Loafer Guide

The Ultimate Loafer Guide

In this series on men’s footwear we have previously presented a guide to Moccasins and the Driving Moc, which is related to the Loafer but not exactly the same. So what exactly is a loafer and how does is it different from the Moccasin? In this guide, you will learn all about Loafers, different styles and the history of this popular shoe.

Penny Loafers by Rancourt

Penny Loafers by Rancourt

Characteristics of a Loafer

  1. Lace less shoe.
  2. Low shoes, i.e. the ankle is exposed and they do not wrap snugly around the ankle
  3. Separate sole
  4. An (often low) heel
  5. The upper vamp has a moccasin-like construction
  6. 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.

  1. All loafers have a separate sole which is not the case for the majority of moccasins.
  2. Loafers have a heel which is missing in a moccasin.
  3. Unlike moccasins, loafers lack embroidery, beading or other ornamentation on the uppers.
  4. Evolved on different continents.

The last difference is the primary reason why they, though similar in many ways, evolved into two different and distinct types of footwear.

Weejuns in the 1960's - a symbol of elegant leisure

Weejuns in the 1960’s – a symbol of elegant leisure

History of the Loafer

Unlike most other shoes the loafer has many origin stories. One of these is also said to be the moccasin thus adding to the confusion. However the two most popular, widely regarded and accepted theories are that they evolved from a Norwegian man who hybridized traditional Native American  and Norwegian footwear and from a English royal commission of a new form of house shoe. While it may be rather difficult to pinpoint the exact source what is really 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 roughly maintaining a timeline.

Wildsmith loafer in brown with Moccasin construction and typical saddle

Wildsmith loafer in brown with Moccasin construction and typical saddle

The Wildsmith Loafer

Across the pond to the United Kingdom, in 1847, Matthew and Rebecca Wildsmith established a footwear manufacturing business in London by the name of  Wildsmith Shoes. 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 which he could wear indoor mostly with his shooting hose. 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 that he came up with the design on his own in response to the very specific instruction he received from his patron.  This design soon appeared in his ready to wear collection and was initially called the 582, and then 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 in popularity and began to be worn as a casual choice for outdoor wear.

The Aurland Loafer from Norway & Hand Drawn Moccasin Model for Reorder by Gardner

The Aurland Loafer from Norway & Hand Drawn Moccasin Model for Reorder by Gardner

The Aurland Loafer

At the beginning of the 20th century, Shoemaker Nils Gregoriusson 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”. This design was influenced by two sources, 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 extremely 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 back home. In the early 1930s, (according to some sources in 1933) 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, the 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 recognized that he must have meant Aurland shoes. The local mayor organized production and three months afterwards, four pairs of ”moccasins” were mailed to D.C.

Crockett & Jones Penny Loaffer Model Boston in Scotch grain calf on a classic Last & Variation Mertin on a more modern last

Crockett & Jones Penny Loaffer Model Boston in Scotch grain calf on a classic Last & Variation Mertin on a more modern last

The Penny Loafer

In 1936 (some sources put the date as 1934) the G.H.Bass shoe company introduced its version of the loafer, which to this day the company remains known for. 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 extremely 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 two pennies was sufficient to make an emergency call in the 1930s. Regardless of the theory 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.

Bass Weejuns - Made in Maine Reddish Brown & Olive Green

Bass Weejuns – Made in Maine Reddish Brown & Olive Green

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 though I have never seen any article, photograph, ad or illustration from that time 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!

Alden Tassel Loafer

Alden Tassel Loafer

Based on 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 character 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 fully 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 on the request to the Alden Shoe Company. The then 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 favor 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 Horsebit Loafer

The Gucci Horsebit Loafer

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 or John F. Kennedy were just a few of the big supporters that helped to establish 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 it was adopted by the 1970s businessmen and almost became a uniform for Wall Street types.

Up until Gucci designed this loafer, it was a brand merely known to insiders who appreciated saddles and quality luggage. The men’s loafer is also know as Model 175 and was already designed in the mid 1950’s. Initially it was 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 colors. Consequently, the fashion journalist and critic Hebe Dorsey dedicated an entire article to the shoe which was published in the International Herald Tribune, which 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.

Loafer Construction

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 overly 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 release 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 on Shoe - Not a Loafer because it lacks the Moccasin construction

Slip on Shoe – Not a Loafer because it lacks the Moccasin construction

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 favored 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.

Scarosso Model Mezzano Tassel Loafer in black suede with red tassels

Scarosso Model Mezzano Tassel Loafer in black suede with red tassels

Loafer Style Advice

The Loafer is a piece of footwear that straddles the two worlds of casual and a more formal style, making it quite a unique piece in that respect. No matter what you read, a loafer is never a truly formal shoe because of its casual heritage.

Gucci loafers are often combined with all sorts of outfits. Of course, using a black, polished box calf leather with leather lining and refining the shape make the loafer more formal than an off white, unlined Gucci summer loafer in suede but at the end of the day, it is still a loafer and not suited for tuxedos or white tie ensembles. Likewise, it is historically not appropriate to wear one with a classic three piece business suit because it is simply too casual. On the other hand, a casual suit will look just fine with tassels.

Selection of worn out Gucci Loafers

Selection of worn out Gucci Loafers

Tassel loafers. In the U.S. many businessmen in their fifties wear business suits or sport coats with slacks and black or brown tassel loafers. As a rule of thumb, black or oxblood tassel loafers are about as formal as a navy blazer with grey flannel slacks. Of course, anyone can wear anything today but if you have an interest in classic men’s clothing, you care about history and the evolution of certain clothing pieces. Wearing tassel loafers with a business suits would probably not considered to be a faux pas, but I still encourage you to wear it with casual suits and blazer / sport coat combination and choose an Oxford with more formal garments.

Penny loafers are a perfect companion for corduroy pants, chinos, flannel slacks and in the summer even linen or seersucker. In terms of formality, they rank just slightly below a tassel loafer and it is a great companion for a blazer outfit with Oxford shirts and a tie or bow tie.

In a casual setting the loafer can replace any of your other casual shoes to add a bit of dash to your look. However unlike Boat Shoes, it is recommended that you keep your socks on when you wear your loafers. Casual loafers can be worn with denims and khakis, and some men even wear them sockless with shorts. At the end of the day, you have to decide what to wear, though personally, I would wear loafers mostly during the day, and predominantly with combinations and casual suits. However, the beauty of rules is that you can break them elegantly once you have mastered them, whereas men who don’t have a clue about clothing history, often look it.

What Loafers to Buy?

Every man should have at least one pair of loafers. Unfortunately, there is not one style that is objectively more necessary than another. While some would consider the penny loafer or Gucci loafer the number one choice, I think tassel loafers make a good first pair because you can do anything you would o with the other loafers, but the tassels add a unique touch to your wardrobe.

If you are not sure where to buy loafers, the following should help you to narrow it down a bit because you can literally find thousands of loafer options around the world.

Monaco Penny Loafer & Variation by Gaziano Girling

Monaco Penny Loafer & Variation by Gaziano Girling

Penny Loafers

If you want to invest in a penny loafer, you have many options. Bass Weejuns offers foreign made models for $118, Made in Maine versions for $295, and about twice as much for shell cordovan. I haven’t tried either of them, but I’d assume the Made in Maine are of higher quality. Apart from that, you can also find them from Allen Edmonds ($225$365), Alden ($498), Rancourt ($225), Brooks Brothers ($198). For a more high end interpretation of this style, take a look at Gaziano Girling. In Europe, Scarosso offers an affordable RTW option, and Crockett & Jones offers a large selection of different styles and lasts.

jfitzpatrick Tassel slip-on Ravenna in navy, short nap suede

jfitzpatrick Tassel slip-on Ravenna in navy, short nap suede

Tassel Loafers

All the brands mentioned above produce tassel loafers as well. In addition, Meermin offers interesting budget tassels, Scarosso has an affordable MTO Program, and JFitzpatrick offer suede tassel slip-ons, which are technically not loafers. For a good selection of various penny and tassel loafers, take a look at Pediwear.

Gucci Loafers

Although copied many times, Gucci is still the originator of the shoe, however bear in mind that they issue many different versions in gold and silver horsebit hardware and different styles. Priced between around $450 – $630 you certainly pay much more for the brand name than for the quality of leather and workmanship. Personally, I’d prefer to invest that kind of money into more quality and buy from places like those mentioned above, but each to his own. If you want a Gucci loafer, the most classic bit loafer is black leather with gold hardware, which sells for $590.

What do you think about Loafers? Do you love them, hate them  or are you indifferent? What are your favorite Loafers? Please share in the comments below.

This article was created by Sven Raphael Schneider & Vikram Nanjappa.

44 replies
  1. Candido Alfonso
    Candido Alfonso says:

    Great read! So far my favorite loafers are Banan Republic’s Branson loafer. Believe it or not.

  2. Ramy Menhem
    Ramy Menhem says:

    Oxford slip-ons with an elastic side gusset should have been specifically mentioned. I personally believe the versatility of this type of shoe deserves more recognition than it generally gets. Popularised in the victorian era at the same time as chelsea boots, they offer a rather formal and clean look whilst retaining the simplicity and comfort slip-on shoes are commonly associated with.
    It was as always an excellent and thorough article from Mr. Schneider. Brilliant work indeed!

  3. John C.. Begley
    John C.. Begley says:

    I wore the same penny loafers every day for 5 months while travelling through Europe in 1970 – 1971.

  4. Laurent
    Laurent says:

    An article about loafers but no mention of the famous Model 180 by J.M. Weston????
    interesting article nonetheless!

    Cheers!

  5. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    I have a pair of oxblood, made in Maine, weejun loafers that are absolutely perfect for casual situations. I’ve had them for years and you can’t beat the quality for the price.

  6. Rory Swan
    Rory Swan says:

    At the top of the page, whose claret and green loafers are you showing? Gucci? I cannot source them.

  7. Larry P. Burton
    Larry P. Burton says:

    I have been wearing Alden Shell Cordovan penny, and tassel loafers for thirty years. I think they are the finest domestic loafers being produced today.

  8. leonard roger gresham jr
    leonard roger gresham jr says:

    Greetings Gent! The loafer style shoddings are my favorite type of footwear. I began wearing them when it became apparent that I like pattern hosiery with a color in harmony with my necktie or shirt or pocket square. It’s quite smart to have something below and above the waist that coordinates well. Also, wearing a loafer increases the leg line thereby making a gent look taller and the legs longer. Try this ensemble on for flair if you dare. Black turtleneck, black/white glen plaid sportcoat, cream gab trousers, black loafers or velvet slippers and black/white glen plaid hosiery with a white pocket square. Nice. Or just a red pocket square with red hosiery. Bravo

  9. Satbir Gill
    Satbir Gill says:

    Just like J.M weston there’s also Aubercy and Corthay from France with highly distinct and individual designs. Especially one should try on their Lupin which is so seductive that I couldn’t resist drooling over it.

  10. Park Jacob Weatherby
    Park Jacob Weatherby says:

    Great information on the history and origin of the loafer and they really seem to add the finishing touch to a well put together casual look. However I’m wondering if they would ever be appropriate to wear with more dress attire i.e. suit and tie?

  11. kevin cannon
    kevin cannon says:

    sven, the cut out on weejuns is an ancient, abstract symbol for the fish, not a diamond. these were originally norwegian fishing shoes, easy to slip off should you capsize, from the bits of information i’ve been able to piece together. thank you for all your work. best, kevin

  12. Kevin Dunford
    Kevin Dunford says:

    Greetings from across The Pond! Love your article! We’re big on the history of shoes ourselves, but then we are immersed in the shoe world and on the verge of being obsessed! Based in Oxford, England, we’ve sold gentlemen’s shoes, including loafers, for more than 37 years and have customers who’ve remained with us and loyal to a particular brand throughout that time. Creatures of habit us men!

  13. Jose
    Jose says:

    My favorite loafers are J Adler Cadogan’s. I’m looking at a pair of tassel loafers next. Any suggestions?

  14. Heng
    Heng says:

    Hi Mr. Sven Raphael Schneider,

    I am looking to get a penny loafer and would like some advise from anybody who is reading this as well as yourself :)

    I only have a Dr Martens Adrian, although they aren’t the best shoes. Albeit it is not comfortable (and not a great shoe maker in my opinion after wearing it) and is really huge in size of both width and the outsole, I feel that what is bought/spent should be continue to be used and taken care of as the makers of the shoes did use a part of their life-time in making them -
    I found a Spanish brand that make good shoes at very reasonable price. They make beautiful penny loafers too, at my budget of course! However, my problem is that although they only have 4 colours, I could not decide on which one to add into my shoe cabinet for matching with my clothings. (I live in temperate Singapore, so its 30 – 34 degrees whole year round, so I only wear American Selvedge jeans in 13.5 oz rolled up and usually a t-shirt in black/white)

    The penny loafers actually look like the Bass Co. with the ‘beefroll’ stitching at the side, leather out soles in black.

    Please advise on whether to get
    -black (I initally wanted to get this, because the Japanese students do wear them with style and black is easy to match I suppose),
    -bordeaux (look very close to black, with a hint of wine. I feel that it looks nice, but it will not allow my love of the colour to stay long enough),
    -brown (the brown seems to be hand-dyed as there are different shades and tones, although just very slightly, on closed up it does look fabulous),
    -light-tanned (I usually like light-tanned French calf, but the shade of the leather on their pair is totally not my cup of tea, so it is definitely out)

  15. Charlie
    Charlie says:

    I’ve got an interesting pair of bass penny loafers. They’re black but have this odd edging coming from underneath the edge of the cutout flap. They’re these little triangular flaps, which I’ve seen on tassel loafers, but never penny loafers. Has anyone else ever seen this/is this a common thing for penny loafers or am I just missing something?

    • BRH
      BRH says:

      No mention of Sebago loafers? They’ve been out there since the 40’s or 50’s- and coupled with the boat shoes they do make a nice preppy look. Are Weejuns that much better / different?

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