THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO
MEN’S BOOTS AND CLASSIC SHOES
In our increasingly globalised world, men’s fashion has boomed. Yet with greater choice comes a whole host of confusing sartorial rules and terms – we’ve come a long way from the go-to jeans and sneakers ensemble. But for those among us who couldn’t tell a Derby from a Brogue, we’re here to help you navigate the complex, seemingly inexplicable world of men’s boots and shoes.
This article is the first instalment in our series and focuses on men’s boots. We commence our guide with a quick voyage through the history of boots and shoes in general. Armed with this account, we’ll walk you through the various leathers used in shoe making as while not adequately recognised in the mass market, leather is pivotal in the look and feel of your boots and shoes - defining the character of your footwear and determining how and when you should wear each pair.
Thoroughly briefed on the leathers typically used in a high-end build, we’re ready to then start talking about the style. Every silhouette has a history and a strict code of conduct. Where should you expect to find an Oxford shoe? What factors make up the beautiful Brogue? What’s the difference between a Chelsea Boot and a Sneaker Boot? We answer all this and more, offering insight into the different types of footwear so you know what suits a semi-formal affair and what styles are best reserved for a casual Saturday lunch.
A brief history of boots
Etched into the walls of Spanish caves from as early as 12000 BC, boots have transcended classes and cultures across the world for thousands of years. In ancient times (where the population predominantly went barefoot), men’s boots were considered a symbol of power and military status. Adorned and ornately finished, they were worn by emperors and kings, emphasising the significant class distinction between them and their subjects.
In Australia the history of boot making is inextricably linked back to the first penal colonies. Due to the unfamiliar terrain and harsh conditions faced by the convicts, men’s boots wore out quickly. As such, some of the first shoemakers in Australia were convicts who established themselves as saddlers and leather tradesmen upon release. It wasn’t until the 1840s that the first hard wearing boots were purpose built for the Australian climate. Soon quality leather was more readily available and settlers stopped sending to the UK for their shoes. Pre-WWI, boot making boomed in Australia – a far cry from today where just 12% of footwear bought in Australia is manufactured locally.
The different types of leathers for men’s footwear
Men’s classic shoes are diverse in style and use, thus demanding different leathers for different occasions. Here we break down our favourite leathers for better understanding of their unique characteristics.
Quintessentially American, Bison leather is a beautiful, highly durable material from the American Buffalo (or Bison). Noted for its distinct natural grain, the Bison fibres are substantial and widely spaced, leading to a soft and resilient handle. Water resistant, Bison leather was traditionally used to clad teepees and today is crafted into everything from wallets and bags to men’s designer shoes. Due to its marginal tanning process, the Bison’s unique grain design is preserved and thus no two Bison products are the same. As the hides are not stretched to the same degree as cowhide, the leather is also up to 40% thicker and stronger - ideal for making men’s boots.
Living in alpine terrain across Asia (found predominantly in China and Tibet), the yak thrives in harsh and rugged environments, resulting in a hide that is significantly denser than cow leather. Traditionally used to produce hand crafted shoes and boots, yak hide reveals distinct markings and a crazed grain texture in its treated leather. However, despite the tough and highly insulated nature of this material, yak hide is also surprisingly supple, lightweight and breathable. It’s for this reason it’s perfect for use in men’s boots.
Cordovan, also known as Shell Cordovan, is a highly sought-after leather produced from the shell (or flat muscle) at the bottom of a horse’s hide. Exceedingly nonporous, the leather’s fibre is tightly packed with no visible grain structure - making for a high-end build quality in men’s designer shoes. Very durable, this leather is known for its excellent moulding characteristics, a glossy patina and for the fact that it does not crease. However, the natural vegetable tanning process is only conducted in a handful of tanneries around the world and is a labour-intensive practice that takes about 6 months. As such, genuine Shell Cordovan is hard to come by and certainly not produced in high volumes.
Accounting for 65-70% of the world’s leather production, cow leather is encountered frequently across our day-to-day lives. Durable, tough and flexible, it’s considered the most versatile hide. Used in the production of soles and shoe uppers, it conforms to the unique shape of the foot that wears it and as such is widely considered an excellent choice for men’s footwear.
Traditionally worn and used by the Sioux Indian, Deerskin strikes an interesting juxtaposition between its supple, incredibly soft handle and its very stretchable, robust fibres. In fact, Deerskin is the third strongest leather known to man so while the tanning process is tedious and challenging, the finished material is incredibly soft and insulating, moulding to the wearer’s body over time.
Noted for its exceedingly fine-grain texture, calfskin is incredibly soft and light. While appearing quite delicate, this leather is still durable and so it is used widely in producing fashion accessories. This is also why it’s considered a favourite in designer wares and hand crafted shoes.
Roaming the South African plains, the Kudu’s (an Antelope-like creature) reversible suede and leather facing have traditionally been used for upholstery, though today it’s also recognised as an ideal material for apparel. Given the thorny environment in which the Kudu lives, its leather is known for scars and scratches that contribute to its unique character. Silky to the touch, this light yet tough leather is considered quite exclusive within the apparel industry, so will be most commonly found in hand crafted shoes and accessories.
The most important styles of men's classic footwear
Regardless of if you’re dressing for the 9 to 5 or smarting up for a formal event, there’s a men’s boot out there for you. Whether you’re looking for a lace-up half boot or zip-sided number, the key to finding the right pair comes down to a couple of factors; style, type of leather and build quality. The best men’s boots will find the perfect balance between each of these components.
Featuring back quarters that are sewn on top of the vamp, the Derby is known for its open lacing construction. This look, a slightly more casual affair to the Oxford, was popularised in the mid 1800’s. While the history of the Derby is ambiguous, each theory draws from the same concept: comfort. Due to this shoe’s open lacing system, the Derby comfortably accommodates most foot shapes and sizes. As such, many say the style was an evolution of the Oxford or the traditional boots for those seeking reprieve from high insteps and unusually shaped feet. You can find our bestselling Derby (constructed from black cordovan) in the men’s boots section of the A. McDonald store.
Distinguished by what is known as ‘closed lacing’, the Oxford shoe is often considered the more formal cousin of the ‘derby lace-up’. Popularised in the late 1880s by students at Oxford University, the dress shoe was soon increasingly worn by men and women of high society - favoured for its comfort and elegant sense of style. Traditionally the Oxford is known for its simple silhouette, however through the ages shoemakers have designed them with toecaps and brogued wingtips for interest. Just as popular today, this timeless style suits all manner of looks – paired perfectly with a sharp suit and tie for more formal occasions or on the weekend with tan chinos and a casual shirt. The A. McDonald Beauford Oxford is one of our most popular styles and effortlessly worn to Monday’s meeting and beyond.
Originating in Scotland where men had holes drilled in the side of their shoes to allow them to drain as they walked through marshes, the humble Brogue has come a long way. Renowned for their punch-hole design along the shoes leather upper, the brogues perforated pattern today serves decorative purposes only. Broguing is crafted using pinking shears or a sewing machine’s gimping tool and while it’s often found in Oxford or Derby styles, you won’t typically see a loafer or slip-on with these iconic holes.
When researching the best Brogue to suit your needs, there are a number of designs to select from. The first is the Quarter Brogue, the simplest design and best suited to formal occasions. The Semi-Brogue features slightly more detailing and would be worn for more casual affairs. Finally, there is the Full Brogue (also known as Wingtips in reference to the W shape at the toe) and the Longwing Brogue where the tip reaches down the side and broguing is featured across the whole shoe. The A. McDonald Oxford Brogue is a classic style reinterpreted for the modern world.
Featured in most wardrobes, the Chelsea Boot has stood an icon for generations. Designed by Queen Victoria’s cobbler in the early 1800’s, the boot features a high ankle and elasticised sides for an easy slide. Initially worn for paddock walks and riding activities (and so dubbed the ‘Paddock Boot’), they were quickly picked up by the Chelsea society at the time. In the mid 60’s, the boot was adapted to include a Cuban heel and popular bands such as The Beatles were oft seen wearing this style. Depending on the leather used, this versatile boot can be worn to all manner of events – anything from a formal meeting to a family barbeque. Check out this helpful article that explains the details of this famous boot and also know that R.M. Williams make some of the most well-known Chelsea boots around.
Designed for optimal support and ease of access, the Zipper Boot features a teethed zip on the side or rear quarter of the boot. Crafted to take the form of your leg, the silhouette is best constructed from a soft and malleable leather to allow the leg to move freely. We often use a mustang horse leather upper for this pattern, as seen in our Zip Sided Boot in burgundy mustang.
Drawing inspiration from the classic sneaker silhouette, the Sneaker Boot is something of a hybrid design. Constructed from all leather upper, lining and sole, the boot features an elevated heel and sole – known for its chunky, robust impression. Typically made from bison or cordovan, this boot needs a durable, textural leather to bring out the rugged intention of its style. A great example of this is the Sneaker boot as created by the A. McDonald studio. Constructed with a welt stitch, the design integrates multiple pieces in an asymmetrical manner to juxtapose with its environment.
And there we have it; your comprehensive guide to men’s’ boots and classic shoes. Equipped with a solid understanding of common leathers and the diverse, often complex, features of different men’s boots, it’s time to have a bit of fun with your styling. Consider the guidelines that society has drawn, but remember that great moments in fashion often stem from throwing the rulebook out the window. For inspiration, or a custom design, take a look at the A. McDonald online store where each boot is painstakingly hand crafted from quality leathers for a truly unique finish.
We hope you’re feeling far more confident as you prepare for your next event. We want you pounding the pavement with an air of conviction and a comfortable sole. This is your comprehensive guide to men’s classic footwear, sitting here whenever you need reminding of the fibre density in Shell Cordovan leather or the lacing system applied to the Oxford boot. And if there’s anything we’ve left amiss, feel free to get in contact with the A. McDonald studio for a chat.