In the novel Men at Arms, author Terry Pratchett illustrates how buying cheap shoes can actually cost you in the long run, with what he calls the "Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness":
"...good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that'd still be keeping his feet dry in ten years' time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap [ten dollar] boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet."
Pratchett may have been writing fantasy satire, but his point about footwear still holds true. Although, good luck finding a $50 pair of boots that will last ten years today!
We took a look at men's dress shoes to see how men can get the most quality for their dollar at any price point, narrowing it down to two main features of the shoe. Read on for our men's shoe buying guide, and be sure to check our shoes page for all the latest, best shoe deals.
Material: Some Leathers Age Better Than Others
Men's dress shoes are generally made of leather. There are several different types of leather, but most dress shoes fall into one of two groups.
Full Grain Leather: This has been minimally treated, and the surface ("grain") is pretty much the same as when it was on the cow, including any imperfections. Full-grain leather ages well (with proper care), developing a natural patina. The best shoes are made of full-grain leather, but that premium comes at a price.
Corrected Leather: This kind of leather has been sanded down to remove imperfections, and an artificial grain has been applied and coated with sealant. This surface can look nice in the store and is stain resistant, but it feels plastic-y, and will quickly crease and even peel off with normal wear. Most shoes, even some relatively expensive ones, are made with corrected leather.
How to Tell the Difference Between Leathers
Corrected leather looks monochromatic (exactly the same color across the whole shoe) and overly shiny, and feels very smooth and plastic-like. Full grain leather has deeper color, some texture, and feels leathery.
However, the easiest way to tell might be to look up the shoes online. High-end manufacturers won't hesitate to tell you that they use full-grain leather (the same goes for construction, below). Shoes of corrected leather will just say "leather," or might try to use catchwords like "genuine" or "top-grain."
Shoe construction generally refers to how the sole is attached to the rest of the shoe. Again, there are a few different kinds, but we will focus on the two most common.
Goodyear Welted: This form of construction is the gold standard. Invented by the son of the tire namesake, this particular way of stitching the soles to the uppers is supposedly the most durable and yet breathable, and the easiest to resole, which extends the life of the shoe for a fraction of the cost of a new pair. (There are other kinds of stitching, but unless you're really into expensive shoes, don't worry about them.) But the labor-intensive demands of Goodyear construction mean these shoes will be much more expensive.
Cemented: The cheaper alternative are cemented shoes, which are held together with adhesive. The vast majority of shoes are cemented. They cannot be resoled, and will probably last from a few months to a year or two with regular wear.
What Type of Shoe is Right for You?
As you might have guessed, Goodyear welted, full-grain leather shoes are the most expensive, least common, and generally best quality shoes. On the other hand, cemented, corrected leather shoes are (or should be) the least expensive, most common, and are of lesser quality. Cemented, full-grain leather shoes can be found sometimes, although we've never seen Goodyear-welted shoes with corrected leather.
Your choice of shoes depends entirely on your budget, needs, and the deals you can find. You can only spend as much as you have; and if you only wear dress shoes for special occasions, then even a lower-quality pair could look good and last for a while.
What You'll Get at Different Price Points
Up to $100: In-House and Discounted Mass Market Brands
Matthew Simko, a fashion blogger and editor at style site Chubstr, was thrilled to discuss his finds in this range, citing two department store in-house brands. Staffords at JCPenney has leather oxfords that retail for $59.99. "You can't beat that" for list prices, says Simko; though over atNordstrom, he recently found a pair of their well-made 1901 shoes for just $40 with a coupon. (They normally go for about $100.)
This is also the price range to get deals on corrected leather, cemented shoes that can often sell for much more. We've seen Cole Haan oxfords for as little as $49 in the past year, and sitewide sales for the brand including 50% off clearance items. Meanwhile, DSW (which stocks Cole Haan and similar brands) has knocked up to 85% off clearance items in that same time. At those prices, these shoes might be well worth it.
$100 to $300: Mid-Range and Second Hand
In this price range, style consultant Grant Harris of Image Granted recommends Florsheim,Johnston & Murphy, and Bostonian: "For what they're offering, they provide a quality product." But he cautions that on the high end, these brands can cost almost as much as better brands. Luckily, we've seen dress shoes from these brands on sale for up to 75% off and for as little as $32 in the past year.
This is also where you can begin to find some full-grain leather, Goodyear-welted shoes. Some "disruptors" like John Doe, Jack Erwin, and Beckett Simonon are shipping such shoes for as little as $135 (up to about $200), though availability is limited.
In this budget, you can also look for factory seconds or used pairs on eBay from some of the heavy hitters, like Allen Edmonds, Alden, and Loake. We often see deals on Allen Edmonds, and have seen a welted shoe from them starting at $118 in the past year.
$300+: An Investment for Frequent Dress Shoe Wearers
If you wear dress shoes every single day for work, consider this price range as an investment. Buy a new pair from Allen Edmonds, Alden, Meermin, Loake, or others, and with proper care they could last you for decades.
Shoe Maintenance is Crucial
"The biggest factor [in shoe durability] would be more dependent on the wear and care as opposed to the price tag," says style consultant Alice Kim, founder of Veritas Image Management. Though she admits shoes are limited by their quality and construction, Kim says "a lower-end shoe will last quite some time if the wearer is mindful to take care of it like he would any high quality shoe."
What does that mean?
- Clean and shine your shoes regularly. This will help keep the leather supple and free from cracks.
- Use absorbent shoe trees after you wear the shoes. These will take up moisture (sweat) and help the shoe keep its shape.
- Have more than one pair of shoes, and try not to wear the same pair more than a day or two in a row.
What are your favorite dress shoes? Have you found any brands that offer great longevity for their price? Let us know in the comments below.
This article first appeared in DealNews.