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Perspective: He's a Sole Man

'Casual' shoes for men used to mean the Oxfords too grubby for church—then came JFK

Photo: RunPhoto via Getty Images

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While most men are hardly aware of the fact, they all owe a debt of gratitude to John F. Kennedy. Yes, there was that Cuban Missile thing he diffused. But an improbably more enduring legacy survives, of all places, under your bed. Gents, next time you pull on a casual dress shoe, thank Jack.

Prior to 1961, though men could opt to relax in cardigans and denims, footwear options had scarcely evolved beyond the stiff triumvirate of Oxford, Loafer, and Brogue. The average male owned two pairs of one of these, and “going casual” basically meant wearing the older pair. (Don’t believe us? Check out the prewar ads showing men wearing hard-soled lace ups while they mowed the lawn.)

Then, in the flicker of a cathode-ray tube, it all changed. “TV caught the Kennedy boys in action, playing football, relaxing on the porch, looking very casual,” says Vasilios Christofilakos, chair of the accessories design department at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. “Suddenly, men said, ‘I want to look like John and his brothers.’”

For the record, John was wearing navy cotton sweaters, Wayfarer sunglasses, sea-island cotton khakis (slim cut), and, on his feet, Top-Siders. The fashion seed had been planted and, as Christofilakos puts it, “Trendsetters picked up on it immediately.” One of those trendsetters was a bit unlikely: the Brown Shoe Co. of St. Louis. Founded in 1878, Brown and its rock-hard Balmorals were about as far from Cape Cod cool as things got. Still, Roblee (a Brown subsidiary brand) felt the style pulse change and made it to market just in time with 1962’s “Country Club casuals.”

The Country Club shoe melded the traditional profile of the formal leather upper (notably, the quarters and topline) with the rubber sole and welt of a sneaker. To get its message across, Brown ran a photo of what “casual” usually meant for men—i.e., a ratty pair of hard-soled derbys—along with instructive copy that got them hip, just in case they’d missed the newsreels of the Kennedys at play in Hyannis. When “work is wrapped up for the day,” Country Club casuals were there to help you “enjoy those leisure hours in style!”

It’s obvious that even the Goldwater Republicans paid attention because today 59 percent of American men own five or more pairs of shoes, and, among the affluent, the average is 12. As a category, “sport leisure” shoes grew 11.9 percent last year, per the NPD Group.

Today, 49 years after Roblee elbowed men in the ribs about their grubby footgear, the Cole Haan ad (below) is a full flowering of a trend just budding during Camelot. The ad for those blue suede deck shoes employs no contrasting image of yesterday’s beat-to-hell wing tips, and no explanatory text, either. Hell, the shoes don’t even have a name. But what’s lacking speaks volumes about what’s actually present. Men, Christofilakos says, simply don’t need to be told about footwear anymore.

“It’s all about visual impact now,” he says, “and those shoes can be anything. They could be for dad or his son. The retro appeal is very strong, too.” You can almost see a young president sporting them with rolled-up khakis aboard the Honey Fitz.