Formal Footwear Favourites: 5 Smart Shoes Every Man Needs

Image Credit: Velasca

Sneakers and casual shoes are comfy and practical, but you can’t wear them forever. There will come a time – be it a wedding, a new job or a date night at a particularly fancy restaurant – when you’ll be required to step into something smarter. And when that time arrives, it helps to have the appropriate footwear on standby.

Smart shoes are what you need. They’re an umbrella term for several traditional footwear styles that are widely considered suitable for settings that err on the side of formality. These are the shoes to team up with tailoring or elevate a smart-casual outfit with. They’re classic, free from excessive detail, obnoxious branding and bold colours, and usually rendered in premium leather or suede.

Here are the five styles you should consider adding to your shoe rack.

Black Leather Oxfords


When it comes to formal footwear, black leather Oxford shoes are about as classic as they come. These traditional leather shoes are estimated to have come into existence around 1825, and they’ve been an integral part of men’s formal attire ever since.

Classic Oxfords have a nice uncluttered upper, flat sole, slight heel and what is known as a ‘closed’ lacing system, which means the vamp is stitched on top of the eyelets. This all gives the Oxford a clean, sharp look that lends itself perfectly to the fanciest of formalwear. Black tie dress code? This is the shoe you should be reaching for.

Patent leather Oxfords are the go-to when donning a tux, but for sheer versatility, we’d recommend going with plain black leather. This way, you can wear them with any old suit, and nobody except the staunchest traditional menswear purists is likely to bat an eye if you wear them to a black-tie event.

Brown Leather Derbies


The Derby shoe is closely related to the Oxford, but it’s a little less formal. This means it can be worn with tailoring, but it can also be paired with smart-casual outfits or even jeans. It’s good for four seasons of the year, which, in our humble opinion, makes it the most versatile of all smart shoes.

The critical difference between Derbies and Oxfords is that the former has an ‘open’ lacing system instead of the Oxford’s ‘closed’ system. This means the eyelets are stitched on top of the vamp rather than underneath it. It gives them a slightly greater degree of adjustability, making them better suited to wide feet. It also gives them a somewhat less formal look.

Brown leather is an excellent option if you want to maximise this shoe’s trademark versatility. It allows you to wear it with your sharpest tailoring while leaving the door open to smart-casual outfits too.

We’d suggest combining them with a navy single-breasted two-piece suit, or dressing them down with dark-wash denim, an Oxford shirt and an unstructured blazer.

Oxblood Leather Loafers


If you find formal footwear a tad stuffy, a loafer might be more in line with your tastes than something as straight-laced as an Oxford or Derby. This slip-on style still has the heritage to back it up, but it’s much more playful and fun than many of the lace-up options, which makes it perfect for adding a bit of flair to your smart outfits – particularly in the summer.

Opting for oxblood over black or brown is another way to add personality to your looks. It’s a bit different, but it offers the same versatility in terms of what colours and garments it can be worn with.

If you’re stuck for outfit inspiration, we’d recommend teaming some leather oxblood loafers with suit separates for a solid summer wedding look. Go for a charcoal trouser and a beige/khaki jacket for contrast, and finish it off with a crisp white shirt and a statement tie.

Brown Suede Loafers


For something even more laid back, keep the loafer silhouette but switch the smooth leather for suede. This is an excellent option for wearing with soft tailoring in the summer months – think linen trousers, unstructured blazers and the like.

While it’s smart enough to rub shoulders with tailoring, it’s also more than chill enough to hang out with casual pieces too. There are few shoes that’ll look better with a pair of chinos and a knitted polo than this one.

To keep it smart, go for something simple rather than anything with too many dangly details. A classic penny loafer is always a good option, with its simple styling and timeless design, which will work well with both casual and smart outfits.

Black Leather Chelsea Boots


Dressing smartly doesn’t present too many opportunities to be rock ‘n’ roll. But one way you can inject a bit of attitude into your tailored looks is by opting for a Chelsea boot over a traditional lace-up shoe. This small change can really alter the feel of a fit, making it a little less stuffy and a lot cooler with minimal effort.

As far as we’re concerned, a black leather Chelsea boot is a must. It’s sleek, stylish and timeless and has uses far beyond the context of getting dressed up. Buy a good pair, and not only will you be able to wear them with tailoring, but you’ll also be able to slip them on with jeans at the weekend or use them as an anchor point for smart-casual outfits.

Paddy Maddison

Paddy Maddison is Ape's Style Editor. His work has been published in Esquire, Men’s Health, ShortList, The Independent and more. An outerwear and sneaker fanatic, his finger is firmly on the pulse for the latest trends, while always maintaining an interest in classic style.