An oxford shoe is any lace-up shoe that utilizes a closed-throat lacing system. This is the case regardless of broguing, cap-toe stitching, number of eyelets, or any other aesthetic detail.
Here in the U.S. you’ll often hear the term “oxford” used to refer to any lace-up shoe. This is technically incorrect, as bluchers are also lace-ups but are structurally distinct from oxfords.
This shoe is the mother of all dress shoes. In black patent leather, they are the number one choice to wear with a tuxedo in the evening. They’re considered the dressiest of daytime shoes, as their slim profiles pair excellently with business suits. If they’re exceptionally well-polished, a pair of non-patent black oxfords can be worn with a tuxedo.
If you’re going to own just one pair of dress shoes, you can’t beat an oxford for versatility and classic appeal.
Are They Called “Oxfords” Or “Balmorals”?
Both names refer to the same thing in a general sense. The terms have English origins, with “oxford” coming into use as a result of the shoe being born at Oxford University, and “balmoral” being named after Balmoral Castle in Scotland.
One key difference is that balmoral sometimes refers to a cap toe oxford shoe. This varies from country to country and there’s no standardized parlance.
“Balmoral” is often shortened to “bal.”
In the States, oxford is certainly the favored term among the majority of men. We use the term interchangeably.
History Of Men’s Oxford Shoes
We can trace the oxford’s origins to the year 1800 in -big surprise- England. At the time, students at Oxford University commonly wore a half boot with side slits that was called the Oxonian. As students developed a distaste for high boots and adopted shoes, the low-cut “oxford” became a go-to option.
The laces of an oxford were originally placed on the outside of the shoe, taking the place of the side slits of the boot from which it’s derived. This is a rather uncommon look today and is regarded as quite fashionable.
It’s fun to think that this unorthodox shoe is actually closer to the original article than what is typically on offer in stores. :
How Do You Wear Oxford Shoes?
The balmoral is the quintessential suit shoe, for starters. If you own a pair of bals in black and medium brown, you will be able to wear them with nearly any suit you can imagine. It’s a popular shoe amongst those who work in government, law, finance, and other sartorially conservative industries.
They aren’t just limited to suits, however. Available ready-to-wear or custom-made in leather, suede, canvas, and many other materials, you can find a pair for any occasion.
Do Oxfords Need Laces?
Back around 2010-2011, there was a popular trend of wearing oxfords without laces. This became so popular that shoemakers were making oxfords with stretchy gore under the tongue so that they would hug the foot like a loafer; the laces were made to be removed. See below for a laceless, off-white suede full brogue version:
This author once owned a gorgeous pair of caramel-ish tan cap-toe oxfords made in this way. Having the option to go laceless or not was great. Those shoes got worn into the ground, and sadly they’re no longer with us.
Some folks loved this look, especially without socks. Others found it to be affected, the opposite of the sprezzatura it was trying to convey.
We say that if you’re going to go laceless, do it with a lighter-colored, more casual oxford. This is more sartorially logical; dressy black oxfords will look incomplete without laces.
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s a nice touch to use black ribbon as laces for formal occasions.
Oxfords are the most formal shoe available for civilian men in the Western world. Generally, they go best with suits and evening wear.
Keep in mind that their formality level will decrease as the amount of ornamentation on the shoe increases. A full brogue, for example, may be an oxford, but it cannot be worn with a tuxedo. The only exception to this rule is a cap-toe, which retains formality when it’s not the perforated variety.
Given the wide range of options in terms of material and color, they’re incredibly versatile and can be worn with:
- Tuxedos (black patent leather)
- Suits (any medium-to-dark colored leather or suede)
- Odd Jackets & Trousers (various shades of brown leather and suede
- Chinos & Other Casual Trousers
Oxfords can be worn any time of day, any time of year. You just have to be mindful of color and material. Here are some suggestions, but know that there’s much more that can be done with this shoe:
- Spring: Light-to-medium brown leather or suede
- Summer: White nubuck, beige leather, canvas sneaker
- Autumn: Burgundy cordovan leather, dark brown suede
- Winter: Black and dark brown leather
How Oxfords Are Constructed
In case you’ve missed both of those, here’s a very quick explanation:
- Closed throat lacing (oxford / balmoral): Quarters (leather sides through which laces pass) are sewn down to the instep. Creates a “V” shape under the center of the laces.
- Open throat lacing (blucher derby): Quarters are not sewn down to the instep. No “V” is created.
As a result of this construction, oxfords offer a less forgiving fit than bluchers. If you have a smaller foot, this is great. If you have a larger foot, or even a foot with a high instep, be sure to try on many pairs before buying, and buy the most comfortable pair you an afford.
Where Can I Buy Men’s Oxfords?
Just about any company that makes men’s shoes will make oxfords. Its simply a matter of finding one that’s right for your occasion, personality, and budget.
Parting Words On Balmorals
From a wardrobe-building perspective, the oxford is the first dress shoe a man should buy. It will go with just about anything, so if he invests wisely (i.e. doesn’t get a cheap pair and doesn’t wear them every day), the cost per wear will be peanuts.
College grads, men re-entering the workforce, and guys just looking to expand their wardrobes: buy a high-quality oxford shoe. It’ll provide years of stylish pleasure.