‘If only’ are two of the saddest words in the English language. We are always more indulgently wistful in contemplating opportunities lost than we are in celebrating realised gains. The land-of-might-have-been is one of perfection and happiness in which there is no call for such regretful hand-wringing for, as Novello sang, it is simply “far more mercifully planned than the cruel place we know.” I am not often as sanguine about my own situation as I would hope, but I like to think that I plan for the best. I really feel that life, characteristically disappointing as it is, is there to be throttled and dealt with; no point in doing things half-cock or pursuing things halfway.
Such was my contemplative thought on seeing a well-dressed young gentleman on Fleet Street in a tidy two-button grey suit; the tie was a tasteful knot, the shirt appropriate for the suit and even a folded square of linen poked out from the breast pocket but disastrously, the footwear he had decided upon, dragged his estimable effort down considerably: untidy, lumpy brick-shaped shoes of a dull, cheap-looking black leather, they looked borrowed or found so out of place were they in this outfit. Only a strong sense of propriety and respect for the privacy of citizens prevented me from telling him to rid himself of such hideous footwear and head, promptly, in the direction of Jermyn Street. Instead I raised my eyebrows, tutted to myself and muttered ruefully; ‘If only!’
Since this disappointing sighting I have noted that footwear seems to rank very low on the list of sartorial importance for gentlemen in the metropolis. Suits, while often awful, are sometimes very appealing, even exquisite; ties are, again, a let down generally but there are signs of improvement in pattern choice and knots. Shirts are often the most pleasing part of the London working man’s wardrobe – considering the number of ‘discount’ Jermyn Street traders manufacturing well structured, suit-friendly shirts this is perhaps unsurprising. It is the footwear; the lumpy, grossly inelegant chunks of leather that people choose to wear on a business day that most surprises me. Invariably black, the shoes are of questionable shape, quality and durability. Why is this the case? Why are gentlemen inclined to provide significant financial outlay on brilliant threads but scrimp on decent leather?
One theory of mine tends to lead to the conclusion that most gentlemen believe that footwear simply doesn’t matter, as if we still had to tread the mud-caked streets of old; they may believe that a beautiful suit, constituting such a large area of the human body, needs representative investment. Shoes, those sadly necessary fixtures enveloping our feet, are rather small; ‘No one’ll notice’ shrugs our hypothetical proponent. The other theory is that the gentleman considers shoes are most certainly significant but has little understanding or education as to what an attractive shoe actually is. Some might scoff that attractive shoes should be simply self-evident but I believe our hypothetical gentleman in this category relies far more on price, branding and ubiquity as his guides for what footwear he should purchase. Most of the square-toed, badly shaped carbuncles masquerading as shoes in our shops are ugly and unflattering. Shoes are noticeable (to some more than anything else) and they can finish a look perfectly, or they can let you down horrendously.
It may sound like a cliché but the old, English shoemakers – not quite in the Lobb league – are the best. Church’s, Crockett & Jones, Trickers and Edward Green all make wonderful shoes that last a heck of a long time, crafted in designs that age very little. New & Lingwood, though not a Northampton name, is also an established and highly regarded shoemaker. To the average buyer the shoes are certainly expensive; many would choke at the hushed price on their way to the door, but this is more a consequence of our existing in such a capricious, throwaway society than anything to do with any ‘overcharging.’ Many friends of mine I have recommended to the shoe shops of Jermyn Street frequently reported back on the ‘incredible’ prices. I personally think it’s incredible that design of this kind can be so ignored; that a design should look as elegant in 2009 as on its introduction in the early half of the last century is surely the real marvel.
The other thing to do, once you have found the shoe-mine of your dreams, is to make sure the shoe wardrobe is reasonably well stocked and topped-up; variety is a friend of shoes. I feel desperately sorry for a pair of Oxfords worn every day. Selecting a pair of plain Oxfords and alternating with a pair of punchcaps, brogues or perhaps some rakish wholecuts is an option, as is the adoption of brown shoes which can look fabulous with blue and grey suits. Always make sure shoes are looked after (re-soled, protectively polished) to ensure years of happy use.