Most modern men accept that there's a limit to suffering for the sake of style.
Once the weather turns really lousy, we tend to agree that fashion can go out the window — we're wearing whatever keeps us warm and dry!
All well and good, but have you ever wondered how functional your fashion can get?
Dedicatedly sharp dressers have managed to look their best even in the worst weather conditions for generations, and you can too!
A truly all-weather wardrobe takes a while to build. Weather-specialized gear that's also stylish enough to pass muster in a business or high-society setting is a niche market, and most of the shoppers in it are affluent.
But with the purchase of a few key pieces, you, too, can stay sharp-looking even when the men around you have given up and thrown on their puffy coats and snow boots.
One key piece of the cold-weather stylist's wardrobe: the cold weather dress boot!
I would like to thank ShoePassion for the sample winter boots I used in the below video and for the use of their images throughout this article.
Properties of a Cold Weather Dress Boot
Dress boots in general are an interesting meeting of qualities: the utilitarian function of a sturdy, ankle-supporting boot blended with the elegant lines and polished leather of a dress shoe.
Add in the need to endure deep snow, slippery ice, and biting cold, and you have a piece of footwear with some very specific needs. Here are all the characteristics that make a boot both a “dress boot” and a useful piece of cold-weather gear:
- Insulation from the ground (thick, multilayered soles)
- Inner insulation (warm lining, padding, etc.)
- Wind/air resistance (non-porous material)
- Sole traction
- Upper-ankle height or greater
- Dark color
- Leather exterior
- Simple upper/vamp design (similar to dress shoes)
That's quite a laundry list for one boot (well, all right, two boots, unless you're sporting a peg leg) to achieve.
An ideal cold-weather dress boot needs to be so sleek and simple that it can go with a business suit, but also so insulated that it can keep you warm in below-zero temperatures, and so sturdy that the sole can grip and the sides can give you ankle support on slick ice.
Tall order — but achievable.
Dress Boot Features for Cold Weather
The key to looking sharp in extreme cold is finding a manufacturer that specializes in boots, and specifically in dress boots and cold weather boots.
There are a couple of styles that perform particularly well in the extreme cold. We'll take a look at the main ones here. Keep in mind that many of these overlap — good cold weather dress boots often fall into more than one of these categories, or have more than one of these features.
1. Quality Leather Exterior
The boot starts with its exterior. If this is cheap, or poorly constructed, the rest of it doesn't matter.
“Box calf” (calfskin tanned with chromium salts) is an ideal material for cold weather boots. It combines durability with a smooth surface and a high gloss. Some top-grain leathers perform comparably well, while full-grain leather adds extra durability at the cost of a rougher exterior surface.
Be wary of anything labeled “genuine” or “bonded” leather. Neither has the thickness or durability to block out cold air and melting snow or slush.
In addition to a high-quality leather, exteriors should also be dark and smooth enough to resemble a dress shoe. As with your basic oxford or derby shoe, a bit of seaming or brogueing on the cap is fine in most circumstances; the more decorative elements you have, the less dressy the boot becomes.
Once you start shopping higher-end dress boots you'll be pleasantly surprised to see how easy it is to stay business-formal with them. Most are indistinguishable from traditional dress shoes except for the height of the boot, or, in some cases, the closure method (a zippered side instead of laced eyelets, for example).
2. Lined Interior
If you're going to be wearing them outside in sub-zero temperatures, your boots need a lining. Period, end of story — unlined just isn't going to cut it.
That said, you can go a couple different ways here. Some have only a very light cloth liner to wick moisture away from the foot, while others use animal fleece or synthetic padding for a thick, insulated layer.
You can even get by with a boot that has a hard leather exterior and a softer leather interior, though these tend not to keep moisture (including self-generated sweat) away from the foot as well.
But whatever lining you go for, you want something on the interior that will help trap body-warmed air in by the foot, instead of leaking it out into the cold air outside. Lambskin and shearling fleece are both excellent thick linings, while moisture-wicking polyethylene or polyester work well for lightweight but less insulating linings. Soft calfskin can also be used for those that prefer an all-leather construction.
3. Rubber Outsoles
Talk to a dress shoe purist, and odds are he'll tell you that leather soles are the only option for a gentleman.
All well and good in the summer, but try that when there's a foot of snow on the ground plus months of thaw/freeze cycle ice built up underneath the latest dusting!
Leather soles are sturdy, comfortable, and easy for a skilled cobbler to replace as many times as needed. They're fantastic — when you can sacrifice a little bit of traction in exchange for all those other benefits.
In the winter, you can't. You want a rubber outsole with gripping treads. And that can still be dressy. The best-looking winter dress boots achieve this by using relatively thin rubber outsoles welted onto leather soles beneath them, sometimes even with a square of leather still visible between the rubber padding on the heel and toe.
Because they aren't as thick as the all-rubber sole of a work or hiking boot, these rubber outsoles will need to be replaced more often than others — every two or three years, say, give or take a few depending on frequency of use. But that's a relatively low investment to make for shoes that work well in the snow and are still discreet enough to wear with a business suit.
If you're serious about extending your dress boot wearing into the worst winter months, be willing to consider the rubber outsoles. There does come a point where pure leather won't cut it anymore, and at that point you're better off wearing a leather boot with discreet rubber padding on the soles than you are switching to winter ski or hiking boots.
4. Boot Upper Height & Ankle Coverage
A good winter boot — dress or not — needs to be high enough to stomp through the occasional bit of snow.
Most dress boots aren't made with the assumption that you're going to be wading across unplowed fields or anything like that. They end around the upper ankle, which is just fine for men walking on regularly-shoveled city sidewalks.
Realistically you won't be doing anything more rugged than that in your dress slacks or business suits anyway, so more height usually isn't needed.
But men who want snow protection all the way up to mid-calf or beyond can always invest in a pair of “half-boots” — a misleadingly named style that's actually taller than most other boots. The name comes from “half” of the high-boot style, a mostly-obsolete form of men's boot that rose above the knee.
High-sided boots tend to be pull-on, sometimes with elasticized sides, simply because it takes too long to lace a boot that large up. Some military boots give you the height of a half-boot with a lace-up front, but their chunky soles and oversized eyelets are decidedly non-dressy.
For most men, a high-ankled dress boot, with or without elasticized sides, is ample. Laced boots with a closed (oxford) lacing system are generally considered dressiest, followed by pull-on styles, open (derby) lacings, and finally side or front zippers.
Caring for Winter Dress Boots
Make no mistake about it — one pair of true winter dress boots is an investment. If you're savvy about sales and discounts you might find one for as low as $100-200, but in most cases it will be more like a $250-$1000 layout for new boots.
And that's fine, if you take care of the boots. Properly cared-for, good leather will last multiple decades. But if you neglect that care, the lifespan shortens dramatically.
What do I use to take care of my leather boots and dress shoes?
Products I rec are: Leather Honey, Chamberlain's Leather Milk, Saphir Polish, Meltonian Shoe and Boot Cream, Lincoln Stain Wax Shoe Polish, and Obenauf's Heavy Duty.
Winter boot care revolves around three basic principles:
Always clean your boots off when you come in from the winter.
A quick wipe-down with a handkerchief or a paper towel before the slush and ice melt on the sides of the boots has time to drive can be a game-changer. That gets the salt and any other chemicals contained in the melt off the boot before it has time to sink into the leather, where it can damage the fibers and in some cases react with the dyes to make the color bleed and run.
So get in the habit of pulling a handkerchief out of your pocket and giving the boots a quick wipe once you're on your own in the office, or wherever else you work. When you get home at night, go one step further and give them a quick wipe with a warm, wet washcloth, and then towel them off on something clean and dry.
It sounds fussy, but it's the most important maintenance you can give a pair of good leather boots, especially in city settings where everyone's dumping salt and melt pellets all over the sidewalks at the first sign of snow.
Leather conditioner helps keep shoes supple and strong. It adds moisture to the fibers that make up the leather, which seems pointless on snowy, slushy days — until you realize that your boots spend most of those days inside, being dried by artificial heat.
Just as people's noses and lips tend to dry and crack in the winter, so too does the natural, fleshy material of leather. Make a point to condition it at least once each winter and you'll extend the lifespan of the boots by years.
Applying conditioner is simple: wash the leather off with warm water and a clean cloth, then let it dry and work the conditioner in with a soft rag. Let it stand for a day to soak in completely and then polish the surface to seal the conditioner in.
On that subject: polish is good for more than just a bright shine! Use shoe polish every few months to keep a smooth, hard surface on your boots that repels water and grime.
A basic wax polish works fine for most calfskin and top-grain or full-grain leathers. If you're wearing something like suede, look for a specialized polish that won't affect the surface texture. If you're ever in doubt, test a small patch somewhere out of sight (the heel down near the sole is a good spot) to make sure it doesn't cause any discoloration.
Some men also like to apply a waterproofing spray to the seams or surface of their boot along with polish, but be aware that many of those are formulated for the synthetic materials or treated leathers used in high-tech outdoors gear. They may cause staining or discoloration on plain leather, so again, test a small amount in an unobtrusive spot first.
Properly cared-for, a cold weather dress boot should keep you warm and stylish, even in the worst winter weather — and it should do it for years.