The Shoe Styles I've Known of: Plain Toe Bluchers

Updated: 2 days ago


(Photo from A little bit of rest)

The history of the Blucher is inextricably linked to its creator and name-sake; the Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. Blücher was renowned as a ferocious man who created many bitter enemies, both on the field of battle and in the courtroom. But our investigation here is focused on his near-obsession with military footwear.


In the large campaigns of the Napoleonic wars, soldiers were expected to march for weeks without changing uniforms (in Prussian Blue) or shoes. The incredible demands placed upon footwear by unrelenting use in cold, wet and muddy conditions required a new solution.


Blücher designed a shoe with a roomier last for use with thick woolen socks. He eschewed complex patterning for a design that minimized seams and stitched on the facings high on top of the vamp to increase water resistance. Simple, but tough leathers were used to maximise the lifespan of these creations. These design parameters remain in today’s many iterations. While wearing these shoes, his forces marched victoriously into Paris in 1815 following the famous Battle of Waterloo.


The Field Marshal (Photo from Wikipedia)

Interestingly, Napoleon repeatedly underestimated Blücher as a military leader, and characterized him as a very brave and resolute soldier, but with little to no capacity as a general. Indeed, his many catastrophic military failures are roughly equivalent to his resounding successes. Regardless of his actual abilities as a general, his skills in shoe design have been recognized in posterity.


Today, the Derby is recognized as a quintessentially British shoe, but the Blucher is recognised as a quintessentially American one. How this most European of designs should come to be so associated with the USA is perhaps through the role that American manufacturers played in assuring their ongoing success. Indeed, the design language of rounded lasts, robust leathers, and uncomplicated designs aligns with stereotypically American aesthetic preferences.


The Blucher is most commonly encountered with a plain toe, and this is the classic design that will be investigated in this article. The whole-cut uppers are best in textured leathers, suedes, or Cordovan, and will often be accompanied by a storm or reverse 360-degree welt and chunky rubber or leather double soles. Browns and burgundy are most suited to this style due to the casual nature of the design, but black can provide a chic option for those with more European stylistic sensibilities.


An unapologetically ‘chunky’ shoe, this design works best with similarly robust clothing fabrics and silhouettes. As befits its original design brief, this shoe makes a fantastic walking shoe in all conditions, be it on city streets or country paths. Although there are several attractive options in the Attainable category, spending a little more will bring access to very high-quality whole-cut leather uppers. The arguments for spending north of $800 USD could also be contested given the inherent rusticity of this shoe’s last and design.


 


Attainable


The options for this particular style are not overwhelmingly common in this price bracket (under $400 USD). While several Spanish makers are presenting interesting options, most options are available in the next price bracket, especially in more premium leathers.


On the other hand, while some Chinese-manufactured shoes have been extremely popular in recent years from brands like Grant Stone and Meermin, the author’s own lack of exposure and experience with these models leads to a reticence to recommend them. In the shoes presented, expect high-quality Goodyear welted manufacture with solid, but not flawless uppers and basic finishing.



Option 1. Skolyx PTB in brown suede

(Photo from Skolyx)

Skolyx is the house brand for the eponymous Swedish shoe care specialists and retailer. They provide a great quality-to-price ratio for classically styled shoes with an emphasis on great fit. This model is built in Mallorca on a 360-degree Goodyear storm welt, which increases weather resistance. The soles are a proprietary low-profile rubber sole and add to the shoe’s versatility and comfort.


The Ben last was developed to include the classically rounded toe shape while maintaining a relatively tight waist and supportive arch. This should enable the shoe to fit many feet well. Unfortunately, the patterning incorporates a single seam along the joint, which detracts slightly from the whole-cut appearance of the shoe.


The beautifully warm brown suede is from an unspecified Italian tannery, but its short nap and versatile colour should provide years of hard wear. This colour would especially suit being worn with gold socks, mid-wash denim jeans, a grey sweatshirt, and a gun club tweed raglan coat for a sporty and fun weekend look.



Option 2. Allen Edmonds Leeds in black calf

(Photo from Allen Edmonds)

This American heritage maker has a long and storied history of producing PTBs. The Leeds model is particularly favoured in Shell Cordovan, although in this author’s eyes, the price differential for that particular leather moves these shoes uncomfortably close to other manufacturers’ offerings with far higher quality standards. Rather, the unusual choice of black calfskin will be proposed as an alternative for a more formal dress.


This shoe features a super comfortable full leather insole and mid-sole that is unequaled in its ability to conform to the wearer's foot over time. Coupled with the voluminous 511 last, large instep lacing adjustability, and ten width options, this shoe is guaranteed to fit well. 360-degree storm welts and a double ‘butyl’ leather sole complete the package.


One caveat for Allen Edmonds shoes is that due to recent quality discrepancies, it may be worth choosing your pair in person from a retail store to avoid potential defects in the upper leather or finishing quality.


As previously alluded to, the combination of sleek black calfskin uppers and unapologetically casual patterns and last can make odd bedfellows. But this apparent contradiction can also open up new styling possibilities.


Playing off this juxtaposed theme, they could be paired with a suit in a casual cut in rough grey herringbone tweed, a black knit tie, and a pink oxford shirt for a playful yet classic town and country look.



Option 3. Löf & Tung Gessi in Mahogany Country Calf

(Photo from Skoaktiebolaget)

Another Swedish/Spanish option here, which cements the combination of Scandinavian design flair and Spanish manufacturing skill as the current leader in the attainable bracket. This model possibly presents the best value proposition from a pure specification perspective.


French-grained calfskin uppers (probably from Du Puy), genuine Dainite rubber soles, and a lovely harmonious design incorporating a 360-degree storm welt take this shoe to the next level. This design is built over the T last, which is a slightly more modern almond-shaped last with a touch of elongation. This slightly elevates the overall formality of the shoe, making it appropriate for relaxed business ensembles too.


In this vein, a fine pairing would be medium grey flannels which would play off the visual texture of the grained leather. Worn with navy socks, a burgundy wool sports coat, a blue broadcloth shirt and a navy club tie, one would stand out for all the right reasons. Such an outfit would be perfect for festive occasions, parties, or dates, where personality can be channeled through clothing.


 

Advanced


Option 1: Carmina 531 Oscar in Natural Shell Cordovan

(Photo from Carmina)

Carmina’s option provides our first foray into the classic upper material of shell cordovan. In the rarer ‘natural’ colour from heritage tannery Horween, the shoe presents a very different aesthetic impact to the darker tones more commonly encountered in the material. This is only enhanced by the natural storm welting and dark top-beading, which further casualize this pair with contrasting tones.


The construction of this shoe remains top-notch, as befits the use of such an exclusive upper material. The shoe is 360-degree Goodyear-welted over the Oscar last in Mallorca, Spain. This last provides a robust round toe with generous fitting properties and a classic demeanour. The double sole features the use of a proprietary studded rubber sole very similar in design to the ubiquitous Dainite product.


Due to the lighter colour and relative simplicity of the design, this model could provide a basis for both casual and more tailored looks. An outfit of light grey fresco trousers, a brown and tan houndstooth wool, linen and silk blend jacket, white shirt, and dove grey socks would present a summery outfit option for a driving holiday along the French Riviera.


Option 2. Crockett & Jones Lanark 3 in brown calf

(photo from Crockett & Jones)

The Lanark 3 is one of the more popular PTB’s from English manufacturers. It presents a very ‘true to format’ design, beautifully executed despite its understated styling. Despite being compared with options in the undoubtedly more special material of shell cordovan, this model’s fine-grained calfskin uppers from an unnamed French tannery (most likely Du Puy or Annonay) will develop a beautiful patina of their own over time.


The uppers are very finely made with wonderfully soft lining leather and are stretched over the 378 last, one of C&J’s latest designs which offers a blunted, more fashionable toe with a well-fitting heel section and roomy forefoot. The soles are Dainite rubber double soles and balance the robust last well, as well as offering years of hard-wearing before a resole is needed.


Having a darker colour calfskin and minimal design details will allow this pair to be worn slightly more formally. Paired with a corduroy suit in light brown, blue and white Bengal stripe shirt, navy grenadine tie, and mid-brown socks, these shoes would help to showcase the stunning colour combination of brown and blue in an outfit suitable for a casual office or relaxed wedding.



Option 3. Alden 990 in Colour 8 Cordovan

(Photo from Alden Madison)

Colour 8 cordovan from Horween is perhaps the most easily recognised hue in which the elusive material can be found. Alden takes this raw material and gives it their own spin, by re-treating the surface with another layer of dye. This takes the burgundy of Colour 8 to a deep purple-ish, almost aubergine colour, that is loved by footwear enthusiasts the world over.


The model 990 is thought of by Alden enthusiasts – and many beside - as the ultimate expression of the PTB; the Platonic ideal of the whole-cut derby. It is constructed entirely in the USA on the Barrie last, which provides the shoe with a chunky round toe with significant toe spring and an almost excessive roomy waist. Those requiring more support for their arches might be advised to try these shoes before purchasing. Double leather soles are the classic option for this model.


The unapologetically stout aesthetics of this shoe suit more casual outfits than formal ones. Fine worsted wools and sleek silk belong nowhere near this shoe. Rather, an outfit of grey brushed Shetland sweater, fawn cavalry twill trousers, blue OCBD, and forest green socks would be a timeless accompaniment to a shoe that might be expected to last nearly a century if cared for earnestly.


 

Aspirational


Option 1. Church’s Shannon in sandalwood polished binder

(Photo from Church's)

This model from venerable Northamptonshire manufacturer Church’s is included merely for the sake of completeness. The author has owned a pair of Church’s shoes from the 1980’s handed down from his father, and a pair manufactured in the years after the Prada purchase of the brand in 1999. The two shoes are of a relatively similar level of quality, although there exist massive differences in recommended retail price. In the current market, they are very difficult to recommend.


In this case, the Shannon model is regarded by many as the ‘ultimate rain derby’ (Bluchers still fall within the overall definitive category of Derbies), and thus necessitated inclusion here.


The uppers are made of a ‘binder’ leather, named so for the thin acrylic topcoat applied and heavy finishing that originally provided water protection to book covers. While this does do a fantastic job of providing weather protection, it also stifles the leather’s ability to breathe and develop a beautiful patina over time, as expected from the best full-grain calfskins.


This leather is pulled over the 103 last, a rather bulbous-toed last with generous fitting qualities, and a 360-degree storm welt. One legitimately functional and innovative detail is the inclusion of a Nappa leather bellows tongue, which further seals out water ingress into the shoe. The Soles are double leather and provide a visual solidity that matches the uppers well.


The lighter shade of sandalwood presented here would work exceptionally in a ‘winter white’ outfit of cream flannel trousers, ecru submariner’s sweater, camelhair polo coat, cream socks, and handstitched brown peccary gloves.


Option 2. Enzo Bonafe 2911 in Bourbon cordovan

(Photo from Rifare)

Enzo Bonafe presents another level of construction compared with previously examined shoes. The machine Goodyear-welting of prior examples is replaced by an inarguably-better hand-welted construction by artisans in the Bolognese atelier. Truly ‘handmade’ shoes, these are hand-lasted, hand-welted, and hand-finished, with only the outsole stitching done by a machine.


The lovely – and rare – bourbon colour of these shell uppers is mated to the relatively bulbous round-toe 363 MOD last (although others are available made to order), which provided a wider forefoot fitting with a slightly more sculpted mid-part and heel. Beautifully-finished single leather soles slim down the overall profile, while all other details are kept to an absolute minimum.


This model is especially popular in Japan, where the ‘cult of Ivy’ has been maintained since the late fifties by cult store VAN alongside style magazines such as Popeye and Free & Easy. For a fascinating examination of the Japanese adoption of classic American style, look for W. David Marx’s Ametora, a wonderfully written biopic of the historical events and cultural changes that occurred in post-WWII Japan that led to the rescue of the aesthetic from history.


This model perfectly fulfills even the very trained eye for detail that many Japanese adherents of the look possess. Suiting these stylistic preferences, this model would pair nicely with a pair of heavy Japanese selvage raw denim jeans, a 60/40 mountain parka in olive green, and a beige fair isle sweater.



Option 3. St Crispins MOD 520 five-eyelet derby in black

(Photo from St. Crispin's)

A slightly off-kilter recommendation here, as the last, colour and texture have some degree of incongruity with one other. Definitely not a beginner’s shoes, but then one might suggest that those contemplating St. Crispin’s footwear already have relatively advanced tastes.


This model is built upon the SAILOR last, which provides a very contemporary square toe and shapely lines. This sculpted shape, however, provides a unique fit and would be worth trying prior to purchase to ensure a good fit. The upper leather is a black de-bossed fine grain leather commonly labeled an ‘alpine’ or ‘pin’ grain.


Coupled with the already unusual upper combination is a Ridgeway rubber sole unit. This will provide a huge amount of traction in wet weather and the heavy lugs will provide years of wear before a resole is necessary. One exceptional element of these shoes is the included hollowed-out maple lasted shoe trees, a true work of sculpture in themselves.


While this shoe appears to be neither fish nor fowl, it could provide a fantastic option for a city worker in a semi-formal office who needs a wet weather shoe and isn’t afraid of showing his unique character in the ‘suspiciously square’ last. For this specific need, the supporting outfit could comprise of a charcoal worsted suit with a faint windowpane, a blue Glen check shirt, burgundy socks, and a Guards tie.


 

Conclusion

(Photo from Alden)

Although perhaps not the shoes you may think of as wardrobe essentials, plain-toe Bluchers continue to be the gold standard for those who ‘Dress to express, not merely to impress'. This is clear in the devotion to the model amongst Ivy-style enthusiasts, and in their modern adoption by adherents of the ‘Drake’s aesthetic’, whose well-clad models are often found in pairs of cordovan Alden 990s. In both style and construction, these shoes will stand the test of time and can be comfortably included in a shoe wardrobe for life.


Disclaimer: Any views represented in this article belong solely to the author and may not represent those of the blog owner. This article is not sponsored by any brands.


Photography: as stated, otherwise own

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