forefoot. There’s still brogueing throughout the shoe’s upper, but there may be less of it.
A quarter brogue typically uses a very limited amount of brogueing on the toe cap, and may or may not have any brogueing on the rest of the shoe’s upper.
The Market Cap has very subtle brogueing, making it a quarter brogue shoe.
A plain toe shoe has no decoration or stitching at the front of the shoe, instead favoring a smoother leather profile. The Founder is a classic plain toe dress shoe.
A cap toe is a small piece of leather covering the front of the shoe. With most cap toe shoes, the cap toe stops at the forefoot, but it may continue further towards the heel, as it does with wingtips. For a shoe to be considered a brogue (or wingtip) it must have a cap toe (as illustrated above by the Market Cap).
A wholecut shoe uses a single piece of continuous leather for the entire upper, with either one seam at the heel, or no seam at all. Wholecut shoes may be categorized as either Oxfords or Bluchers, depending on whether they have open or closed lacing. They never have cap toes (which defeats the purpose of the wholecut style), but do sometimes have brogueing.
Regardless of the style of shoe, there are several available toe shapes. None of them are more formal than the others, but some toe shapes have style or comfort benefits.
Pointed toe shoes come to a point at the front of the shoe, which adds overall length and can give the illusion of extra length/height. In some cases, the pointed toe can add measurable length to the front of the shoe, which can take some adjustment to walk in.
Square toed shoes have a boxier look and use a flatter front edge. This design can be helpful for people with wide feet because it gives them extra room in the toe box where it’s needed.
Round toed shoes use a rounded front edge that’s also helpful for people with wide feet. A pair of shoes with rounded toes can make the person wearing them look shorter, but they can also be helpful for people with wide feet.
Leather is the most common material for dress shoes because of their versatility. It comes in a wide variety of colors and textures, plus it can be polished to varying degrees of shine. A well-constructed pair of leather shoes will be comfortable and have more water resistance compared to suede or nubuck.
Suede and nubuck are types of leathers where the leather cowhide is buffed or sanded to create a nap-like texture. Suede is created when the inside of the hide is sanded, and nubuck is created when the outside of the hide is sanded. Because of the sanding technique, both will have a similar appearance but nubuck will be a bit tougher whereas suede will be a bit softer. In order to maintain the nap finish, both nubuck and suede require more maintenance than traditional leather. Additionally, both textures perform poorly in wet conditions, making them better suited for fair weather days.
The Bucks are available in nubuck and suede variations.
Patent leather is a unique type of leather that uses a lacquer coating to create a super high gloss finish. The lacquer coating is plastic-like and cannot be polished or treated like traditional leather. For men, patent leather shoes are almost always black and are only worn for black tie events or with military dress uniforms. Women’s patent leather shoes are much more likely to come in a variety of colors.