Whether slip-on or lace-up, the defining characteristic of formal footwear is its aesthetic minimalism. “Small, slim, and narrow feet give a light, quick, and (and hence) young lift to the overall silhouette” explains the black-tie treatise The Aesthetics of the Tuxedo, pointing out that this optical sleight-of-hand was often employed by vintage fashion illustrators. Consequently, formal shoes have a distinctly slipper-like appearance.
Patent leather was the material of choice for evening shoes from the 1850s through to the 1950s when well-polished calfskin became an acceptable alternative. In both cases, the high gloss of the shoe is intended to complement the outfit’s various silk facings as part of black tie’s sophisticated contrast of textures. Just be sure to avoid inexpensive patent PVC (vinyl) footwear as it will not only look cheap but will crack and peel as well.
Aside from their improper, “fashion-forward” styling, these cheap shoes are made from vinyl, and would show their low quality immediately.
Formal Pump (Court Shoe)
The formal pump (also known as an opera pump or, in the UK, men’s court shoe) has its origin in eighteenth-century court dress and has changed very little in the ensuing three hundred years. A vestige of an era of more effete menswear – it was originally worn with knee breeches and silk stockings – it is often misunderstood by more macho contemporary dressers. However, sartorial connoisseurs continue to appreciate its club elegance and the aristocratic nature of footwear intended to be worn exclusively indoors.
A classically styled pair of formal pumps from Brooks Brothers, featuring pinched grosgrain bows.
The evening pump is decorated with a silk bow, either pinched or flat, that complements the overall outfit in a couple of ways according to The Aesthetics of the Tuxedo. First, it coordinates with the necktie to bookend the suit and, secondly, it tricks the eye into seeing a smaller vamp (the upper portion of the shoe where the bow sits) thus enhancing the illusion of a smaller foot. While it would stand to reason that the bow should be satin or grosgrain to coordinate with the rest of the outfit’s facings, it is almost always grosgrain. This is because the high gloss of the shoe’s leather already complements the luster of the facings and so the bow fabric is utilized to offset the pump’s sheen rather than overdo it.
Pumps have traditionally been associated with dancing which is why they are often quilted for additional comfort. However, their slight build and lack of ties require that they fit the foot perfectly in order not to slip at the heel.
Formal Lace-Up (Oxford)
Although not as formal as the pump, the evening lace-up still boasts an impressive heritage dating back to the turn of the twentieth century. The low-cut oxford derives its elegance from its “closely cropped soles, delicately beveled waist, and glovelike fit” as Dressing the Man so poetically explains. In addition, the ready-to-wear version has an advantage over its slip-on counterpart because of its ability to fit a wider variety of foot shapes and subsequently reduced the likelihood of pinching or slipping while dancing.
A pair of black patent plain-toed oxfords, paired with a tuxedo in midnight blue.
Laced shoes must be as simple as possible in order to respect formalwear’s refined minimalism. In this regard,
Oxfords are the only allowable style; derbies, wingtips, brogues, and loafers should be avoided as they are too similar to everyday styles worn for work or leisure
Plain-toed oxfords are preferable to the extra seam required by cap-toed versions
Wholecut models have uppers cut from a single piece of leather, and therefore trump standard versions due to the absence of side seams
In continental Europe, the black derby is likewise accepted and even President Truman – a known clotheshorse among US president – wore black derbies with wide shoelaces for black tie
Elegant Florsheim evening shoes as worn by Harry S. Truman
1930s Vintage Patent Leather Oxfords with evening shoe laces and pumps or court shoes with a deep cut vamp opening and silk bow
Formal Evening Shoelaces
No matter if you have proper capless patent leather oxfords or calf-leather captoe Oxfords, a sure way to make it a black tie look is to use specific evening shoelaces. In the 1930s they used wide silk satin, grosgrain or velvet shoelaces.
With a classic black-tie ensemble, even the hosiery is carefully selected to enhance overall elegance. The traditional choice is black silk socks, descendants of the hose worn at court with knee breeches. The material’s dull luster serves as an effective complement to the trouser’s silk stripes and an elegant transition from the matte wool of the trousers to the glossy finish of the shoes. When wearing a midnight blue dinner suit hose should be of the same color.
These over-the-calf socks in black silk from Fort Belvedere will properly complement any black-tie or white-tie ensemble.
Fine-ribbed cotton-lisle and even wool have been acceptable alternatives for evening hose since Edwardian times. Regardless of the material or color chosen, formal socks must be calf height. There is probably no better way to ruin a formal outfit than by flashing bare shins when you sit or cross your legs.
Well Suited: Pump Tips
Opera Pumps Court Shoes with deep cutout and over the calf silk socks by Fort Belvedere)
A snug fit is crucial for formal pumps so if bespoke footwear is not an option consider ordering ready-made versions in half a size smaller than normal to account for the extremely thin silk socks you’ll be wearing.
Once you have them keep in mind that they offer very little protection from inclement weather. (At times like this door-to-door chauffer service comes in handy.)
Formal Facts: The Ultimate Lace-Up
Fort Belvedere’s Black Grosgrain Faille Evening Shoelaces
Although wholecut dress shoes are rarely seen they have a legitimate precedent in the form of a similar style introduced in 1934 as the ne plus ultra of lace-up dress shoe. See Vintage Footwear for the details.
Classic Shoes- Patent Leather Oxfords and Pumps
Learn all there is to know about classic black tie tuxedo evening shoes including patent leather oxfords, pumps, court shoes, evening shoelaces and etiquette.