Considered somewhat of the crown jewel of men’s footwear, the loafer is arguably the most versatile piece of men's shoes you can add to your collection. The highly acclaimed slip-on shoe was made popular by designers such as Steve Madden, Kenneth Cole Reaction, Bruno Magli, Salvatore Ferragamo, Florsheim, Clarks, and Sperry. There’s a style for every occasion, destination, and activity. No other shoe offers comfort and versatility quite like a loafer does. It’s the perfect shoe to wear from day to night, and is also a constant weekend companion. But with so many options in the men’s loafers market, how do we decide which loafer to wear and when? Hang onto your crocs and get ready to trade them in for something with a little more style; we’ve got your ultimate guide to men’s loafers.
The Making of a Loafer
First off, let’s figure out what exactly makes a shoe a loafer. There are several characteristics a shoe must have for it to be considered the venetian style loafer. The most obvious mark of a loafer is that it’s a slip on, laceless shoe. If a loafer does have a lace, it is decorative only. That is what makes the loafer a venetian style shoe. The upper and lower parts of a loafer are always separate. This means the sole is a completely separate piece from the upper. The upper will often adorn a monk strap, tassel, moc toe, or a bit. Loafers are low shoes that sit below the ankle bone. Loafers have a defined heel (unlike say, a sneaker, which does not). These are the basic identifying traits of a loafer. Pretty simple, right? Now let’s look at the many variations of men’s loafers.
Styles of Loafers
The Penny Loafer
Topping our list is possibly the most iconic style of loafer available, the penny loafer. Named so because of the slot in the saddle of the shoe (a wide piece of material that spans the top of the shoe horizontally) wherein a penny could be placed. Those pennies were the cost of a pay phone call when these loafers first hit the scene. This men’s loafer is appropriate for the office and any other business attire events (especially if you are wearing dress loafers or suede loafers). The oldest of its loafer relatives, it’s incredibly easy to dress these loafers up or down. It is truly timeless, unapologetically preppy, and a true closet standard. It is multi-seasonal, and is best styled with dress slacks and socks, however it is also considered on-trend to wear them with jeans. This loafer is traditionally made of leather, and looks great with a nice, aged patina, which means the longer you wear them and the more miles they attain, the better they look.
Bit Loafer or “Gucci” Loafer
Also referred to as the “hazel” loafer, this loafer is a close sibling of the penny loafer. Defined by a metal bar resembling a horse’s bit across the vamp (the extreme top portion of the shoe), the bit loafer is the subject of hot debate as to whether or not it is a formal shoe or not. As such, you’ll see this men’s loafer styled with everything from blue jeans and shorts to silk dress pants. Fashion designer Gucci’s iconic hazel loafer helped this style gain recognition internationally as a dress loafer. While this loafer is typically a summer staple, south Floridians would argue it’s part of their year round uniform. While this is a classic style loafer, fashion designers have created versions with varying levels of precious metal hardware making the shoe edgier and more fashion forward.
Just as their name states, tassel loafers are so called because they feature a saddle across the vamp and an accompanying tassel. These loafers were originally created as a stylish alternative to penny loafers. First worn by the upper crust in the early 1920’s, these loafers are now a part of mainstream American men’s fashion. These loafers are the perfect shoe for a suit. As such, you’ve seen them on your coworkers, at weddings, and bar mitzvahs. Best worn in the summer and fall, these men’s loafers give a distinction of class and professionalism above what the penny loafer offers. But don’t let that fool you, tassel loafers can easily be paired with cuffed jeans for the fashion forward set. Tassel loafers are often found in combination with kiltie loafers.
Characterized by a decorative leather fringe across the upper, the kiltie loafer is a casual classic that can also be styled up. The leather fringe was originally added to loafers with decorative laces. The fringe covered the laces and instep to add durability and protect the laces from fraying. These men’s loafers are most notably worn in spring and summer months with shorts or jeans. However, some kilties are designed with details making them much more a dress shoe than a casual shoe. Found in black suede, or deep brown leather, these loafers can be paired with a suit and tie or button down shirt.
Also referred to as “boat shoes,” these familiar classic men’s loafers are as iconic as their penny loafer cousins. The ultimate in casual spring and summer footwear, deck shoes are generally made from canvas and/or leather and have rubber soles. Thin slits cut into the rubber soles (called “siping”) prevent slippage on wet surfaces. These loafers were designed to be worn on the wet deck of a boat, and were created with performance in mind. They are durable, water repellant, and comfortably worn without socks. They’re perfectly paired with denim jeans, shorts, or a great pair of chinos. Once reserved for your favorite martini-sipping uncle, these shoes are an essential for every age group.
Nicknamed simply “drivers,” these men’s loafers most closely resemble a moccasin. The defining feature of a driving loafer is the presence of rubber nubs on the soles. These rubber nubs serve the purpose of helping you grip a car’s pedals. These are 100% a casual loafer, and have exploded onto the scene recently in a plethora of fabrics and patterns. From blue suede to animal print, there’s quite literally a driving loafer for every style and taste. These loafers are best paired with jeans and shorts, making them ideal for spring and summer, although richer materials and darker colors allow them passage into fall.
It’s arguable Hugh Heffner single-footedly made this style of men’s loafer famous. Once seen only inside the walls of the Playboy Mansion, these loafers have enjoyed a recent foray into more traditional men’s fashion. A shoe that was once paired only with a silk robe and cigar has now been styled with everything from casual everyday wear to formal tuxedos. Slipper loafers have made themselves a truly versatile shoe. Crafted from suede or velvet, this sturdy, structured loafer is a great addition to any wardrobe. The simple styling of these loafers makes them especially appealing for wear with shorter length ankle pants. Typically worn without socks, this shoe is at home in spring and summer, but like the driving loafer, darker colors and richer fabrics allow the slipper loafer some game time in the fall and winter months also.
Think of these loafers as your break-up with flip-flops. A true staple of summer, espadrilles are a hidden gem among men’s loafers. Much like the boat loafer, they’re incredibly versatile, extremely comfortable, and effortlessly stylish. Espadrille loafers are generally made with a canvas upper and a braided rope sole. However, some designers have begun adding a rubber sole beneath the rope to give the shoe more stability and durability. Also known as “alpargatas,” these loafers are never ever formal. These babies were made for the beach, a barbecue, casual dining, and the extreme temperatures of the warmer months. The truest casual loafer available, these spring and summer specials are always great with jeans, shorts, or chinos. There’s never a need for socks as these loafers are lighter than air and made from fabric that wicks away moisture.
Opera Pump Loafers
The absolute most formal of all men’s loafers is the opera pump or “court” loafer. This loafer is also the rarest seen in men’s fashion today. Best identified by a bow across the vamp, these loafers are usually made of patent leather and styled with a tux and tails. This loafer can hold its own at white tie and black tie affairs alike. While more designers become interested in the opera pump, the loafer will likely grow in popularity. Several designers have already released their own updated versions of the opera pump that feature a satin sash across the vamp in lieu of the bow. Be careful with this one; you’ve really got to get it right to make these loafers work. While they can be worn year round, the hard and fast rule is that they are only worn after sunset.
Loafers are practical, comfortable, fashionable, and traditional. They’re quite simply the perfect shoe for any occasion. From the preppy penny loafer, to the suede loafer, there’s a men’s loafer for every taste and event. Whether your plans include work and a five star dinner, or cocktails on a yacht, a leather loafer or a suede loafer can carry you there in style. Knowing which loafer to wear, and when to wear it, is paramount in nailing your style. If you want to be on-trend in any season, a loafer is your go to for easy, practical footwear.