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The Story Behind the Popular Boat Shoe

Written by: Robert Charlton | May 8, 2014.

The boat shoe is a continued presence in men’s summer fashion with brands churning out pair after pair each year. The retro styled design owes to a history starting nearly 100 years ago, today we will look back at where the story began.

It started with sailors, fishermen and all of those working at sea prior to about 1935 growing sick of slipping on classic wooden decks. This was a major irritation to those who spent their lives working on board, cue the invention of the eponymous boat shoe with its grooved rubber sole.

Paul Sperry, an American sailing enthusiast who himself grew frustrated with the problem of accidents is the man credited with the invention the modern day deck shoe. He was amazed by his pet dog’s ability to maintain grip on a slippery surface, after closer examination, he copied the herringbone-style paw print groove and applied it to a pair of shoes to see if its effectiveness could transfer to combat his problem. To his amazement- it worked- and since then he had the initiative to go and produce these shoes on a wider scale and present them to the people who needed them.

It didn’t take off immediately though and Sperry ran into a few issues to start with. Firstly the idea of cutting treads into rubber was already invented by John Sipe- hence the term “siping”- and that was patented. Then, his chunky black boots became known for leaving unsightly black marks on a boat deck, so before it could cause further problems he switched to a white sole which left no marks, finally making them popular in the sailing community.

This is only half of the story though, as they made the unexpected and huge step into the fashion sector of the market, appealing to an audience much bigger than their functional niche. Before this transition, Paul invented the Sperry top-sider which would prove to be the final design to earn his shoe an iconic status. With a dark brown leather upper and a white soled rubber finish, the shoe gained a huge coup in securing a contract to supply the U.S Navy’s sailors with a top-sider having earned their recognition as an effective on-duty shoe. As the business began to snowball Paul Sperry eventually sold out to the U.S Rubber Company, who were about to take production to the next level.

How to Wear

As 1980 came the deck shoe, Top-Sider or boat shoe- whichever guise it might have been known by was to reach its peak in fashion, gaining huge sales in countries stretching from the US to China, Brazil the UK and elsewhere in Europe. The popular way to wear a boat shoe is with no socks just like the authentic sailor style of those who initially used these shoes as part of their day-to-day life. The upper leaves an area of your foot exposed meaning if you choose to wear socks they will be visible, so if you do its best to make sure you are wearing your best pair. Hygienically of course, it is much safer to wear them.

The success of these shoes in popular culture owes to their extreme versatility and ability to hold their own in any number of outfits. The most popular preference is to wear them with a slim trouser, chino or shorts but they are quite frequently worn with jeans too. Their construction doesn’t endear them to wearing in the colder winter months but much like their exclusion from formal wear, it is mainly down to personal preference and doesn’t need to be taken as gospel. A classic Oxford shirt or fitted polo are the perfect choices for combining with the boat shoe and are perfect for creating a relaxed, preppy look.

The boat shoe now comes in more colours and varieties than ever before. Below is music producer Pharrell Williams in his.

 

Comfort is the main priority when picking the right pair of boat shoes; they are designed to fit firmly around the ankle yet soft on the base of the feet, think of it almost as if you were finding a suitable fitting slipper.

Key Features:

-Traditionally a brown leather upper but now available in a mix of colours patterns and even materials

-Moccasin toe construction, traditionally hand-sewn.

-Usually made with laces matching the material of the upper (often leather) and with a distinctive two eyelet design.

-Waterproof, with grooved soles which gains traction and grip in slippery wet conditions by putting more sole in contact with the surface beneath your feet.

Here’s our look for the summer at Mainline Menswear:

Vivienne Westwood Polo T ShirtCarhartt ShortsBoat Shoe Ted baker

The success of the boat shoe has led to a larger amount of designers releasing this style of shoe, prominent producers include Timberland and Ted Baker, to see more looks, click here.

 

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