In the recent past, we covered various types of men’s boots and shoes, both formal and casual. In our Brogues Shoe Guide for Men, we touched lightly upon the difference between Oxford and Derby shoes, and today we’d like to focus our full attention on the Oxford, which is often referred to as the most elegant type of men’s shoe – for a good reason!
What Makes an Oxford an Oxford?
Unlike most other shoes and items of menswear, the Oxford shoe has one principal defining characteristic: the lacing system. Sometimes people use the term Oxford to denote any smart lace up shoe, even those with open lacing, but that’s not how we will use the term in this guide.
First of all, it may seem obvious but an Oxford is a shoe with laces, and not a slip-on, monk strap shoe or Chelsea boot. Second, an Oxford shoe has a closed lace system vs. the open lace system of a Derby shoe. But what exactly does that mean? Let’s start with the basics. The uppers of an Oxford usually consist of the quarters and the vamp.
The vamp is that part of the shoe uppers the covers the toes and instep, i.e. the front of the shoe.
How To Lace Oxford Shoes?
The eyelets for the shoe laces are generally located on the quarters (with the exception of a wholecut and seamless shoe). For a closed lace system, the vamp is sewn on top of the quarters and the shoelace eyelets facings are stitched underneath the vamp. The shoelaces are used to tie the two quarters together thus fastening the shoe onto your foot. When a shoe is new, the quarters should form a narrow V-shape and once they are worn in, the V should disappear so the quarters touch each other, and you can only see the tongue at the top end. Most British Oxford shoes today, mostly have 5 eyelet holes on each side, whereas American Oxfords often have 6. In the past 4 or even 3 eyelets per side were not uncommon, and so it boils down to personal taste.
History of the Oxford shoe
During the 17th-century men’s footwear was dominated by boots. Often high and tightly fitting with buttons instead of laces, they were worn both outdoors and indoors. More often than not these boots featured rather high heels, a style popularized by King Louis XIV of France, who was of modest height. At that time, France was the cultural epicenter in Europe and hence most gentlemen aligned their sartorial choices with the French Court, and footwear was no exception.
However this style of footwear was very comfortable and although it is not entirely clear who exactly invented the Oxford shoe, it seems plausible that the students Oxford University popularized a “half boot” called the Oxonian Shoe around 1825. At first, the Oxonian shoe featured narrow slits on its sides which made it much more comfortable to wear around campus than the high boots then in fashion. Slowly over time, the side slits were replaced with laces (on the sides). These side laces eventually made their way to the instep of the boot. Further changes included lowering of the heel and the height of the boot being lowered to expose the ankle. It is still a matter of debate as to whether all these changes took place on campus, which seems highly improbable.
Some claim the Oxford shoe emerged from Scotland and Ireland. Captoe Oxfords are often called Balmorals after Balmoral Castle to this day. However, what is clear is that they were a result of a quest for a more comfortable shoe and that they were first associated with university students rather than with the older generation of the time. The timeline for these changes is not very clear, with different sources giving different timelines.
However, we do know for certain that in 1846 Joseph Sparkes Hall, the inventor of the Chelsea boot, stated in The New Monthly Magazine that “Dress pumps are the only shoes now worn. The Oxonian shoe … is the best for walking. It laces up the front with three or four holes. It is none other than high lows now called Oxford shoes.” So, at least by then, the name Oxford had caught on in public.
From there, it was a short step to being acceptable as the proper choice of men’s footwear as boots were now being relegated to being worn for specialized activities such as horse riding. Ironically, the Oxford is a shoe with origins on campus but today, it would probably be considered too formal as an everyday shoe for on-campus wear even by English students, but that’s the evolution of style.
Characteristics of the Oxford Shoe
In a nutshell, these are the features of a present day Oxford Shoe
- Closed lacing system.
- Exposed ankle.
All Oxford shoes share these essential features, and although most have the eyelets on the quarter, a wholecut or seamless Oxford are the exceptions.
Types of Oxfords
Oxfords are not always Brogues though they sometimes are and Brogues are not always Oxfords though some of them can be. It is the lacing system and the absence or presence of broguing that is the differentiating feature. To Americans the shoes described in the article are more familiar as Balmorals or ‘Bal- type’ while to the English they are known as Oxfords. To the English, the Balmoral is an entirely different shoe (a particular type of oxford with no seams, apart from the toe cap seam, descending to the welt). In this guide, we use Oxford the traditional, English way.
Although technically the construction of the shoe has no impact on the classification as an Oxford shoe, Goodyear welted, or Blake-stitched shoes are recommended because they feature the most classic Oxford styles.
The plain Oxford basically consists of the quarter and the vamp. It features neither a leather cap over the toe box nor does it have broguing. This style is simple yet elegant; black is the number one choice for evening shoes, and patent leather for black tie and white tie.
If you want to refine the look of your black patent oxfords for tuxedo or tailcoat events, you should take a look into evening shoelaces. Basically, they are much wider than regular shoelaces — they resemble a bow tie and thus mirror the look of your black bow tie. Back during the heyday of classic elegance, they were really popular but today they are all but extinct, which is why I decided to create my own range of evening shoelaces, which you can find here.
Of course, some men also wear pumps, but most men wear laced shoes. Some men prefer a water polish calf leather version that is polished to a mirror shine. Patent leather is definitely more traditional but a mirror shine is fine too. Although in theory this shoe can be made in brown, you are likely to only ever see them in black.
Cap Toe Oxford
The cap toe Oxford, sometimes also referred to as captoe or cap-toe, is probably the most widespread Oxford shoe style in existence. The most popular color is undoubtedly black, and the black cap toe Oxford is the most popular shoe for the majority of classic men’s shoe manufacturers. Of course, it is also available in tan, brown, cognac, oxblood, etc., but the black variety is the epitome of Oxford shoes.
In addition to the vamp and quarters, an extra piece of leather – the so-called toe cap – is added across the toe box, and they also feature a heel cap. In black, the cap toe Oxford is the classic business shoe worn by elegant men with their (business) suits across the globe. If you can’t afford a separate pair of patent leather or polished calf leather plain Oxfords, the black calf leather cap toes may serve double duty as a tuxedo shoe because it is considered by some to be the poor man’s evening shoe, although technically it is not formal enough for traditional black tie. That being said, it is never correct to wear it with white tie.
Wingtip Oxford / Brogue
The Wingtip Oxford has a pointed toe cap with extensions called wingtips which extend along both sides of the shoe. Although technically an Oxford, it is generally referred to as a Brogue. When seen from above the cap is shaped like a ‘W’ or a ‘M’ depending on the viewpoint. This style is considered a bit more casual than the Cap Toe. Learn all about Brogues here.
These oxfords lack any kind of toe caps and have an additional strip of leather that runs across the top of the middle of the shoes down to the sole (the width of the shoelace eyelets) in a contrasting color. They may or may not have heel caps in a contrasting color. Historically, it is an American style, but you can find them offered by companies all over the world.
The Kiltie Oxford is distinguished with an additional fringed tongue hanging over the top. These shoes are no longer very common.
This type has an upper that is cut from one single piece of leather. Usually, shoes are made from multiple pieces of leather sewn together. The wholecut oxford has the distinctive closed lacing system and this along with the single piece construction gives it an extremely clean and sleek look. It also requires more leather to make a wholecut because it generally has only one seam at the heel. In recent year, this style has become rather popular and often features a medallion on the toe box or other broguing. It is available in all kinds of colors and is usually a bit more expensive than a cap toe or plain oxford because it requires more skill and more leather. An all black wholecut in patent leather or mirror polished calf works as an evening shoe as long as it has no broguing.
The seamless is very similar to the wholecut in the sense that it is made from one piece of leather as well. While the wholecut has a seam on the heel, the seamless does not have a seam, making it even more difficult to produce. Also, it requires even more leather than a whole cut and it takes on average about twice as much leather as is needed for a regular cap toe Oxford. As such, it is usually only offered by bespoke shoemakers. Sometimes, the term wholecut is used synonymously with seamless simply because the term is more well known, although technically this is incorrect.
Strictly speaking, the Oxford is considered to be a formal shoe, however, this does not hold true anymore as they come in many colors, variations and more casual leathers such as suede and brogues.
The Plain & Cap Toe Oxfords
These days the Cap Toe Oxford is often acceptable at less traditional Black Tie events and with dark evening suits. However, traditionally these are the quintessential dress shoes for your day – to – day suits and business wear. They can also be worn when you want to add a dash of sophistication to your casual dress options like chinos and a blazer. It is not recommended to wear black with denim. Cognac, mid-brown, cherry or oxblood serve this purpose much better. For tweed, it is generally recommend to wear boots or derby shoes instead, while fresco, solaro, linen or seersucker can be worn with cap toe Oxfords, although it is recommended not to wear black with these outfits. Instead, a spectator or a solid shade of brown are a much better choice.
The first Oxford every man should own is a black cap toe Oxford. It may seem unexciting but at the end of the day, it is the shoe that can be worn to the office, funerals, weddings, evening events and maybe even black tie and as such, it is very versatile. Unlike brown, black does not come in different shades, and so you don’t need two pairs of black shoes of the exact same style. Many well-dressed men may have only a couple pairs of black shoes in their shoe closet, one of them always being the black captoe Oxford, while they have 10, 50 or 100 pairs of brown shoes. For general advice on how to combine brown shoe colors, including cap toe Oxfords with your wardrobe, please refer to the How to Wear Brown Shoes Guide.
The Wingtip Oxford / Brogue
Wingtips or Brogues are considered to be more casual than the Cap Toe. In black, it can be worn to the office but in dark brown it becomes more versatile because you may now combine them with tweed, and other more casual outfits and looks, including jeans. Especially in shades of brown, these are great for the office in non-white collar environments, sportcoat / blazer ensembles. A dark brown brogue in suede is probably one of the 2nd or third shoes you should buy after you have invested in a black cap toe Oxford.
The Saddle Oxford/ Kiltie Oxford
These are probably the most casual of the lot but certainly the most difficult to carry off. Either style is only recommended for men who already have at least 15 pairs of shoes and who want to add something unique to their shoe closet. Traditional saddle shoes often come in cream or off white, with a navy blue saddle and red rubber soles, but of course, there are many variations available today. They can work really well with jeans, colored chinos or corduroy trousers and other casual to semi-casual outfits.
Wholecut / Seamless Oxfords
Wholecut Oxfords are rather popular right now, and they can look particularly handsome when a patina is acquired or applied to the shoe. In plain black, they are a modern alternative for a Tuxedo, and in brown they can be worn with all kinds of suits, combinations or casual outfits. Basically, they can be worn just like a cap toe Oxford.
Where to Buy Oxford Shoes?
There are literally thousands of brands and manufacturers that offer Oxford shoes, and probably over 100 who offer quality Oxfords that the Gentleman’s Gazette would approve of. Obviously, we have not tested them all, and hence, we cannot provide a definitive list. However, we can give you a few tips.
Shoelaces – How to Change the Look of the Shoe Without Buying New Shoes?
If you already own Oxford shoes, and you want a new look without buying a new shoe, the easiest way to do that is to exchange your shoe laces. First of all, make sure to get quality shoe laces that don’t snap. Oxford laces should always be round, not flat and thin because those look more elegant.
A different color than black or brown will really create an entirely new look for your oxford, and dark grey or light grey shoe laces on a black oxford can look very sophisticated. Also, a dark purple on brown can look splendid just as can a blue with white Oxfords.
We consider Budget Oxfords to be in the $250 or under range. Brands that we have experience with are Scarosso (Blake Stitched), Pediwear (Goodyear Welted), Loake 1880 (Goodyear Welted), Meermin (Goodyear Welted) and Shoepassion (Goodyear Welted).
Pediwear is a shoe store in England that offers many different English shoe brands, including their own.
Loake produces private label shoes for many companies and offers decent quality for the price.
Meermin is run by a Albaladejo family member who runs the famous Carmina shoes from Mallorca, Spain. In order to save costs, their shoes are made in China, and so the workmanship is not quite on a par with Spain, but the price is considerably lower.
Shoepassion is based in Berlin, Germany and offers a great selection of classic and contemporary Oxfords made in Spain. With good quality and good prices, I recommend them to anybody who is looking for more unusual styles like saddle shoes, spectators or lambs wool lined boots and shoes.
Mid range is $250 – $700.
Ace Marks Italian shoes, blake rapid stitched on elegant lasts with nice patina in classic and unusual colors. $320 for a Wholecut, $295 for regular Oxfords = great value. They also have the occasional Kickstarter where you can get a pair of Oxfords for just $195, which is an even better value.
Crockett & Jones From England, we recommend Crockett & Jones for the classic Gentleman who wants proper English shoes with history in a great selection and variety of styles.
Carmina from Spain produces excellent Oxfords and specializes in Cordovan although these are usually more expensive than $700.
Allen Edmonds produces classic American style shoes and apart from an MTO program, they have many specials and deals going on, often bringing the price below $250.
Every shoe above $700.
Gaziano Girling From England, Gaziano & Girling offer great shoes either MTO or bespoke. The last are often stylized and the epitome of elegance.
In Italy, you can get great Oxfords from the likes of Stefano Bemer, Ugolini, in Austria from Maftei, Scheer or Materna.
Of course, any bespoke maker could be listed here but there are too many to list them all.
What is your favorite Oxford Shoe? Please share your experiences and preferences in the comment section below!
This guide was written by Sven Raphael Schneider & Vikram Nanjappa.