Gentlemen of a certain age have certain rules. Never wear a hat indoors. Always carry a handkerchief. And never, ever, buy leather soled shoes in the winter.
Most footwear is now soled with rubber or a synthetic leather lookalike. But the rubber sole wasn’t invented until the end of WW1, and wasn’t popularised on formal footwear until recent decades with the emergence of the commando tread and Dainite rubber soles.
Before rubber soles were popularised, almost all men’s footwear was soled with leather. It was common knowledge in those times that a leather soled shoe required special care; in particular, wearing a new pair in the rain was shoeicide.
The reason was simple. As a natural material, leather is absorbent. It was a cow’s skin, and although generations of Sergeant Majors will say otherwise, skin isn’t waterproof. Especially not when it’s been removed from the cow and transformed through a number of processes from hide to leather.
We’ve established that leather soled shoes aren’t waterproof. Which is an issue, especially if you live in the UK.
And yet leather soled boots and shoes not only served the feet of this country throughout history, but also survived trench warfare in the First World War, which was, to say the least, somewhat soggy.
The men of years gone by knew how to treat a new pair of leather soled shoes.
The first step is to ruin them. Wearing them on dusty, dirty roads and paths allowed the leather soles to pick up grit and become scuffed. The scuffing and grit not only adds grip and traction to the sole of the shoes but also helps the shoe mould to the wearer’s feet.
Once the lovely manufacturer marks on the sole are thoroughly ruined, our ancestors could begin to waterproof them. The now rough soles can be treated with polish, which does two things.
The first is to hydrate the shoes. In the same way that dried out soil lets water drain straight through without absorbing it, dry leather is extremely porous. Fully hydrated leather (like soil) is able to resist small quantities of water.
The second reason we polish is to add a barrier. The shiny layer of polish exists between the leather and the water. The scuffing and grit on the soles now gives the polish a rougher surface to cling to, helping it build up a thicker protective layer needed on the bottom.
At this point it’s worth noting that nothing one does can make a leather shoe truly waterproof. What we are doing is fortifying the shoe and adding resistance. Like ancient castles, whilst we can hold the enemy out for a time, eventually defences will fail.
Nonetheless, on our small well-drenched isle there is no escaping a good soaking from the skies. At some point it’s almost inevitable that your shoes will get wet through.
Your next actions are critical. Take the wrong approach and you’ll end up with a pile of cracked and rotten leather. Choose the right path and your shoes will live to walk another day.
With great shoes comes great responsibility
Firstly, we need to draw water from the saturated leather. Stuff your shoes with absorbent paper towels to pull the water from the leather. This can’t be rushed and may take several stuffings. Repeat until the paper towels come out dry; this may take several days.
If you intend to wear your shoes again, do not dry them with a heat source. This includes radiators, fires and especially hand dryers. Leather is a biological product, held together with protein and fat strings. Sudden heating breaks these bonds en-masse and will cause your shoes to begin falling apart.
In the modern day leather soles are almost exclusively found on dress shoes. This results in several problems.
The first is that most gentlemen’s only pair of leather soles belong to their most expensive pair of shoes. And with that expense, they expect the shoes to be longer-lasting than their cheaper, synthetic or rubber soled shoes.
Unfortunately this can never be the case. In the same way that a Ferrari must be serviced more regularly than a Ford Mondeo, a leather sole will need replacing by a cobbler at regular intervals.
Another is an obsession with sole preservation. Shoemakers love to decorate a leather sole with their own logo and other artwork, and we, the wearers, indulge them. Quality shoes are not a pair of Nike trainers. They’re not supposed to be emblazoned with the maker’s mark.
So enjoy your leather soled shoes. With a little love and care they'll become the most comfortable fitting shoes you own.