Fairly recently a lawyer friend of mine called me up rather frantically to ask me a question which, while perhaps not containing the same level of depth as that of “what’s the meaning of life”, is about as age-old. “Brown or Black?” he asked in regards to his shoe color. He didn’t want to make a bad impression on his first day at the law firm he had just been hired at. Here my friend was educated at some of the finest institutions ever known in North America including having his Bachelor’s from Yale and a law degree from Harvard and yet an education in proper shoe attire had managed somehow to elude him for the past thirty years.
I am highlighting my friend’s ignorance not to subject him to ridicule but to illustrate the fact that the lack of knowledge on what shoes to wear is not just limited to those among us who would say that their “best” shoes had a Nike swoosh branded on them somewhere, but that it also infects those who make their living exclusively in the rigid sartorial world of the suit and tie. It turns out “we” are all in the same boat when it comes to when to wear black or brown. I could get into detail as to why I believe the ignorance of how to properly wear what shoe, along with other sartorial customs, became so persuasive in modern culture, but that would take up more words than are currently counted in the Encyclopedia Britannica and alas this column only allows for so much. Instead, I will provide you with a few rules on when is best to wear each.
The old adage that if you can afford one pair of shoes then buy black, and if two then brown along with it stands as true today as it did when the first Oxford came into existence. The reason anyone wears a black shoe is the same reason that you wear black stocks when dressing up — it is the bare minimum that you need do in order to be “dressed” up. It also, of course, goes with almost anything, whether it be the “traditional” suits of midnight navy, dark grey or black, you can never go wrong with a black shoe and always be sure that you’re going with the “safe” bet. The only time that black is a horrible choice is when your clothing happens to be extremely light, or extremely bright. It is no wonder that in the land of linen that is Miami, FL or the resort areas of the Caribbean you will find black shoes about as frequently as you will see an Iberian Lynx in the wild.
Brown is the color that steps into black’s place when your attire may be more fitting of a leisure activity; is it any wonder that the majority of sandals, in fact, are of the brown variety? Brown, however, does also look to add a bit of spice, if you will, to the lighter dress suits such as the plan grey or traditional navy. It is the slightest sign that you indeed have “stepped it up” a bit in your attire, going from well dressed to best dressed. You do want to make sure to stay away from brown with the richly colored dark suits such as the aforementioned ones that are black’s domain. Instead of appearing to have stepped it up, you may look like you stepped out of a clown car. So there you have it, although you may not be able to compete with a degree from Yale and Princeton at a cocktail party, you will certainly have at least one area for one-upmanship.