This post is a reprinting of a post on AAAC’s Trad Forum by Billax. Billax is not only one of my style role models, but a friend and a man that was Trad back when it was called Ivy League.
The loafer is a slip-on shoe created from a soled and heeled Moccasin. It is a sub-set of slip-on shoes. Web searches show Spaulding to be the first producer in the USA of such a shoe, c. 1933. The MUCH more famous Bass Weejun didn’t show up until 4 years later – when G.H. Bass introduced the flat-strap penny loafer in 1937. The “Weejun” name is a corruption of Norwegian, in reference to the country of origin of the the original loafer. The term loafer, so Internet experts propose, comes from the “loafing sheds” on farms adjacent to their cattle barns. Apparently, Esquire Magazine spotted these slipper-like shoes on the feet of farmers working around the barns and loafing sheds of Norway and brought them to the attention of their then-vast readership. The link between Norwegian farmers, loafing sheds, Esquire, and slippers is, apparently, lost in the mists of time. Just as an aside, 1937 was a landmark year for iconic traditional apparel. Not only the year of the Weejun introduction, but also the year in which Baracuta introduced their G9 jacket. If you have both Weejuns and a G9, you’re pretty much approaching icon status yourself!
How does any of this relate to me? Well, from my escape from the womb in 1942 until late in High School, my Mom bought my shoes at Sears. Most folks today have no idea how dominant Sears was as a retailer in the late 40s through the 50s. There were very few specialty stores – of any kind – though we’d walk right past a Thom McAn shoe store on the way to buy shoes at Sears. How amazing Thom McAn was to me – a store that sold only shoes! Oh, Man, did I ever want to go inside! But, Sear’s it was. My Mom or Dad, though mostly my Mom, would ask the Sear’s shoe salesman to fit me with a pair of Oxfords,
“with room to grow.” Out came the Brannock device.
I stood on the machine, put my feet into the slot, and the salesman, my Mom, and I all peered into our portals. The shoe guy would say, “Wiggle your toes,” and we’d all see a real-time, moving Xray of my feet within a vague outline of the shoe. The salesman would say, “Plenty of room to grow, Ma’am,” and my Mom would say, “We’ll take them.” That was the shoe buying experience for me until my Junior year in High School, when I no longer needed “room to grow” for my shoes.
In the summer after my Junior year in High School, I asked the folks for a little cash to buy some Keds. Fifty cents a week for allowance wasn’t enough to allow me much autonomy. My Dad spoke up for me and gave me money enough to buy a pair of Keds. But a few months later, the college cousins came to my house for Thanksgiving, wearing identical Bass Weejuns. I was thunderstruck! They were the most beautiful shoes I had ever seen. Heck, other than ’57 Chevys, they were the most beautiful “things” I had ever seen.
The flat strap, the moccasin construction, the permanent sheen of the Brush-off leather – they were over the top to me. My Uncle Jack, Dad to the Northwestern cousin, saw me staring and studying. Although it’s a story for a different time, my Uncle Jack was a VERY sharp dresser. To close this sidebar, in the late 50′s he wore Florsheim Imperial Longwings, 3/2 Tweed sport coats, Amber-colored Peccary gloves (though I only came to know the word peccary a couple of years ago), and the most dramatic Black and White, Raglan sleeved, Wool Herringbone Top coat I have EVER seen.
But back on topic, my Uncle had a short, private, conversation with my Dad. After the guests had left, my Dad said he’d noticed my interest in the cousins’ shoes. He went on to say that, “I like those shoes myself, Son, so go get yourself a pair for college.” It was still ten months until I would enroll in college, but I’d been given the green light! They didn’t have Weejuns at Sears, or at Thom McAn, but I finally found them at a Department store. No fluoroscope machine was employed, but the “shoe guy” found me a great pair. I kept them – unused – in their box until the day I arrived at college.
I have had at least one pair of Weejun’s in my closet ever since. Life has mostly been good to me, and over the years, I’ve ended up with several pairs of loafers – in Shell Cordovan, in Sharkskin, and other exotica. But the shoes that most often have their trees removed are Weejuns.
During my college years, I wasn’t that sensible. Heck, I’m not that sensible now. I bought things that I didn’t need or even particularly like. I bought Hanover Venetian loafers and I never bought another pair of Venetians.
I find nothing wrong with Sebago Caymans and Sebago beefrolls.
Had my cousins’ worn those, I would have bought, and been loyal to, that brand. Of course, in the 50′s and 60′s nearly every shoe manufacturer made and sold flat strap Penny loafers. But the first ones I knew about and the ones with that evocative name, stayed my choice. I was – and I remain – a Weejuns guy.