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Tasseled Loafers

With Its 50th Anniversary, a Classic Shoe Proves It's Not Light in the Loafers
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

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."

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