The correct shoes to wear with white tie are court shoes (or what Americans call ‘opera pumps’). This shoe has been used for several hundred years and is the only thing left that hasn’t been changed from the time of Brummell. Hence, the traditional sartorialist must not be put off by them or think ill of them. Oxford laceups are acceptable but not as elegant as court shoes. If you were going to wear breeches in lieu of trousers with white tie for its most formal version, then you must wear court shoes, there’s no ifs or buts about it.
The more ancient form of court shoes had buckles and this kind is still used today for court dress. The bow was introduced by Brummell and it is this type we are interested in for white tie, evening dress and alternative court dress.
The modern made version is slightly different in that the bows are larger and are flat against the shoe. There are two types of bow: pinched and flat.
The leather used is traditionally patent leather or plain box calf leather as some prefer it nowadays. A note about patent: there are three kinds. One is the traditional waxed calf, one is leather with a plastic coating and one is the artifical leather. Luckily, the artifical leather is never used for court shoes by modern makers as those who wear court shoes are not cheapskates or fancy dress wearers. The majority is made of plastic coated leather. Waxed calf is when the suede side is polished with blacking and a deer horn to create a mirror shine. This type of leather can only be obtainable through bespoke means or if you’re lucky enough, vintage means. In any case, the leather must be highly polished to a mirror shine as scruffy or matt shoes at night will not do. The lining can be quilted or leather of whatever colour to wish as the lining won’t be seen anyways.
But where to get court shoes? If going down the bespoke option you could do no better than John Lobb or Henry Maxwell (at St. James’s St. and Jermyn St. respectively). G. Cleverley (of the Royal Arcade) also do a bespoke. For the RTW option, there are Ede & Ravenscroft, Church’s, Crockett & Jones and some of the bespoke shoemakers that do RTW lines stock some (the price is around £200). However, I have found a shoemaker that actually makes them to order for far cheaper than RTW: Broadland Slippers. For £139 (as of Oct 2012; £105 when I bought them, then £115) and free shipping in the UK, it is a bargain and the same price level as some high street retailed shoes (as a side note, Broadland actually make RTW models for some of these mentioned retailers…). This is were I got my pair from.
Now, you must know that court shoes do not fit like normal laceups do. For one, the vamp has a lower and bigger opening so unlike laceups were there is more material to cover the top of your foot, there is nothing much there to keep the foot inside the shoe.
Note that proper court shoes have a lower vamp. If it has a higher vamp or even a flap then it is not correct!
You can see that the above example is basically a slip-on bordering on slipper with a bow stuck on. Court shoes have a lower vamp and bigger opening to allow the silk stockings to be seen more clearly. The bow goes at the beginning of the opening (where the buckle use to be located). It also should not be a loafer shoe with a bow stuck on.
Therefore, normal shoe sizing goes out the window. The shoes must fit snuggly or when you walk, your heel will slip out. It is safe to say that the shoes ought to be at least two sizes smaller than your normal size.
I did not know this of course when ordering so I ordered a size 8 in plain calf with a pinched bow. After several weeks of wait, these came back:
The leather was very matt and wasn’t what I was expecting. Thus, I spent a few hours using the spit and polish technique to get them up to scratch as you can see above. However, after wearing them for a bit afterwards I noticed that my heel kept slipping. The shoes seem too big. In any case I had to contact them and return them for correction. They asked for the measurement of the length of my foot and the circumfrence measurement around the toe part of my foot.
The shoes were sent back and remade and after another two months or so of wait the new pair arrived:
As you can see, I decided to go for the patent as the calf leather they used took too much effort to get to a decent shine. They actually sized down by two so now it is a 7. I tried them on and the fit is spot on. However, there was still the issue of the heel slippage. The heel section isn’t sufficiently tapered inwards to grip my heel enough to hold it inside the shoe.
I relayed this back to Broadland and they happily accepted them back for corrections. After more waiting (where they remade a new pair) the results landed on my doorstep. I then noticed that they sized down by two again so now it is a 6! With much trepidation, I slipped them on.
One thing is for sure; the heel slippage was no more. However, the fit is now very tight. My toes are pressed against the front of the shoes with some discomfort. I also noticed that my left foot was slightly longer than my right. But after wearing them around the house with my silk socks on, I began to get use to them and with time I think they will loosen up and be less tight.
If you are planning on ordering or buying court shoes, here is some advice. Make sure you try existing pairs on (at one of the high street shops that stock them) in different sizes and find one that fits. You must make sure the heel does not slip as that can be very annoying and you don’t want to keep worrying all night as to whether you’re going to have a Cinderella moment and leave your shoe on the staircase! This means that the shoe would be rather tighter than wearing normal shoes so bare this in mind. With the correct size in your knowledge, you could then order in confidence (you should provide foot measurements, etc). Of course, if you want very good fit and comfort then it has to be done via bespoke.
I have since sold the pair off. The reason was because they were actually too tight and to the point of pain when walking! Thus I will order a pair size 6.5 instead as thus seems to be the logical size (with 7 being right but with heel slippage). In any case, my associate, Mr Pinsent, has told me that one way to stop the heel slippage was to insert a wad of tissue inside your socks at your heel (a piece of advice by his grandfather) so this, although not idea, is what one can do in the absence of a bespoke shoe. I would imagine Broadland could make you a bespoke pair (buy properly measuring your feet, etc) but the costs my be huge.
Regarding socks, there is currently a trend to wear coloured socks (e.g. red, etc) with evening dress. This is to be discouraged as its adoption does not seem to have any authority as far as the style guides are concerned or make any sartorial sense as they will draw the eye to the feet when concentration should be above as well as disrupt the harmony of the black-and-white colour scheme (colour, if used, should be restricted to the accessories, such as the pocket handkerchief, and buttonhole). You could be forgiven for wearing coloured socks with a patent Oxford or the like but whatever you do you must never wear coloured socks with court shoes. There’s no argument as far as that’s concerned.
The size 6.5 ones came today and they fit better. They are not as tight as the 6 which means wearing them won’t be a pain and also my heel does not slip out when I walk in them so more or less, they now fit perfectly for me without major issues.