The tides of fashion have always been quick to turn, but not everything gets washed away with them. For approximately 150 years, the Derby shoe has remained largely unchanged, and is as popular with the style-conscious men of today as it was with their Victorian counterparts.
This simple leather shoe has eclipsed its elder cousin, the Oxford, as the everyday smart footwear of choice, boasting a versatility that allows it to venture everywhere from weddings and corporate workplaces to weekend walks and evenings out in town. It’s the definitive smart-casual shoe, and something no man should be without.
If you’re keen to learn more about this iconic style then you’ve come to the right place. In this guide, we’ll be investigating the Derby’s origins, key variations and what separates it from similar shoes. We’ll also be taking a closer look at some of our favourite brands for Derby shoes, to help find the right pair for you.
What Is A Derby Shoe?
The Derby is a traditional leather or suede shoe, defined by its ‘open’ lacing system. This means that the eyelets are stitched on top of the vamp (the part of the shoe that goes across the top of the foot), which increases the degree to which the shoe can be adjusted. This means that people with particularly broad or narrow feet, or a high instep, are able to achieve a good fit.
The style is probably best described as ‘smart casual’. The smartness varies depending on the details and materials, but generally, Derby shoes are equally at home with tailoring or casual pieces like chinos and Oxford shirts.
This semi-formal appearance makes Derby shoes very versatile, which is why they’ve become the go-to footwear for pretty much any smart setting less formal than a black-tie dinner.
Derby Shoes vs. Oxford Shoes
Derby shoes and Oxford shoes are often confused for one another, but they do have some key differences. Traditionally, an Oxford shoe is seen as the more formal option. This is the shoe you would wear with a tuxedo to a formal event, such as black or white tie. A Derby shoe, on the other hand, might be seen as too casual for this type of setting.
The main difference, however, lies in the lacing system. Where Derby shoes have an open lacing system, Oxford shoes have a closed one. This means that the eyelets are stitched underneath the vamp and so they’re ‘closed’ at the bottom. It results in a cleaner appearance, but doesn’t allow the same degree of adjustment as an open lacing system.
Key Derby Shoe Styles
Brogues sit at the casual end of the Derby shoe spectrum. They feature perforated patterns, known as ‘broguing’, that decorate the uppers of the shoes.
They can come in either suede or leather, with varying degrees of detail ranging from quarter brogue, where only a small strip across the toe is brogued, to full brogue, where there is elaborate broguing across the entirety of the shoe.
In smooth black or brown leather, the Derby shoe makes a reasonably formal footwear option. Granted, it’s not as dressy as a patent-leather Oxford shoe, but it’s more than smart enough to mingle with tailored separates at a wedding, or a two-piece suit at a job interview.
If you’re looking for an all-round smart shoe that can turn its hand to almost anything, this is the type of Derby for you.
A suede Derby is a good option for anyone who wants a timeless smart-casual shoe that can be easily worn with just about anything. It’s less dressy than a leather Derby, making it a perfect match for garments like jeans, chinos, casual shirts and unstructured blazers.
It makes a great everyday shoe for those who are averse to sneakers, and lends outfits a touch of texture thanks to the soft, brushed uppers.
Traditionally, Derby shoes would have a flat leather sole with a slight heel. This is still a good option for a classic understated look, but if you’re after something a little edgier, opting for a chunky sole instead is a good way to go. Dr. Marten’s is a prime example of a brand that has built a name around bulky, commando sole Derbies, but there are plenty of others to choose from.
Even some of the old Northamptonshire shoemakers like Grenson and John Lobb now produce contemporary Derbies that feature oversized soles, and there are plenty of high-fashion heavyweights that have put their stamp on the style too – just check out Celine Homme’s checkerboard Ranger Derbies.
The Best Brands For Men’s Derby Shoes
Church’s is a historic Northamptonshire shoemaker known for its handcrafted traditional footwear. Now owned by Prada, the British brand produces a range of high-end Derbies, including its iconic Shannon model, which has been going strong since 1970.
Prices for Derbies start at £750 and go up to almost £1,000, and styles range from elegant polished leather options to casual suede with commando soles.
For those with bottomless bank balances, a pair of handmade Derbies from John Lobb is about as good as it gets. Crafted in England for over 150 years, these stunning shoes feature premium details such as Goodyear-welted soles, and are made using the absolute finest of materials.
There are plenty of Derbies to choose from, with prices often extending well beyond £1,000 a pair. We’re particularly fond of the Kilmory, which boasts a neatly stitched toe cap and rugged, outdoorsy looks thanks to a commando sole and Norwegian-welted construction.
One of the biggest names from Northamptonshire’s footwear empire, Grenson produces a mixture of traditional and modern styles that are all bursting with character and quality.
Classic dress Derbies like the Roseberry are simple and elegant, and perfect for pairing with tailoring for special occasions. For something more casual, the British brand makes some excellent Derby brogues, with intricate patterns and high-end materials, with the majority of lines still handmade in Grenson’s historic UK factory.
For an alternative Derby shoe, there are few brands better placed to equip you than Dr. Martens. The English brand’s shoes have been adopted by everyone from punks to postmen, instantly recognisable with their semi-translucent soles and yellow stitching.
The 1461 is Dr. Martens’ most popular take and makes a great option for anyone looking for a Derby with a difference.
London’s George Cleverley has been in the business of handcrafted footwear since the 1950s and still makes some of the finest in the world today. Sir Winston Churchill, Ralph Lauren, David Beckham and Humphrey Bogart are just some of the brand’s famous clients from over the years, and there are many, many more.
The Archie shoe is George Cleverley’s most popular Derby – refined enough to wear with tailoring but relaxed enough to pair with jeans or chinos. Or, if you want to go all out, you could have a pair made specially for you via its bespoke shoemaking service.
Common Projects is best known for low-profile, minimalist leather sneakers. The brand’s Achilles Low model has helped to shape modern menswear since its inception in 2004, so any other styles that followed it were always going to have some pretty big shoes to fill, so to speak.
Incredibly, Common Projects has managed to live up to this reputation with several other iconic silhouettes, including its timeless black leather Derbies that put a modern spin on a classic design. Handmade in Italy from the highest quality hides, they bear the brand’s signature gold numbering to the heel.
When it comes to classic footwear at reasonable prices, Clarks is always a safe bet. The British brand has numerous Derby styles for sale, ranging from high-shine formal options to casual suede versions for everyday wear.
The average price for a pair of Clarks Derby shoes is around £100 and they even make a few pairs featuring the brand’s trademark crepe rubber sole.
Cheaney is another big Northamptonshire name that has been making beautiful handcrafted shoes since the 1800s. The brand’s selection of Derbies includes everything from full-grain brogues to simple leather Derbies and everything in between. There’s even a ‘slotted’ Derby, which features cutout sections to the vamp with broguing to the toe cap. It’s an offbeat spin on one of men’s footwear’s most popular styles, staying true to the design while pushing boundaries at the same time.
History Of The Derby Shoe
The first records of the Derby shoe date back to the 1800s. The style has its roots in the military, where British soldiers had been wearing Derby boots for some time. They later found popularity with the wealthy upper classes during the 1850s, who would wear them for country pursuits, like hunting, in their spare time.
During the early 1900s, the Derby shoe became appropriate for wear around town and the style’s mainstream popularity grew from then on.
The origin of the name is disputed, but it’s generally accepted that it comes from either the 12th or 14th Earl of Derby, both of whom were known to wear this type of footwear.