Let’s get something out of the way: We will not be discussing Crocs here. This is a guide to the stylish men’s slip-on shoes that have gained popularity over the past few years. As menswear skewed toward comfort after the Great Quarantine, slip-ons provided a relaxed alternative to laced shoes. While ease of use has been the primary appeal luring men away from laces, aesthetics have been the other driving factor. Wearing slip-on shoes passively declares that you can’t be bothered with laces. You’re in a position to disregard constraining footwear customs and who doesn’t enjoy shirking the rules?
To be more specific, the slip-on shoes we are discussing here are made of leather, some sort of knit fabric, or velvet. The primary uniting attribute is that they all have a separate sole and upper that has been sewn together. This feature alone categorizes them as proper shoes, separate from sneakers or any kind of injection molded footwear (i.e. Crocs, Clogs, Yeezy Runners). They are all based on classic designs that go back anywhere from 100 to 400 years, predating all modern laced footwear. This heritage provides a nobility that can offset any boorish perceptions. Your sneaker-soled oxfords are nice, but Winston Churchill wore velvet slippers.
There are men’s slip-on shoes available for any occasion, and it would be easy to end up with a sizable collection. Once you’ve ditched laces, after all, you’re never going to want them back. Fortunately, you only really need two pairs to get by. A casual pair that you don’t mind beating up will get you through most of your day-to-day life, and a formal pair that you keep in good condition and break out for special occasions. This guide will take you through the history and uses of the major slip-on shoe styles that are popular these days. Then you can decide for yourself which men’s slip-ons work best for you. Who knows, maybe it will be all of them.
Mocs, Boat Shoes, and Driving Shoes
Moccasins, commonly shortened to mocs, are the quintessential American slip-on shoe. Shoemakers in the New England Colonies, when they were still British, started making their own interpretation of the footwear worn by the local Native Americans. Other than some minor improvements in technology and the addition of a rubber sole, the basic moc design has not changed since then. A single leather panel sits on top of the foot while another panel wraps around the side of the foot. A leather lace is fed through eyelets behind the heel, around the ankle, then through two pairs of eyelets on the top panel where it ties at the ankle. Rather than a lace going over the tongue that ties and unties every with every wear, the moc lace cinches the ankle to the desired tightness that will keep the shoe secure while still allowing the wearer to slip it on and off.
The moc design was so brilliantly simple that it remained essentially unchanged for two hundred years. Then Paul A. Sperry decided that he could make a version better for sailing. Inspired by the wrinkles on the pads of his dog’s feet, he added a wavy texture, known as sipping, to the rubber sole of his mocs. This provided traction in wet conditions. He also added a four-hole tab closure over the tongue to prevent the shoes from sliding off. These improvements produced a seaworthy moc that Sperry dubbed the Top-Sider. Eventually, the style became known as the boat shoe.
Mocs, boat shoes, and their cousin, driving shoes, are entryway slip-ons. They are the most common place to start your laceless journey and for many, they’re good enough for life, popular with teenagers and dads alike. From a style perspective, they’re essentially a stand-in for sneakers. They’re so rich in American fashion history that they’re always a safe bet, meaning that they’re a good place to start but there are much more exciting ship-on shoe options out there.
Loafers are perhaps the most accurately and amusingly named item in all of menswear. To loaf around means to be relaxed and not busy. The term comes from the shoe’s original role as off-duty apparel for the English upper class in the early 1900s. A slip-on leather upper with a dignified sole, the style quickly immigrated to America where it became a stylish casual shoe in the 1920s. In 1936, Maine shoemaker G.H. Bass introduced a loafer with a saddle strap wrapped over the tongue for extra support. Legend has it that school children used to stash pennies in the saddle strap which led to people referring to that style as penny loafers. Penny loafers became the most common style of loafer because of their sleek aesthetic.
Loafers crossed over into popular fashion during the 1950s. Brookes Brothers and Alden Shoe Makers collaborated on the first tassel loafer design. It was a nod to the moccasin that added a sophisticated flair to the loafer. Around the same time, Italian designer Aldo Gucci redesigned the loafer with a sleek finish, longer rounded toe, and a gold horse bit over the tongue. A few years later, Henri Bendel introduced his loafer design featuring a flatter slipper-like sole with a shorter heel, piping around the vamp, and a distinct leather bow on the tongue. Bendel named his design after the country where they were produced, Belgians. These three evolutions elevated loafers into formal wear status.
Take a look at any suiting editorial or marketing and you will notice that oxfords have been replaced with loafers as the default formalwear shoe. That is because formalwear has become decidedly less formal over the past couple of years. However, loafers are just as useful as an everyday shoe. As the ultimate do-it-all shoe, they can play up with formal wear and down with casual wear. Think of them as a more sophisticated alternative to mocs and boat shoes.
Some of the most stylish slip-on shoes come from outside the English-speaking world. Espadrilles are a simple design consisting of a wound rope sole with a fabric wrap upper. The name is derived from the style of rope that was originally used to construct the sole. They were originally worn by poor people in France and Spain, but their light and comfortable design made them fashionable in the early twentieth century. Today they are a popular vacation shoe in Europe and everyday summer shoe in America.
Huaraches are a modern interpretation of footwear worn by the indigenous peoples of the area that became Mexico and the southwest United States. Narrow pieces of leather are woven together in a basket pattern to form the upper which is attached to a solid leather sole. They’re often referred to as sandals, an indication of their relaxed nature, but they are technically solid leather slip-on shoes. Huaraches have been popular for generations in Southern California but their popularity is growing globally. They’re a fancier alternative to a sandal and a more breathable alternative to a loafer in hotter climates.
Turkish-style slippers, sometimes referred to as Persian, have been worn throughout the Middle East and North Africa for centuries. They’re made from a two-panel upper woven together, either front to back or side by side, with a prominent welt stitch attaching the upper to a flat, flexible leather sole. The upper is either leather or woven cotton and traditionally comes in bright decorative colors. They’re perfectly suited to hot arid climates — lightweight and comfortable yet durable enough for rough terrain. After many generations of success in the Mediterranean region, companies like Atlantis and Sabah are selling Turkish slippers to the global fashion market.
If there is a bright shining indication to be found that slip-on shoes are the new normal in menswear, it is the emergence of wearing slippers in public. It’s been a cheeky move for generations of upper-class dandies to wear slippers to the occasional black tie affair. These slippers were either velvet smoke shoes or linen needlepoint house shoes, both resigned to casual at-home wear for generations. Wearing them in public demonstrated a sort of punk attitude towards buttoned-up fashion rules.
With menswear experiencing a wave of this punk dissonance recently, slippers have become a popular choice in social footwear. By pulling from the closet of classic menswear specifically to disregard traditional standards, you’re reinvigorating the spirit of style. The Italians call it “sprezzatura,” and it’s doing with clothing what Monet did with a paintbrush. It’s taking something old and making it new again by readjusting perspective.
A mule is a style of shoe without a back, designed to slide your foot right in and out. They offer the minimal effort of a sandal with the look of a shoe. Mules come in a variety of styles depending on what the front of the shoe looks like. You can have a moccasin, loafer, huarache, or slipper all turned into a mule by removing the back. The only requirement is that the shoe needs to have a heel because the downward slope of your foot will keep it from slipping out when you walk.
Mules are the ultimate slip-on shoes because they provide the most comfort possible while still wearing proper shoes. The at-ease vibe displayed by wearing slip-ons is maximized with mules. Replace your favorite pair of slides with a pair of mules and you can wear them with shorts, chinos, jeans, or a suit. If comfort is the prerogative with fashion these days, then mules are the perfect shoe.
So who needs laces? With so many excellent slip-on shoes to choose from, you can go all summer without bending over to tie anything. Mocs are a good place to start but loafers are even better, add a nice Turkish mule or espadrille to the mix and you’re set. If you’re really feeling adventurous then get a flashy mule and wear them absolutely everywhere. Or you can wear the same velvet slippers with jeans to brunch as you wore with a suit to a wedding. The idea is to embrace simplicity and comfort — aesthetically, physically, and psychologically. The vibe in menswear these days is relaxed and free-spirited so free up your feet with slip-on shoes.