With Its 50th Anniversary, a Classic Shoe Proves It's Not Light in the Loafers
The first few years after the end of the Second World War had all the tumult that transitions tend to evince. Perhaps 1948, with its joyous beginnings and sad endings, was the prototypical postwar year. It seemed that people were more eager than ever to put bloodshed behind them, and the pace of returning to normalcy quickened.
In 1948, the U.S. Congress passed the Marshall Plan, allocating $12 billion for economic aid to Europe, and Harry S Truman was the first newly elected president in 16 years. W. H. Auden won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry with his presciently modern The Age of Anxiety, and T. S. Eliot, author of The Waste Land, the poem that set the literary tone for the first half of the century, was recognized with the Nobel Prize for literature. Alfred Kinsey published his scientific study Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which began to bridge that wide Victorian chasm between what we said we did and what we really did. Joe Louis retired after defending his title 25 times since 1937, and George Herman "Babe" Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, died. Aficionados of the sport of kings were treated to the only horse to win the triple crown for the next 25 years: Citation (Eddie Arcaro up, in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes).
Several new consumer items that year also indicated that the memory of the war was finally receding and civilian life was roaringly returning: the LP record, the Porsche 356 and the tassel loafer. The record and the Porsche have undergone considerable transformation since then, but the elegant tassel loafer is celebrating its 50th anniversary basically unchanged. A classic from the first.
It's easy to believe that the unflappable tassel loafer was around for much longer, that it might have been a creation of the elegance of the 1930s, as was the moccasin-style slip-on itself. The good old American loafer was really an adaptation of a Norwegian fisherman shoe, which became popular in America between the wars in Europe. It had been introduced in the States in 1936 by the Bass Shoe Co., which called the new style "Weejun," acknowledging its derivation.
By the latter half of the 1940s, this casual shoe had become de rigueur on college campuses across the country and was known as a "penny" loafer, after the fad of putting a copper coin in each of two instep slots. As such it became part of the postwar collegiate uniform of button-down shirts, khaki trousers, tweed sports jackets and Shetland crewneck sweaters. In a very short time, it had come to eclipse its greatest casual campus footwear rival, the saddle oxford.
Just about the time the penny loafer was solidifying its power as BSOC (Big Shoe On Campus), those graduates who had gone from prep school to Ivy League to Wall Street began looking for a comfortable, casual shoe that had a bit more sophistication. They were used to the idea of a comfortable slip-on, but needed something a bit dressier for life in the business world.
At this point in our story, we have specific information and can start naming names. Our first debt of gratitude goes to Paul Lukas. Not particularly well remembered today, in his time Lukas was known to moviegoers of the period as a rather debonair character actor (in such films as The Lady Vanishes and Watch on the Rhine). It seems that Lukas had bought a pair of oxfords in Europe that had little tassels at the ends of the laces. Very jaunty, thought Lukas, and...well, let me quote Robert Clark, vice president and spokesman for the Alden Shoe Co., at this pertinent juncture:
"Lukas took his shoes to New York shoemakers named Farkas & Kovacs, and asked them to make something similar, perhaps with the laces woven through the topline of the shoe. Lukas was pleased with the design Farkas came up with, but didn't like the fit. Then he took one shoe to the New York firm of Lefcourt and the other to Morris Bootmakers in Beverly Hills, asking them each to develop a better version."
Surprisingly, but perhaps not completely coincidentally, both stores brought the request to Alden. Not coincidentally because in 1948 Alden already had a 64-year reputation as one of the best shoemakers in the United States. At the time, the company's president was Arthur Tarlow Sr., a descendant of an original partner whose family had acquired the firm when founder Charles Alden retired in 1931; it remains a family business to this day. But back to Clark's story:
"Tarlow examined the shoe and thought he could come up with a better design. He produced a completely new pattern which incorporated the topside lacing and tassels in a slip-on version on a new, more comfortable last [shoe mold]. So what was originally an oxford was now a sophisticated slip-on, with the leather lace and tassel kept as decoration."
We can assume, then, that Paul Lukas was the first person to wear tassel loafers. But Alden realized there was something to these shoes. There was indeed a market for a shoe that was at the same time comfortable, casual and elegant. All of which has a decidedly contemporary ring to it, I know.
"Alden continued to experiment for another year with the design until they were satisfied," Clark goes on, "and decided to put the shoe into their production line for 1950. They chose the Lefcourt and Morris stores as the retail outfits of distinction to premiere the new shoe. Tarlow knew he was on to something when he got an order from Morris: a customer had ordered 26 pairs the first week the shoes were set out for display! The tassel loafer was an immediate success with the sophisticated tastes of New York and Los Angeles men, and by 1952 these two stores were carrying the shoes in some 20 varieties of color and leather."
In the years that followed, the tassel loafer was introduced to upscale traditional clothing stores around the country. Then, in 1957, Brooks Brothers, at the height of its fame as the Ivy League emporium, approached Alden and expressed an interest to include the shoe in its collection. "Especially for them," Clark explains, "Alden produced a tassel loafer with a distinctive decorative foxing at the back part of the shoe, which remains exclusive to Brooks Brothers." The foxing is the raised stitching on either side of the heel cup. Regular Aldens have a plain heel cup with a strip of leather up the back seam.
While the tassel loafer was made in a variety of colors and leathers--and still is--what we have come to think of as the ne plus ultra is the dark, reddish-brown Cordovan leather model.
The name is from Cordova, or Cordoba, the city in southern Spain thought to have been established by the Carthaginians and long having a reputation for fine leather, just as the central Spanish city of Toledo had the reputation for finely tempered steel sword blades.
Most good leather shoes are made from calfskin. Cordovan leather (its full and proper name is shell Cordovan) comes from the subcutaneous layer of the rump of a horse. Horses are not bred or raised specifically for this purpose (all shoe leather is a by-product of animals raised for different primary purposes). It takes a large work horse to provide two circular pieces of leather (the shells; each shell is sufficient for one pair of shoes), and since we use fewer and fewer work horses, shell Cordovan is very limited and in shorter and shorter supply. Only one tannery in the world provides Cordovan leather to the shoe trade: Horween Leather in Chicago. As it happens, Horween's other claim to fame is that it makes all the leather for National Football League footballs.
Shell Cordovan makes excellent shoe leather because of its superior durability, extraordinary softness and beautiful luster. It is the least porous of leathers, and is characterized by a waxy finish and rich patina that improves with wear and polishing. It has plenty of what you'd call character. "Funnily enough," adds Clark, "in the early part of this century, shell Cordovan was used primarily for razor strops. It was only after the Gillette Company almost put an end to Cordovan tannage through its introduction of the 'Blue Blade' for its safety razor, which needed no stropping, that the leather's suitability for shoes was explored."
High-volume production methods and fancy technology are powerless here. Old-school handwork is what gets the job done. The shells undergo a natural, pure-vegetable tanning process, then they are hand-stained, glazed and finished. Any imperfections disqualify the shell.
Today, Alden makes the legendary tassel loafer in oxblood, black, mahogany brown, whiskey (light) tan and ravello (dark) tan Cordovan (priced at around $375); and in burgundy, black, walnut brown, tan calf and brown suede (at around $245). The black calf version has been Alden's best-selling shoe for the past 40 years. It has become known as the lawyer's shoe, as when George Bush during his presidential campaign with Bill Clinton complained that Clinton was supported by "every lawyer that ever wore a tasseled loafer." And Bush, an Eastern Establishment guy if ever there was one, should know.
The shoe is also very popular in Europe and Japan. In Germany, it sells for twice the price sought in the United States, and in Japan, where there is something of a cult following, limited numbered editions sell out within a day or two for upwards of $750 a pair. "When other manufacturers complain of the closed market of Japan," Clark says with a smile, "I like to tell them that."
What accounts for this legendary status? Well, it's a top-quality, comfortable shoe of elegance and proportion, to be sure. But Bob Clark has come up with what is perhaps the best answer: "It's the versatility. For half a century now it's been an appropriate choice for both the boardroom and the country club. It lends respectability to the army of lawyers and lobbyists who pervade our corridors of power, and serves as a symbol of elegance and the good life for successful professionals and businessmen." And who should know better. *
For the nearest venue contact: Alden Shoe Co., 1 Taunton Street, Middleborough, Massachu-setts 02346. Phone: (800) 325-4252.
G. Bruce Boyer is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado on the subject of fashion.
CARING FOR YOUR CORDOVAN TASSEL LOAFERS
1 As with any leather, Cordovan shoes should not be subjected to drying heat. Stuff wet shoes with paper and let them dry naturally. Never store shoes near a source of heat.
2 Don't clean with any petroleum products. Harsh chemicals will destroy the leather's luster and ability to take a shine.
3 Wipe off any dirt with a soft, damp cloth before polishing.
4 Don't use a neutral polish, since it will only leave a white film on the Cordovan leather. Use a paste wax--never use liquid polish--of the same color as the shoe finish. Apply in small amounts to avoid build-up, working the paste into the leather. Brush first, finish off with a soft cloth.
5 Rest shoes a day between each wearing. Like suits, footwear should be rotated in the wardrobe.
6 Use a shoe tree that fits the shoe without stretching. Let shoes cool down and dry out a bit before inserting trees.
7 Finally, keep heels and soles in good repair. Practice preventive maintenance to insure longevity. Nothing kills a shoe like uneven wear, which causes stress and strain that eventually destroys the balance of the shoe. --GBB