The cool breezes and warm weather of spring are here. Gone are the times when this meant a vacation from school, but the warm temperatures and long days still provide ample opportunity to relax and enjoy the weather. Nothing tells a gentleman it is spring better than sporting a pair of boat shoes. These spring time staples were originally designed to give grip on the wooden decks of yachts and race sloops. This is one of the reasons why they are traditionally worn without socks. When waves are crashing over your bow, the last thing that you need is for socks to soak up water on the deck, making a sailor’s feet cold and wet, and leaving him miserable for hours. It is the popularity of this style of shoe, especially during the warmer months, that has led to the current fashion of going sockless. The style has extended, with some question as to its taste, to even loafers and wingtips, as well as complimenting a suit and other more conservative attire. This all originated from the classic leather boat shoe.
The flagship brand in the boating shoe world is Sperry, and their Topsider shoe is so well known that many refer to all boat shoes simply as “Sperry’s” or “Topsiders”regardless of who makes them. Many fashion forward brands such as Brooks Brothers, Burberry, Louis Vitton, and Gucci offer their own versions of a summer boat shoe, but no matter which you wear, boat shoes were designed with the sea in mind, and with a fashion grown out of function and tradition that cannot be imitated or faked.
Boat shoes are not to be confused with lounge shoes, loafers, driving shoes, or espadrilles, that hideous Spanish slipper that is an affront to men’s fashion everywhere. Boat shoes serve a purpose, and cannot be substituted – despite the efforts of many – for any of the above footwear. The look just doesn’t work. Topsiders are the epitome of versatility, and can be used in just about any of the situations where lounge shoes or loafers would be appropriate – but they add the relaxed feeling of summer. The very name and concept conjure images of the posh seaside lifestyle – Nantucket, Cape Cod, Newport Beach, and are even reminiscent of that icon of retro men’s fashion: John F. Kennedy.
Typically made from canvas or leather, boat shoes have thin, heavy soles, made for gripping and specifically to be used on the deck of a ship. Some are suede, and though they look nice, I wouldn’t recommend them for their original purpose – rough seas and high swells. The stitching and seams of boat shoes are all found on the outside, as they are worn without socks, and an inner seam could rub a bare foot raw. Most, but not all, are lace up, and many can be adjusted the entire way around with a pull on their leather lines (to use the nautical term – laces, to those who cannot tie a half hitch with an end of the line bowline)
One of my favorite casual spring styles is the boat shoe with shorts and a button down shirt, typically worn loose and untucked for the unencumbered and free flowing feel of the warmer weather. Slimmer and tucked in shirts can give a more put together or conservative look, but no matter how it is worn, it is the boat shoes that bring it all together. They bring a bit of class to what might have become a more vulgar affair, while at the same time bring an element of fun and leisure to the more stuffy set.
The most important role of boat shoes this summer: they replace, or ought to, the ubiquitous and perennially frat-tastic flip flop or sandal. Apart from being at the beach or the pool, I see no reason for any man to ever wear these. Some might think that the beach bum look is great for summer, presenting a care free attitude, but sandals push the wearer over the edge from carefree to irresponsible. Wearing sandals around anywhere apart from your home shows a laziness that is hard to recover from, as well as an utter disregard for the sentiments of those around you. Worse still: they are being worn with jeans. To anyone with a sartorial sense in their being, this is an absolute insult. Completely impractical, and looking like a sloppy frat boy, the comfort and ease of sandals so touted by their wearers can easily be replaced with the added style of a decent pair of boat shoes. It is like comparing a surf board to a yacht, with the attitudes of each to match.
Whatever brand, style, or color you wear, this versatile shoe has a place in every man’s closet. It will add looks to your repertoire that you never even knew you had, adding class to the casual and carefree to the conservative. It is my go to footwear this summer, and it should probably be yours too.