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The Boat Shoe Guide

One may think that he needs to be a sailor in order to wear boat shoes for men. But although this particular kind of footwear was indeed made by and for seaman, its lightness, versatility, and charm have allowed it to disseminate to tribes of all likes.

In the ‘90s, boat shoes lost some of its brightness: overshadowed by state-of-the-art sneakers on one side, formal shoes and the dull fashion style of the previous decade, it was for long regarded as footwear for older, conservative people. However, over the last decade, the deck shoe has acquired a combination of different textures, prints and colored soles that have rendered it as fashionable as any other shoe style out there.

Moreover, factors like having a slightly more open shape, the possibility of wearing it without socks and the retro/nautical touch it exhales have made the boat shoe a go-to summer footwear alternative for many men, working hand in hand with anything from colored short, jeans and chinos.

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If you are not exactly sure what are boat shoes, read on to find out and see if it is the kind of footwear you will introduce to this summer’s wardrobe. If you are already familiar with the model, we have prepared some great tips on how to wear boat shoes – from the best look combinations to how to care for them.

History of The Boat Shoe

The history of the boat shoe dates back to 1936 when, after noticing that his cocker spaniel was able to run on ice keeping his traction even on such a slippery surface, former US Navy officer Paul Sperry concluded that this was due to the grooves and cuts that gave texture to the sole of the dog’s paws. He quickly patented his Razor-Cut Wave-Siping soles and, in 1935, created the first shoe for nautical sports, making it a success among sailors.

In 1939, he locked in a contract with the US Navy to supply the Sperry Top-Sider to sailors who had to walk steadily in the boat decks while defending the country. From then on Sperry became synonymous with boat shoe and the term top-sider, also created by Paul, popularized across the world, following the success of the company that saw their shoes being worn by people of all ages, on various casual occasions, migrating from the marinas to the urban environment.

Nowadays, one cannot think of boat shoes without thinking of Sperry, just as one cannot think of canvas shoes with rubber tips without having the word “Converse” come into mind.

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What are Boat Shoes

Low cut; rough leather or canvas fabric (although the first seems to be the most traditional material for its water repellent properties); [often] handsewn structure; utterly versatile, non-skid patterned rubber sole; only 2-3 eyelets on top of the shoes; apertures on the sides to run the laces through on a 360-degree setup – these are the main features a footwear should have in order to be called a boat shoe (aka top-sider or deck shoe).

So, when looking for a traditional boat shoe design, this is what you should keep in mind:

  • Either leather or canvas, water repellent and stainproof uppers
  • Hand-sewn construction with top stitches
  • A lacing setup that wraps around the shoe
  • Two, sometimes three eyelets
  • Uppers and laces made of the same material
  • White rubber sole with non-marking, non-skid properties
  • A herringbone pattern on the soles
  • A mild heel cup for shock absorption

How to Wear Boat Shoes

Even if versatile, there are some factors to keep in mind when putting your boat shoes on. Just like Chelsea Boots, they are a casual type of footwear, and although you can attempt to wear it on more formal occasions, you should by no means try to match it with a suit or sport coat.

Then there is the climate to consider. Boat shoes are an end-of-spring/summer/beginning-of-autumn kind of footwear, which means you can store them away during winter months. That is, of course, unless you live in the tropics. For late spring and early autumn, many guys pair their top-siders with slim jeans, often rolling them up to highlight the shoe’s elegant design. During summer, you can match your boat shoes with khakis, madras and seersucker shorts, as well as clean-lined pants. As it was often the case with sailors, top-siders can be worn with polo shirts, button-down shirts or even a nautical-style striped t-shirt.

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Color-wise, your pants or shorts should always be lighter than your boat shoes. Although the more traditional versions usually come in brown, gray, beige or navy blue – neutral tones in general – there has been an emerging trend to wear boat shoes in more vivid colors. Moreover, manufacturers have begun fiddling with the idea of combining more than two colors, perhaps aiming for a more contemporary look?

Still, in the end, it comes down to how you feel and the occasion you are dressing for. But if you aim for a more traditional and simple style among all these new-born trends, keep to the aforementioned guidelines and things shall match, literally. 

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How to Care For Boat Shoes

Apart from your suit, your shoes are probably the piece of clothing that require the most care. Hence, we thought we better wrap up this guide with some extra tips on how to care for your boat shoes.

  • Regularly polish your boat shoes with water-based cream in order to protect the leather
  • Refrain from using silicone or alcohol-based shoe polishes
  • Dust of your top-siders as frequently as possible (especially if putting them away for longer) so as to remove any dirt that could hinder the material.
  • Store your deck shoes in a dry place, away from direct sunlight
  • Stuff newspaper inside to maintain the shape when storing it over winter
  • All boat shoes should be dried in the shade and without the use of artificial heat sources such as blow driers or drying machines
  • Likewise, you should avoid machine washing your boat shoes, regardless of them being fully made of canvas. Keep it safe and hand-wash them with a mix of water and soap.
  • To remove spots, simply mix water and vinegar, dip a pencil eraser into the solution and gently rub the stained area.
  • Every now and then it is worth double-checking the soles to see if there are any cracks and get them repaired asap.