101 easy ways to dress better. No. 13: The right colour shoes

Monday, May 16, 2011
I don't know why I hadn't done a post on this before. It may be because I consider it so blindingly obvious as to not be worth mentioning but it seems that is not the case, so let me reiterate: gray or blue suits must, with only a very very few exceptions, be worn with black shoes.

Is this just me being old-fashioned and dogmatic? Perhaps, if the state of men's footwear I see on the underground is anything to go by, I am hopelessly alone in this view. Nevertheless, I stand by it and believe it will remain correct long after more fleeting fashion norms have come and gone. Why? Is it simply a subjective convention, that only looks odd to my eye because of what I am used to, or is there an objective reason why brown shoes with a business suit generally looks disastrous?

My first job was working for a video production agency. My boss taught me an important rule of thumb for setting up a shot, or adding post-production effects. When looking at an image, the eye is generally drawn to the brightest or lightest object on the screen. Much the same applies when someone is looking at you. Their eyes will, even if they aren't aware of it, flick all over you and become drawn to lighter and brighter options. Hopefully these should be your tie, the part of your shirt that is visible and, perhaps, your pocket square. This draws the eye upwards, towards your face. The rest of your suit, however beautiful, serves in large part simply to frame this. What about your shoes, though? So long as your shoes are darker than your suit, or similar in shade, they won't distract the eye and pull it downwards, away from your face. If, on the other hand, you wear lighter coloured shoes with a dark suit, or simply shoes that are drastically different in shade from the rest of the suit, they will become a distraction and jar with the rest of the outfit. That, at least, is my theory for why I find it such a distasteful style.

From another point of view, brown shoes are significantly more casual than black, and so look very strange with an otherwise smart outfit. But then, perhaps brown being casual is, again, mere convention. Break the rules if you wish, you certainly won't be alone. However, there will be places where people will notice and will judge you unfavourably. Since these places will include law firms, City banks and private clubs, you may find it to your advantage to follow the convention.

Wait, though - I'm not going to leave it there. You can wear brown shoes with a grey or blue suit so long as you do so discriminately. I would suggest that at least a few, if not most, of the following conditions need to be satisfied to make this a success.

  • You are in the country or, if in town, it's a weekend (or, at the very least, a Friday)
  • Your suit is light coloured
  • Your suit is made from a soft or more casual material such as flannel
  • Your suit is plain or checked
  • Your trousers have turn-ups
  • The shoes are dark brown or, better yet, oxblood
  • The shoes have closed laces
Many well-dressed men probably instinctively know when they can get away with wearing brown shoes, and haven't even considered the above criteria. Those who are less certain might find it a useful guide. Good luck.