Though it was originally a boot, a derby or blucher is a low-cut lace-up shoe with an open throat lacing system. It is considered less formal than an oxford shoe, but more formal than most loafers.
Few men’s shoe styles are so ubiquitous yet so mis-identified than the derby (or blucher, depending on what you prefer to call it). It has a place in all of our wardrobes and is incredibly versatile, but there’s confusion around what it really is.
Thankfully, that confusion can be cleared up with three quick lessons: one on terminology, one on history, and one on anatomy.
Terminology: Derby Or Blucher?
Though some sources on the Internet will tell you otherwise, the terms blucher and derby are totally interchangeable. We will use them interchangeably in this article.
Though certain boots use open throat lacing systems, they are not referred to as bluchers. If anything, they are referred to as “blucher boots” when appropriate. Fun fact: chukka boots are technically bluchers.
We prefer the term “blucher” because “derby” can also refer to a bowler hat.
Blucher History: Inspired By Military Footwear
Its history is, like so many menswear items, in the military tradition.
“Blucher” is taken from General Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, a Prussian general who was one of the commanders of the army that defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. He found his army’s footwear lacking and had a boot commissioned to replace it. This boot had side pieces that joined in the front with laces, much like the blucher shoes of today.
The shoe was later adopted by armies across Europe and became a trendy sporting shoe by the 1850’s. By the turn of the century, it became appropriate for wear with tailored clothing.
Derby Anatomy: Open Throat Lacing Versus Closed Throat Lacing
Closed throat lacing is pictured on the left, open throat lacing is pictured on the right. The style on the right is a blucher, the style on the left is not.
To understand open throat lacing, it’s necessary to understand closed throat lacing, the other lacing system that’s used for shoes. Both deal with the shoe’s quarters, which are the pieces of leather where you find the lace holes (technically known as eyelets). The area of the shoe where the quarters, tongue, and laces meet is referred to as the throat.
- In a closed throat lacing system, the quarters are sewn to the rest of the shoe at their bottom, creating a sort of thin “V” shape where the laces criss-cross. These shoes, regardless of ornamentation like the broguing you see above, are known as “oxfords” or “balmorals.”
- In an open throat lacing system, the quarters are not sewn down to the rest of the shoe. The throat is thus “open.” The tongue and forepart are one piece of leather.
Bluchers tend to be more physically forgiving of a larger foot. If you have difficulty finding dress shoes because you have a very high instep, you should definitely look into a derby.
You can read more about open throat and closed throat lacing here.
How Formal Is A Derby Shoe?
Bluchers are less formal than oxfords but more formal than most loafers. Derby shoes, by nature of using open throat lacing, have a bit more bulk to them and thus aren’t as well-suited to, well, suits. This is not to say that they can’t be worn with a suit; in fact, they often are, at least in the U.S.
If you insist on wearing a pair of these with a suit, we suggest keeping it in the spring and summer with a cotton suit, which has a bit more of a casual vibe in the first place.
However, they go better with slightly more casual items:
- Odd jackets and trousers
A Note On Derby Shoes And Formal Wear
Please, please don’t wear these shoes with a tuxedo. Even in a plain black leather with the highest shine you can imagine, bluchers are just a bit too bulky for the otherwise mega-clean lines of dinner clothes.
Black patent leather derbies are available for sale on the market, even from otherwise reputable brands. Don’t buy them, as they represent a sartorial oxymoron.
When Can I Wear A Derby / Blucher?
One of the biggest benefits of the blucher is that it can be worn all year round! They can also be worn to most events like weddings, job interviews, and the like.
We have some suggestions below, but know that there are plenty more options that will still look great. We’d love to hear about what you’ve worn in the comments!
- Spring: light-to-medium brown leather with cap toe detail, navy blue suede
- Summer: beige suede plain toe, white bucks with broguing
- Autumn: tobacco suede plain toe, burgundy leather boots
- Winter: Black leather brogue, chocolate brown dress boot
They can be worn in the evening, but not with evening wear.
Different Types Of Bluchers
The different styles of bluchers available are seemingly endless. They can be found ready-to-wear in countless leathers and colors. There is no standard set number of eyelets for the laces, and they are available with all manner of materials for the soles.
Note that bluchers can have cap toes, wingtips, and all manner of other aesthetic details. These would be referred to as cap toe bluchers and wingtip bluchers, respectively, as those details are describing a structural concept (open throat lacing).
- Leather: By far the most common material for a derby. You can find this in a place as cheap as Macy’s or from a bespoke maker like GJ Cleverley.
- Suede: Suede is also quite common for bluchers. They will be a bit more casual than their leather counterparts, but this is perfect for a less stuffy outfit like an odd jacket and trousers.
- Boots: Again, the original blucher was, in fact, a boot. This is a great option for those of us who live in parts of the world where the temperature dips significantly every year.
- Custom/Exotic: Any custom shoemaker will be able to craft a blucher for you out of any material you choose, including exotic skins like ostrich, alligator, stingray, and more. Be prepared to pay handsomely for such an investment.
Top Makers Of The Blucher
Plenty of companies make these shoes. These are some of our favorites, but we’d love to hear about yours! Leave us a comment with your favorite maker.
A Final Thought On The Derby Shoe
In terms of wardrobe building, the blucher is an absolute must. Depending on how you dress most of the time, there’s a good argument to make a pair of derbies the first good pair of shoes you invest in. There are so many available that they can be the 15th and 37th shoe you buy too!
They’re comfortable, versatile, and smart. Do yourself a favor and start your collection with one of these.