Got sole

Wednesday, November 23, 2011
I'm always aware of how little most people seem to care about their footwear. Otherwise well-dressed men still wear the most apalling shoes. Perhaps they think that all black shoes are essentially the same. Unfortunately not. A good outfit can be ruined by shapeless shoes, made from dull leather that won't take a shine, with thin, bendy rubber soles.

People should care, though. As a starting point, it's worth giving some thought to how your shoe is constructed, and what this might mean.

Arguably the ne plus ultra of shoe construction, at least in the UK and the US, is the Goodyear welted shoe. Good shoe manufacturers will proudly advertise their shoes as Goodyear welted, so it won't be hard to spot, and this is not a bad indication of some level of quality.

What does it mean, though? Simply, that the leather upper is built with a welt, a strip of leather, running around the bottom edge. The sole is then stitched to this, with the stitches going all the way through the welt. This results in the sole extending by a few milimetres from the side of the shoe, and the stitches are visible running around the top. This can be faked, and sometimes is, but it's not too hard to spot. If the stitches are real thread (i.e. not molded into a rubber sole) and match up to stitches on the underside of the sole, then it's real goodyear welting.

The advantages all stem from not having the stitches going into the inside of the shoe. Firstly, this means that water drawn into the thread by capillary action doesn't end up in the shoe damaging the inner sole and getting your feet wet. In addition, when the time comes to resole the shoe, it's considerably easier to remove the old sole and stitch on a new one because there is no need to touch the upper or the interior of the shoe at all.

An alternative method, reputed to be more popular with Italian designers, is Blake Construction. In this method the sole is stitched directly up into the bottom of the shoe. The disadvantages are esentially the reverse of the advantages of Goodyear - the stitches are inside the shoe, meaning that water can be brought in, and it is somewhat harder to resole the shoe. It's not impossible, though, contrary to what some people might tell you.
The advantages of Blake construction are that there is no need for the sole to be any wider than the shoe itself. This allows for the narrower, lighter shoes that some Italian designers prefer.

Another option is for a cemented, or glued, sole. That sounds pretty unpleasant, and it's certainly not ideal, but it does have its place. The disadvantages are that the sole is glued firmly in place and therefore very difficult to remove and replace when worn down. The advantage, though, is that the sole can be extremely thin. This makes a glued sole best suited to evening shoes, as the fact that they are worn rarely (and mostly indoors) means they wear down very slowly, and they look most elegant when they are as slim as possible. Chunky soles on an evening shoe just looks wrong, as illustrated by the pictures below. The first is an Allen Alden evening shoe with a Goodyear welted sole (and open laces, which is not great, but never mind). The second is a Barker shoe with a cemented sole. My view is that, on a patent leather evening shoe, the cemented sole looks considerably better.

Other types of construction exist, although many are just variations on the above, but these are the most common and the ones you are most likely to need to choose between. Hopefully, this quick guide is of some use.