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Black shoes aren't just for the office - three ways to soften the formality of black

Updated: Apr 29, 2021

The black oxford is the de facto office shoe - "no brown in town" claim people with the energy to care about such things, alluding to the unwritten (but still quite enforced in some industries) rule that any City-based job should require black Oxfords.

But for more relaxed wear a lot of people overlook black in favour of its more casually coloured cousin, brown. My own brown shoes outnumber my black pairs 4 to 1. This article will briefly highlight some other options to bring black back into your non-working ensembles.

Leave the Oxfords in the Office - maybe pick up a Derby

The first and easiest step - leave your office shoes for the office rather than trying to force them into a casual setting. Black oxfords with jeans or chinos is just... no. Not a good look. Levels of formality clashing all over the place.

This is because formality is generally defined by fewer design details or components and simpler and usually darker colour palettes. For textile garments, formality is generally reflected in matte textures, although this doesn't really apply for shoes - high polish tends to reflect an increased level of formality, thus the patent black wholecut or slipper is the most formal men's shoe.

Derby shoes have a fractionally more casual feel - the separate lacing facings of a derby compared to an Oxford move it away from the formal end of the spectrum. These John Lobb St James are the only "traditional" black shoes that I keep in rotation, and while they'd do for an interview in a pinch, they also dress down quite well with some olive chinos. To the everyday observer, they would probably still count as quite formal - it's amusing to think even these would be too casual for a lot of stricter City dress codes.

John Lobb St James bespoke derby

Go suede, roughout or textured

Black suede is a massively under-represented material. It provides a very striking tonal contrast, with little of the formal associations of smooth calf leather. It's not always easy to find, but Crockett & Jones and Edward Green have been known to have some models available in black suede. You may also find makers will use contrast stitching or sole-edges to help "soften" the overall effect.

Barker black suede

Roughout leather is probably the next option, offering the matte appeal without some of the care concerns that you may feel stepping out in suede. I picked up these Crockett & Jones Coniston in black roughout recently and absolutely love them - a very soft but durable design that really doesn't need babying.

Crockett & Jones Coniston in black roughout

If you still want something polished, a country-grain or textured leather is an effective way of stepping down the formality levels. These Crockett & Jones Chelsea boots (part of the same Black Editions collection as the roughout Coniston) or these John Lobb apron front derbies both slip very nicely into workwear type outfits.

Crockett & Jones Chelsea XI
John Lobb Aosta

Mix the colours

One of Stefano Bemer's best-known designs was the red and black two-tone oxford (pictured at the front here:)

Stefano Bemer two-tone oxfords

Clearly, it possesses all the poise and elegance you'd expect from such a fine maker, but the addition of coloured suede as a point of contrast plays merry havoc with how formal the shoes are. Justin Fitzpatrick has a model that takes its inspiration from that contrast here:

Justin Fitzpatrick

There aren't masses of makers readily mixing black with other colours - Vass have a couple of stock models, but it's a fine line between eye-catching and gaudy. While clearly on a completely different level of formality, these Meindl hiker boots show that the contrast can work very pleasingly.

Meindl hiking boots

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