Playing around with white bucks
During sunny weather in the past few weeks, I've been playing around with these old shoes from Lodger, the shoe shop that used to be on Clifford Street in London, and where I first started writing about menswear.
The shoes were a recreation of a 1920 tennis shoe, made in white nubuck with this extra band behind the toe cap.
They are not white bucks - the shoe identified with upper-class society in the US (hence the 'white shoe' law firms I used to write about in my previous career), and part of Ivy traditions of menswear.
But they're close enough to allow me to play around with wearing the style of shoe, and seeing what I like it with.
Now in theory, white bucks go with anything.
They're historically a smart shoe, worn with Summer suits and other warm-weather tailoring. Although they have a derby construction and usually a pretty round last, their stark white colour makes them quite smart.
Formal pale shoes are not that unusual historically, but these became the best known thanks to Ivy students that went on to wear them in their establishment careers - and popular figures such as singer Pat Boone in the 1950s.
You see echoes of that today in fashion brands more than lawyers. Thom Browne is a good example, though Fred Castleberry is a better one. Fred styles white bucks with tailoring very effectively, and even though his style is usually too fashion/showy/plain unusual for me, he’s always worth checking for inspiration.
Below: three eras of white dress shoes.
On the more casual side, you see white bucks commonly worn with jeans and chinos, and they can look great.
The whiteness suits casual trousers in the same way as a white sneaker, and here the round-toed shape is an advantage. The traditional red sole helps as well.
I think the look tends to be best with an open-necked shirt and some fairly simple or formal colours elsewhere, such as white, navy and grey (examples below). Wearing a necktie or bowtie pushes it over the edge.
It can also be easier to wear them casually when the bucks are more worn in - scuffed and even plain dirty.
This too is an Ivy tradition, though its roots might have partly been in just how hard it is to keep white shoes clean, rather than an aesthetic choice.
The results of my personal playing around were that I did like the tennis shoes in both smart and casual outfits, but not too smart or too casual.
So while they did work with this pale-grey suit, it required the shirt to be open-necked and even then the shoes stood out a lot. Not what I was after.
And with jeans they were usually too smart - even a simple dark, straight-leg jean like these from Blackhorse Lane.
The latter might have been because the shoes were too white still, having recently been cleaned, and they might work better when scuffed up. But I'm not going to go around rubbing them on walls just to find out. That will have to come with time.
So, slightly smart and slightly casual.
The outfit above is the casual option. The chinos aren’t quite as rough as jeans would be, and the the shirt elevates it significantly. A white collared shirt under a grey crewneck is clean and neat.
I probably also feel more comfortable in this combination because it has Ivy elements in common with the white bucks, namely the chinos and the shetland sweater.
This is largely meaningless in terms of cultural associations, given this is the UK not the US. To anyone walking by these are just white shoes, not white bucks.
But these traditional combinations are often a rich seam for mining ideas. There will usually be reasons they worked historically, which might well pertain today.
The smarter equivalent is a menswear uniform of navy top and grey bottom, but while the trousers are tailored, the top is not. It’s a cotton sweater rather than a blazer.
More subtly, the white shirt reflects the shoes, and the trousers are light grey rather than mid- or dark. Both help the shoes to stand out less, and the whole seem more harmonious.
You’re still wearing white dress shoes in a city where there’s a chance not one other person is. But they would stand out even more with navy or charcoal trousers.
Both outfits would be nice without the knitwear, by the way, and in warm weather they wouldn’t be required. But as explained here, I think sun is more important than temperature or season when it comes to wearing white.
I’ve also played around with a navy overshirt, rather than the cotton knit, which is more practical if you’re out and about.
And I like a vintage military-green piece as equivalent outerwear with the casual outfit. Either jungle jacket or M-65, depending on the weight required.
Playing around, by the way, usually means trying out outfits on my bed or valet, and then wearing potentials for a day or two, with rather too many glances in shop fronts or cars windows.
It’s fine, I tell myself, it’s my job.
The shoes were cleaned by Tom, aka The Jaunty Flaneur, last Summer.
The traditional method is to apply white powder to the surface, but this is basically just covering up the dirt. Better is to try and remove them, initially with a Gommadin block (Saphir's answer to a pencil eraser) which lifts some stains away with friction. A steam and brush can help too.
With white you usually want to avoid wet treatments, as it can create new water marks; but here Tom did use Saphir Omni-Nettoyant suede shampoo as well, and that worked OK.
In terms of where to buy white bucks, I haven’t shopped for them myself so can’t provide any direct recommendations, but Alden is the standard. I’m sure readers will be able to fill in other options.
This post also reminds me, now I think about it, how interesting Lodger was. Nate and the team turned out a new shoe design every month - initially two a month - of which this tennis shoe was one of the first. Such investment in design.
They also sold them for a while using a ‘reverse auction’ model, where the price dropped steadily until someone bought them. That was quite unreliable, but still innovative compared to shoe companies today.
The clothes shown are:
- White button-down shirt, bespoke from Luca Avitabile
- Grey shetland sweater, Berwick shetland from Trunk Clothiers, size Medium
- Old ‘Army’ chinos from The Armoury, no longer sold
- Woven leather belt, E Tautz
- Large Working Tote bag from Frank Clegg
- White linen shirt, bespoke from Luca Avitabile
- Dark navy cotton sweater, Anderson & Sheppard, size Small
- Bespoke trousers from Solito in ‘Crispaire’ high-twist wool from Holland & Sherry
- Jaeger Le-Coultre Reverso watch in yellow gold
Photography: Alex Natt @adnatt