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Brogue shoes – no longer simply practical footwear

Investigating the centuries-old history behind this popular shoe design and the different styles available today.

by Stuart Morgan

While historians disagree as to the exact date when the first ‘brogued’ shoe was made, most agree that by the middle of the 18th century footwear was being produced in Scotland and Ireland from untanned hide that could be recognised as a forerunner of the modern shoe. The distinctive punched holes that are the identifiable element of brogue shoes were originally perforated completely through the upper. This provides an explanation of the footwear’s very practical – rather than fashionable – purpose, as it was designed to let water drain out when the wearer was walking on boggy ground.

It is said that ‘brogue’ is derived from the Old Irish word ‘bróg’ or the similar Scots term ‘bròg’ (meaning a ‘rough, stout shoe’), which itself stems from the Old Norse expression ‘brók’, that translates as ‘leg covering’. They were often secured to the foot by long laces that were kept clean by being tied below the calf. The term ‘brogue’ was also reportedly used to refer to ‘the speech of those who call a shoe a brogue’ – that is, the accent of the Celtic Highlanders. The term ‘brogue’ (as referring to the punched style of shoe) appears to have first been used in literature in The Gentleman’s and London Magazine, dating from around 1741. Its use gradually increased from that time on.

Gaining acceptance

Created for utility rather than style, brogues were certainly not considered to be ‘refined’ footwear, being worn only by the ‘working class’ employed on the land. However, things started to change during the 1920s, when brogues – with holes and often ‘gimping’ (serrated detailing) – quickly gained a reputation as fashionable footwear for both men and women. Two-tone ‘Spectator’ shoes (also known as ‘Co-respondents’) were favoured by many jazz stars of the day, and in the thirties the Prince of Wales often sported a pair while playing golf. Such screen greats as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly wore brogues in many of their famous dance routines, and in the 1950s Elvis Presley helped to popularise the fashion by wearing both black and white brogues in his movie ‘Jailhouse Rock’.

Sobebunny

Spectator brogues from the 1930s

Columbia Pictures

Hollywood star Fred Astaire wearing brogued spectators while dancing with Rita Hayworth in the 1942 movie You Were Never Lovelier

While the brogue had a fairly inauspicious start as a rudimentary type of shoe, the punched decoration is today found in both men’s and women’s shoes, and across many styles, including Oxford, Derby and Monk shoes, as well as on Chelsea and Chukka Boots, canvas and leather sneakers and high-heeled women’s shoes.

Even up to the 1980s, brown brogue shoes were reserved for the countryside, often being made on a double sole with a Derby upper. During that decade, black versions became popular as more formal shoes, and were commonly produced with an Oxford construction on a single Goodyear welted sole. Also in the eighties, the welted suede brogue became very popular as a casual style. In addition to the shoe, the men’s boot with brogue decoration gained favour from the late 1990s.

Today, brogues are considered appropriate wear for most contexts. Nevertheless, some fashion pundits still insist that the shoe should still not be worn for extremely formal occasions, such as with a three-piece suit or for any black or white tie event. Most brogues are produced as a Derby, in which the facing is sewn onto the vamp or as an Oxford, which sees the vamp sewn onto the quarters.

The iconic gimping which decorates the finished edges was traditionally created using pinking shears, in a manner similar to that used by tailors when cutting fabric. Today, however, except for the most expensive high-end shoes, the complete upper component featuring perforations and serrated edging is likely to be quickly cut out by the use of a special knife to punch the shape from the material. The perforations create the brogue’s detail along the edge, in addition to decorating the toe cap (sometimes referred to as the ‘medallion’). The holes are punched in various sizes to create intricate patterns.

Brogue shoes can be found with laces, buckles and monk straps, as well as slip-on designs with or without elastic sections.

 

A broguing knife

 

An upper component passing through a broguing machine

A variety of designs

The names of the brogue styles are determined by the shape of the toe cap, and include ‘full brogue’ (known as ‘wingtip’ in the USA), ‘semi-brogue’ and ‘quarter brogue’ styles, as well as the less common ‘longwing’ brogue style.

Full brogues feature a pointed toecap with extensions (‘wings’) that run along both sides of the toe before finishing close to the ball of the foot. Viewed from the top, this toe cap style is shaped like the letter ‘W’ (or ‘M’, depending on your viewpoint) and resembles a bird with extended wings – hence the style often being referred to as ‘wingtips’ in the USA. The toe cap of a full brogue features both perforated and serrated decoration around its edges, as well as additional perforations in its centre. A shoe with a wingtip-style toe cap but no perforations is known as an ‘austerity brogue’, and a plain-toe shoe featuring wingtip-style perforations is referred to as a ‘blind brogue’.

 

Brogues can be made from a variety of upper materials — including suede

Spectator shoes are full brogue Oxfords that have been made from two contrasting colours. They typically have the toe cap and outside counter (and on occasions the lace panels) in a darker colour than the main body of the shoe. Common colour schemes include white with black or tan, although other combinations can be used.

Ghillie brogues have no tongue in order to aid with drying, and feature long laces that wrap around the leg above the ankle and tie below the calf (originally to keep the lace clear of mud). A ‘ghillie’, was a young male attendant to a Highland Chief, whose responsibilities included carrying equipment and weapons. This style of brogue is popular with wearers of traditional (and formal) Scottish dress and is primarily reserved for social occasions.

Collection of Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira, 1999.11.4

A pair of English women’s brogues from the 1920s-1930s

Semi brogues (also known as ‘half brogues’) have toe caps featuring decorative perforations and serrations along the edge of the toe cap, with additional decorative perforations in the centre of the cap. This shoe style was reportedly initially designed and produced in 1937 by John Lobb as an Oxford, to provide customers a style midway in decoration between a plain shoe and a full brogue.

Quarter brogues are characterised by having cap toes with decorative perforations and gimping along the edge of the toe cap, but no perforations in the cap’s centre. Quarter brogues are viewed as being more formal than semi or full brogues, and are generally accepted as the best brogues to pair with business suits.

Longwing brogues are Derby-style shoes characterised by a pointed toe cap with wings that extend the full length of the shoe and meeting at a centre seam at the heel. While longwing Derby brogues were worn widely in the USA during the 1970s, their popularity has decreased over the years.

How much do brogues cost to buy? While the quality of construction is obviously reflected in the price to the consumer, the range is considerable. During a recent online trawl, men’s brogue shoes were found to be available for between £35 ($46) and £770 ($1,011), although there are no doubt far more expensive alternatives on the market.

How can we help?

Please email SATRA’s footwear testing team (footwear@satra.com) for help with the assessment of brogues and other shoe styles.

Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 36 of the January 2020 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

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