At the gravitational centre of the parallel universes of dancing and dressing are one’s shoes. They are practically essential for the former; the sartorial fifth dimension similarly collapses without genuine footwear. I’m referring here to what could be called ‘classic’ footwear. It’s usually leather, goes well with a sports coat, requires polishing and all that. The fourth dimension, by the way, is time.
Shoes are a complex affair. The more that one considers the subject, the more profoundly is one impressed by the various ingredients and factors that contribute to this dome-shaped-on-top, flat-bottomed thing tied around one’s feet.
The indicators of quality in shoes are essentially: from what they’re made, how they’re made, and how they fit. These aspects’ importance is amplified in the ballroom due to the inherently more intense and varied pressures that dancing inflicts. Stylistically it’s about appearance, comfort, and the shoe’s artisanal provenance.
There exist manufacturers whose product ticks all three boxes, or two, or only one. These factors are mirrored by two categories of manufacturer: ready to wear, and its more sophisticated sibling made to order; and bespoke, and its more accessible sibling made to measure.
The who’s who of shoes is bespoke. Bespoke is able fully to satisfy the ‘fit’ criteria as each shoe is made singly to fit an individual foot: the left, and the right. Called a ‘last’, a wooden model of your foot is carved around which the cut leather pieces are sewn together. Producing a last is an exacting task in itself. Fit is more subtle than simply judging whether a shoe is long enough. True fit encompasses a three-dimensional feat of accommodating the shape of the ball, the heel, the bridge, the instep, and the toes. The natural consequence of the bespoke process is that there is no ‘shoe size’ but rather a unique form that is specific to the client’s contours and measurements.
In theory it could go either way with regard to the other two criteria: leather quality and construction method. In practice, providers of bespoke are simultaneously the masters of fit, of materials, and of make.
Made to measure attempts to offer the customised fit of bespoke without guaranteeing a perfect fit. Instead of a unique wooden model being carved, a generic last is modified so as to cater to particular dimensions of the client’s foot.
But let us saunter, before we attempt to sprint, and talk about ready to wear.
Ready to wear
Ready-to-wear embodies the overwhelming majority of footwear. RTW footwear is produced on standard lasts. Whereas in bespoke the shoe is made to fit the foot, in RTW one hopes that each of one’s feet will fit the left and the right shoe. Manufacturers offer a range of lasts in order that their shoes be able to accommodate the widest range possible of individual foot shapes. Made to order indicates that the customer can request any combination of last shape, leather type and shoe style offered within a manufacturer’s range and therefore maximise the possibility of a result that is suitable to the shape of the customer’s physical foot and sartorial desire.
Frankly speaking, however, a significant portion of RTW does not even merit consideration for wearing. For beating the fallen statue of a disposed political figure, perhaps (a more stylish form of protest I cannot imagine). But not for tying around one’s foot. Personally, footwear is not worth contemplation unless, at the least, it is constructed from quality material, the sole is Goodyear-welted, and the individuals who made it did so in a reasonable employment situation.
The result of applying these criteria to RTW is that the detritus of made in not-sure-where, from not-sure-what, by not-sure-whom disappears from the equation. The most easily recognisable characteristic that distinguishes the meretricious from the genuine article is brutally practical: the price. If the manufacturer holds an end-of-season sale then it’s usually that sale price that is indicative. It would be simplistic to specify a figure; more informative is to regard what’s on offer in terms of Goodyear-welted footwear, manufactured in the European Union, for example. Below this level the product is simply not worth the price: it rather represents poor construction, poor quality leather, and a factory with poor working conditions.
Leather quality, or canvas or crêpe or suede, is essential as it determines how long a pair of shoes will survive walking and dancing as well as whether the leather’s appearance will improve with age. Brands in the upper echelons of RTW are synonymous with the finest cuts of leather selected from the finest hides from the finest tanneries in Europe; all this is made to the highest technical and aesthetic standards in specialised factories.
Back in the troposphere, by contrast, this characteristic is also the trickiest factor to judge. There is little publicly available and accessible information concerning leather production and sourcing. For that reason I tend simply to assume that, if a manufacturer is going to go to all the trouble and expense to welt its shoes with a Goodyear machine in a country with respectable labour laws, then that commercial judgement presupposes a client who expects respectable materials to be thrown into the bargain. However, I do not know that as a fact.
My own experience of the accessible end of quality RTW is with two privately-owned companies producing Goodyear-welted footwear from factories in England: Sanders & Sanders, in Northampton; and Loake, in Kettering.
Loake also manufactures a range of shoes in a separate factory in India, with a suitably lower retail price. Location is not necessarily indicative of quality—despite the Parisian classical dance establishment’s frenzied mutterings concerning the Chinese national ballet company—however it may speak to employment standards. In any case, I own a pair of correspondent shoes from the Loake 1880 range, made in Northampton by an artisan and not by Oliver Twist.
Both companies are owned and managed by a family descendent of the Loake and Sanders brothers who founded each company. Again, not forcément relevant. At the same time, an enterprise owned by shareholders unconnected to the firm’s activity lends itself to being managed according to purely financial considerations. However, neither do I know that as a fact. It may simply demonstrate a romantic fancy on my part to imagine a proprietor-manager additionally concerned by artisanal interests alongside running a business.