So what exactly is a loafer and how does it differ from the Moccasin? In this guide, you will learn all about Loafers, different styles and the history of this excellent shoe.
Characteristics of a Loafer
- Laceless shoe.
- Low shoes, i.e. the ankle is exposed, and they do not wrap snugly around the ankle
- Separate sole
- A small heel, often
- The upper vamp has a moccasin-like construction
- Sometimes loafers feature a piece of leather across the vamp, which is known as a saddle
From the above description, one can see the similarities between a moccasin and a loafer. However, there are a few key differences:
- All loafers have a separate sole; this is not the case for the majority of moccasins.
- Loafers have a heel that is missing in a moccasin.
- Unlike separate, loafers lack embroidery, beading or other ornamentation on the uppers.
- Each evolved on different continents.
The last difference is the primary reason these shoes, though similar in many ways, evolved into two separate and distinct types of footwear.
History of The Loafer
Unlike most other shoes, the loafer has many origin stories. One of these is said to be the moccasin, thus adding to the confusion. However, the two most popular, widely regarded and accepted theories are that they 1) evolved from a Norwegian man who hybridised traditional Native American and Norwegian footwear and that 2) they came from an English royal commission of a new form of house shoe. While it may be rather difficult to pinpoint the exact source, what is interesting is the story and journey of its evolution.
For the purpose of clarity, we subdivided the history of the loafer based on types while maintaining a rough timeline.
The Wildsmith Loafer
Across the pond in the United Kingdom, Matthew and Rebecca Wildsmith established a footwear manufacturing business in London by the name of Wildsmith Shoes in 1847. The mainstay of their business was making and subsequently repairing boots for the Household Cavalry, whose mounted unit, the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment, is part of the Monarch’s official bodyguard.
In 1926, their grandson, Raymond Lewis Wildsmith, was commissioned by King George VI, to make a country house shoe that he could wear mostly indoors with his shooting house. Raymond came up with a low-heeled design that did not include laces and which could be comfortably slipped on and off. The construction of this shoe had a lot in common with the moccasin. It is a matter of conjecture as to whether he was familiar with the moccasin or if he came up with the design based on his own in response to the very specific instructions received from his patron. This design soon appeared in his ready-to-wear collection, and it was initially called the 582; subsequently the Model 98. Today they are now known as the Wildsmith Loafer. While they were designed for indoor wear in a casual fashion, they very soon gained popularity and began to be worn as a casual choice for outdoor wear.
The Aurland Loafer
At the beginning of the 20th century, Shoemaker Nils Gregori’s son Tveranger (1874-1953) introduced a loafer in the town of Aurland, Norway. Nils travelled to North America at the age of thirteen to learn the art of shoemaking and spent approximately seven years there. In 1930, he introduced a new design with heels which came to be known as the “Aurland moccasin.” Two sources influenced this design, the first being the moccasins worn by the Iroquois, which he no doubt familiarised himself with during his stay in North America, and the second being the traditional moccasin-like shoes worn by the fishermen in his hometown of Aurland.
He slowly started marketing his design in the rest of Europe, where it became hugely popular. At that time, many Americans began visiting Europe, where they stumbled upon these shoes and took a fancy to them. Many of them, of course, took them back and reintroduced them to America. They came to the notice of the editor of Esquire magazine, who in turn took up the cause of these shoes and hence they began to become familiar to Americans. In the early 1930s, (in 1933, according to some sources) the Spaulding family in New Hampshire sensed a business opportunity and started making shoes based on the Aurland Moccasin. They named it the Loafer which was a generic name for slip-on shoes in America.
Around 1940, industrialist and Secretary of the Treasury Arthur Gardner bought a pair of Aurland shoes. Later, when he was unable to obtain them in the U.S., he made an unusual request to the Norwegian ambassador, providing him with a sketch of the “slippers”. Apparently, Gardner did not know where the shoes were made, but the ambassador recognised that he must have meant Aurland shoes. The local mayor organised production and three months afterwards, four pairs of ”moccasins” were mailed to D.C.
The Penny Loafer
In 1936 (some sources put the date as 1934), the G.H.Bass shoe company introduced its version of the loafer, and the company is known for it to this day. Their design included a distinctive strip of leather (the saddle) of the shoe with a diamond-shaped cut-out. Their version of the loafer was named Weejuns (to sound like Norwegians – a nod to the Norwegian roots of the shoe) to differentiate them from the Spaulding loafer. Weejuns became immensely popular in America, especially among the Prep School students in the 1950s, who coined the term Penny Loafer. Legend has it that they, wishing to make a fashion statement, took to inserting a penny into the diamond shaped cut out of their Weejuns. An alternate theory is that, in the 1930s, two pennies were sufficient to make an emergency telephone call. Regardless, the name stuck, and the G.H.Bass penny loafer has achieved the status of a classic. For more about Weejuns, make sure to visit Ivy Style. In 1937, the American brand Nettleton trademarked the term loafer for “LADIES’, MEN’S, AND BOYS’ SHOES MADE OF LEATHER, RUBBER, FABRIC, AND VARIOUS COMBINATIONS OF SUCH MATERIALS.”
In the 1930’s the Duke of Windsor was a big proponent of penny loafers, and he often wore a brown and white two-tone Penny Loafer with his suits.
The Tassel Loafer
It remains unclear what the roots of the tassel loafers are. Alan Flusser claimed tassel loafers were popular with the Ivy League set in the 1920’s, although I have never seen any article, photograph, ad or illustration from that period mentioning or showing tassel loafers. Truman wore derby shoes with tassels, but he did not have tassel loafers. If you have any evidence regarding tassel loafers from the 1920’s, please leave a comment below!
Based on the evidence we have seen, it seems more plausible that after the end of the Second World War the little-remembered but rather debonair American movie actor Paul Lukas bought a pair of oxfords with little tassels at the end of the laces. On his return to America, he took them to the New York shoemakers Farkas & Kovacs and asked them to make something similar. Not entirely satisfied, Lukas then took them to Lefcourt of New York and Morris Bookmakers of Beverly Hills. Both of them, in turn, and in a twist of fate, sent the request to the Alden Shoe Company. The next President of Alden, Arthur Tarlow Sr., Came up with a slip-on pattern keeping the leather lace and tassel as a decoration. The Alden Shoe Co., realising the potential of the shoe, continued to experiment with the design for another year, finally launching it in 1950 through Lefcourt and Morris stores. The Tassel Loafer, as it became to be called, was a success, finding favour with the sophisticated set of New York and Los Angles. In 1957, Brooks Brothers approached Alden to make a line of tassel loafers especially for them. The resultant design was a tassel loafer with a decorative seam at the back part of the shoe which, to this day, remains exclusive to Brooks Brothers.
The Gucci Loafer
While the loafer grew in stature in America, with the tassel loafer being worn with suits by the 1960s, it was not quite the same story in Europe. In Italy, this style of shoe was more widespread, but all other Europeans considered the loafer to be a casual shoe that had no place in the city. However, things changed in 1968 when the Italian designer Gucci introduced a loafer with a golden brass strap in the shape of a horse’s snaffle bit across the front. Gucci opened his New York office in 1953 and noticed the popularity of the loafer. He refined the lines, added the bit (Gucci has a saddle making history) and made them in black (loafers were usually in brown in keeping with their status of being a casual shoe). The result was a shoe with just enough formality to make it acceptable to be worn with suits. These went on to be named the Gucci Loafer and helped establish the loafer in Europe and across the globe. Gianni Agnelli and John F. Kennedy were just a few of the big supporters that contributed to create the Gucci Loafer. In 1969, Gucci sold 84,000 pairs of loafers just in their U.S. stores. As in keeping with the continued journey of the loafer, it crossed the pond into America where the 1970s businessmen adopted it and almost became a uniform for Wall Street types.
Until Gucci designed this loafer, it was a brand known merely to insiders who appreciated saddles and quality luggage. The men’s loafer known as Model 175 was already designed in the mid-1950’s. Initially, it sold for approximately $14. Subsequently, Gucci developed the Loafer Model 360 for women, and the very similar model 350, which was offered in seven unusual colours. Consequently, the fashion journalist and critic Hebe Dorsey dedicated an entire article to the shoe which was published in the International Herald Tribune and made the shoe an overnight success.
Since 1985, the Gucci Loafer has been part of the permanent exhibition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
The Belgian Loafer
Another favourite style is the so-called Belgian Loafer, invented in the 1950’s by Henri Bendel, whose family store also brought Chanel, Dior and Balenciaga shoes to the U.S. It’s characteristics features were:
- A small bow that was easily recognised
- Soft sole construction – the shoe was sewn inside-out
- Unusual colours and materials
After the Bendel family sold their store in 1954, Bendel purchased two 300-year-old shoe factories in Belgium in 1956 and started producing men’s and women’s loafers. The shoe became an instant hit, and the bow was easily recognisable. As such he single-handedly rescued the Belgium shoe industry, which earned him a Knightship of the Order of Leopold I in 1964. Just six years later he was made Knight Commander of the Order of Leopold II.
Bendel died in 1997, and although the shoes are sold around the world, the only retail store that carries Belgian Loafers is located at 110 East 55th Street in NYC.
Personally, I prefer either a tassel loafer over Belgian loafers or a slipper. As such I have no need to Belgian Loafers, but if you enjoy extravagant shoes, Belgian Shoes may be the right fit for you.
Since loafers are casual shoes, most of them are black or Blake rapid stitched, while occasionally you can also find Goodyear welted loafers. While these are a little heavier, they offer an additional layer of cork, which makes walking in them a bit more comfortable, though the shoe will also be heavier. For casual summer use, an unlined, Blake stitched loafer might be the better choice if you don’t intend to walk much in them. On the other hand, if you are looking for a more robust, multi-season loafer, a Goodyear welted version with leather lining is probably the better choice. Twice a year Gucci releases a new version of their loafers, and while the summer ones are unlined and made of very thin leather, the fall-winter collection is leather lined and made of thicker leathers.
Slip-Ons – Not Loafers
Many men and women confuse slip-on shoes with loafers. As the name suggests, you can slip on the shoe just like a loafer but it lacks the moccasin seam on the uppers and looks more like a regular oxford or brogue. The slip-on is favoured by men who wear business suits when they fly because you can easily pass security and unlike a loafer, it is appropriate with a pin stripe business suit.
This article has been taken from Gentleman`s Gazette.