Boat Shoes: Ultimate Guide To An American Classic

Boat Shoes: Ultimate Guide To An American Classic 2017-07-24T08:18:45+00:00

Side And Top View Of Brown Boat ShoeMuch of the world’s contribution to men’s footwear comes from the eastern shores of the Atlantic Ocean, specifically England and Italy. The plethora of styles and brands these two countries have produced leave no question as to their expertise in the world of men’s shoes.

The United States, while perhaps less prolific all around, is no slouch when it comes to footwear inventions. The preppy tradition from the Northeast has spurred many a permanent style item, and the boat shoe is one of those items.

There is no shoe more quintessentially New England, more American, than the boat shoe, also known as the topsider.

What Makes A Boat Shoe Unique?

Boat shoes are typically medium-vamped, two-eyelet bluchers that have a “non-marking” rubber “deck” sole. This is for both traction on a ship’s fiberglass deck and avoiding scratches on that deck (apparently boats are expensive. Who knew?!).

They are similar to camp moccasins in terms of construction.

The laces wrap all the way around the shoe’s collar, are often white leather, and can sometimes be cumbersome to tie. Brown was the default color for years, but nowadays they’re available in just about any color you can imagine.

Available on mostly leather or canvas uppers, boat shoes look very similar to camp moccasins with off-white rubber soles at first glance.

What Is A Boat Shoe - Bespoke Unit

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How Boat Shoes Were Invented

Back in 1935, a Connecticuter named Paul Sperry noticed that his dog could easily run over ice without slipping. Fan of all things nautical that he was, he was inspired to cut siping into his shoes’ insoles for added traction on the deck of a boat. In so doing the modern boat shoe was born, and the foundation was laid for a successful company known as Sperry. Its boat shoe was referred to as a “topsider.”

Boat shoes of any brand are often referred to as “topsiders” because the brand recognition is so strong. This is similar to copy machines being referred to as “Xerox” machines or bandages being referred to as “Band-Aids.”

Wearing Topsiders, Or “How Do You Tie Boat Shoes?”

Let’s be clear about something right off the bat: you don’t need to own a boat, or even be on a boat, to wear boat shoes. More versatile than you might think, a pair of boat shoes will be a great addition to your casual wardrobe.

Boat Shoes & Socks: A No-No

Boat shoes tend to look kind of weird with socks. As such, we recommend that you wear no-show socks with these so you can get the sockless look without the sockless funk.


Boat shoes are inherently casual. They’re great on weekends, at the beach, and yes, on a boat. They look best with:

  • Shorts (any coordinating color, no socks)
  • Chinos (any coordinating color)
  • Jeans (the classic brown works best)

Don’t wear boat shoes with tailored clothes like suits or odd jackets and trousers. Exceptions can be made for those of us who are members of beach wedding parties and have no control over these things, but if you have the choice, avoid this combination.


Despite their nautical heritage, boat shoes are actually three-season shoes. They of course work wonderfully in warm weather, but in the autumn they can be worn casually, too. Just be judicious with your color selection.

We offer a few suggestions below:

  • Spring: Any color that coordinates with your outfit. Common colors are tan, cream, blue/white and red/white
  • Summer: Bright, lively colors and patterns
  • Autumn: Brown leather or suede boat shoe (not really intended for wear on a boat)
  • Winter: N/A

If You Actually Own A Boat

A word to the wise: if you find yourself on a boat with any regularity, you should own at least two pairs of boat shoes. This will allow you to rotate between shoes and allow them to rest a bit.

If you’re not so nautical, one pair will do you just fine. Feel free to branch out if you’re into collecting different colors.

Brown Boat Shoes

Cleaning Boat Shoe Soles

Being white or cream-colored, boat shoe soles can get dirty in a hurry. While a bit of wear adds character to a shoe like this, sometimes dirty is just dirty.

Thankfully, cleaning these is quite easy: just take a toothbrush and some warm soapy water and have at it. A little elbow grease will take you a long way in this regard.

*Editor’s Note* Do not use toothbrush for actual brushing of teeth after using to clean shoes. We are not responsible for any medical bills you may incur from doing so.

Top Boat Shoes

Sperry is the original, but many brands make their own boat shoes at various price points. Some of our favorites are listed below:

Should You Buy Boat Shoes?

We definitely think so, especially as a summer option. They can add color and vibrance to your warm-weather wardrobe, and they’re relatively inexpensive to boot.

Make this one of the first casual shoes you purchase when building your shoe wardrobe.

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