“I used to know this old guy and he’d say to me that his philosophy of shoes was that all a man needs is three pairs of brogues: one pair for the town, one pair for the country and one pair for the beach,” says the shoe designer Guy West of Jeffery-West. “You can understand why some men may take that attitude to footwear. Summer is so short in the UK it’s tempting not to invest in the kind of shoes that will hardly be worn.”
Of course, with increased travel and the breakdown of the more rigid workplace dress codes, men are more adventurous with their shoes. But contrary to fashion’s idea that it is acceptable to wear plimsolls all year round and in all weathers (contrary to sodden feet and bouts of flu), men it seems are rediscovering the attractions of the battle-ready, bench-made, Goodyear-welted shoe - both conservatism and value-consiousness being products of the recession that encourage their purchase. When a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, that may include breaking his new shoes in a bit. But, more than that, one style of shoe in particular is seeing a renaissance; the brogue.
Or maybe even “the new brogue”. Trickers, which has won something of a cult following for its hefty country styles teamed with denim has, for example, launched styles in vibrant bottle green and blue leathers, with contrasting white eyelets. It has recently teamed up Japanese designers Junya Watanabe and Comme Des Garcons on a line of co-respondent brogue styles, and with shoe retailer Kurt Geiger to create a limited edition range. Similarly, Loakes is offering styles with a more aggressive, slim-line shape. And since being bought by Italian fashion giant the Prada Group, Churches has re-addressed the style not in the standard blacks and tans, but in high-gloss grey. And if such a thing as a “summer brogue” might a season ago have been considered oxymoronic, this summer the company has created it. Its Blakeney style comes in sand suede on a chunky-but-lightweight red-brick sole.
Indeed, if today’s brogue was made in a way to echo the style’s origins, it might genuinely be an ideal shoe for warmer months. After all, the distinctive pattern of pits and serrated or “gimped” edging on what is otherwise either a simple, closed-lacing Oxford or open-lacing Derby style - also known as “Bluchers”, after Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher, the late 18th century Prussian fieldmarshall who popularised the pattern by ordering it for his troops - is a reminder of when the holes were punched right through the leather. Doing so in order to allow the insides to better dry out after they have undergone a good soaking (or to let the feet cool on a hot day) may be a blunt solution, but it gave rise to one of the most distinctive styles of shoe in the men’s wardrobe.
It was Irish and Scottish agricultural workers, farming bogs and marshland, who first took an awl to their somewhat makeshift, heel-less shoes - “brogue” or “brog” meaning “shoe” in Gaelic - albeit doing so in a decorative style that was typical of the more flamboyant men’s dress of the Elizabethan age. Even as the style became more recognisably like the brogue of today, tackling the elements remained a key issue, especially since early versions were made of leather shavings glued together - the resulting shoes were typically rubbed with candle wax to make them more water-repellent.
It took some three centuries for the decoration to remain but the function to be lost and the modern notion of brogues to be established - albeit that their country roots remained, the sturdy style typically being worn by gamekeepers before being adopted by lairds and later gentlemen by the turn of the 20th century.
At least some of the time. It was one of the strict rules of men’s dress etiquette that, in fact, brogues were only ever worn in the country, typically for country sports. It was the same association with the outdoors that led a studded variation of the brogue to be taken up as a golf shoe - although this came about by the smashing of yet another of the rules of dress by the Prince of Wales and future Edward VIII, a man whose royal influence during the 1920s in particular encouraged his radicalism to be adopted as the mainstream right across Europe. So mainstream, in fact, that the brogue came to practically define the image of the “proper” man’s shoe and the choice of the city gent.
Indeed, although the brogue was first seen in black only in the 1920s - tradition dictating until this time that they should be brown in keeping with the country environment - this was just the first deviation on the path to the coloured and lightweight varieties now available. Two-tone versions, for example, helped to define the look of the jazz age. Jump forward 90 years, and shoe designer Rae Jones is winning a reputation with her take on the style for women, in summery shades of pale grey, soft pink and dusty blue.
“Brogues somehow look tailored and neat but still have a casual air about them, which makes them versatile,” says Jones. “You can wear them with almost anything. You have to have a thinner sole and last shape for a women’s version to avoid looking too mannish. Flat lace-ups have been around for women since the 40s, of course, but brogues are a ‘new’ idea. Update them just slightly and they look remarkably modern. Keep them traditional and they’re simply classics.”