Did you know whether you pull off sneakers or not is decided by five golden rules?
Not many men do.
You can't slip some random sneakers on and expect them to instantly work with any outfit.
In fact, the more formal the rest of your outfit, the harder it is to look at home in sneakers.
The truth is, all sneakers are casual and that can make them difficult to pair. But, that doesn't mean all sneakers are made equal.
Some sneakers lean towards the smart end of casual on the formality scale and can be dressed up. Other sneakers are decidedly casual and are best kept for casual outfits or days you need maximum comfort. Each has its place in a man's wardrobe.
Only by understanding the styles of sneakers, which are most versatile and the golden rules to wear them with, can you pull off sneakers.
Find out all this and more right here.
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First up, let's understand some basic sneaker terminology and the different elements of the shoe. This will form the basis of any discussion on sneaker style and will help you make a more informed purchase decision. Take a look at the infographic below and check out the various parts of a sneaker we will be talking about today:
Golden Rules For Sneakers: Sneaker Styles And What They Can Teach Us
It was over 100 years ago in 1917 that the Converse All Star Basketball shoe was released. Professional basketball player Chuck H. Taylor joined as a salesman in 1921, conducting basketball clinics and selling the shoes.
The iconic style we still recognize today was born when his effort was acknowledged by the company in 1932 when they added his name to the shoe ankle patch.
In 1936, the converse sneaker was accepted as the official footwear for the U.S. Basketball team at the Olympic Games and its place in menswear history was sealed.
Fast-forward 30 years however, and times were changing. Basketball players increasingly demanded footwear that could perform at the high levels they pushed their own bodies to.
This same decision by Converse to not conform would set the stage for a new generation of basketball sneaker in the 70s. They would be bigger, bolder and pioneered by a host of new names: Nike, Puma, Adidas, Reebok and others.
Chunkier, air-filled soles gave players that all-important boost they needed (or maybe just the confidence boost they needed). Colors communicated the style and personalities of celebrity players like Michael Jordan who would have their hand in designing their own sneakers. The first Air Jordans were first released to the public in 1985 and can still be bought today in many variations.
- Some technical fabrics but basketball shoes more often provide performance on the court and comfort on the weekend by adding thick, air-filled soles, spongy insoles and punched airholes
- Multiple layers of leather cut and arranged on top of each other provide structure and add visual complexity
- Wide variety of color combinations as well as standard all-black and all-white options
- Can be found in low, mid or high-top variants
In many sports, an average pair of sneakers will help, they won't hinder. In running, where pure speed is all that counts, the shoe is everything.
Unless of course, you're Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila who won the 1960 Olympic Marathon barefoot.
For us mere mortals, we need every advantage we can get.
A hundred years ago, running shoes didn't look too different from formal dress shoes. They were dark leather shoes with the main difference being thinner, rubber soles to decrease weight and absorb some of the impact from feet hitting the ground.
Nowadays, a curved ‘rocker' sole decreases the amount of work needed from the muscles in your feet to keep you moving forward. A wider toe box allows your toes to splay out at high speeds. A wide array of technical fabrics allow these sneakers to be flexible and lighter in weight while remaining thick with cushioning. Mesh designs allow air to flow freely around your feet.
With the rise of athleisure over the last ten years, a sub-category of casual running shoes has developed. These incorporate yet more relaxed, comfortable materials such as a wool upper.
Here is what you can expect in a typical running shoe:
- Wide variety of color combinations and patterns, expect bright neons and often reflective patterning to be seen when night running
- A shock-absorbent insole with padding all around the shoe but particularly in the collar to keep your foot locked in place
- Thick, convex sole
- The largest amount of technical materials of any of the three sneaker categories
- Almost exclusively sold as a low-top shoe (although ‘sock sneaker'-style running shoes with an elasticated top that fits around your ankle are becoming more popular)
Gentleman's Sports Sneakers
Now we come to sneakers originally developed for gentlemanly pursuits such as sailing, fencing and racquet sports such as tennis, squash or badminton. These have the sleekest design of any of these categories.
These styles developed closely to one another, sharing many of the same traits. Non-marking soles, sometimes made from gum, are essential to avoiding unsightly marks on a squash court or the deck of a yacht. Now closely associated with skaters and rebels, Vans actually began life in 1966 as a shoe for deckhands and boat owners.
The vast majority of sneakers employ an open lacing system. However, a sneaker designed for a luxury hobby such as sailing is the most likely to be found with a closed lacing system. That's right, Vans sneakers actually employ the same lacing system normally reserved for men's formal dress shoes such as Oxfords.
What else are these sneakers characterized by?
- Flat, non-marking soles
- A thin, narrow build
- Minimal padding normally found just in the collar, tongue and insole
- Neutral-colored, single-layer upper
- Almost exclusively sold as a low-top shoe
- Predominantly natural materials such as cotton and leather uppers
Golden Rules For Sneakers: Defining The Dress Sneaker
Ok, so we have a solid understanding of different sneaker styles under our belt. How do we know which are dress sneakers that can be elevated and worn with a variety of non-casual outfits?
A sneaker is any shoe with no heel and a pliable rubber sole. The dress sneaker has an upper which resembles a dress shoe. This means it should have as many of the following as possible:
- A neutral (white, gray, navy or black) or natural leather color (tan, chestnut)
- Simple, single-layer construction
- A sleek and fitted design
- A closed lacing system
- A low-top design
You might have noticed this makes it a lot easier for a tennis or sailing shoe to pass the criteria. This is why these are the styles you're most likely to see combined with a blazer or even a suit.
It is rare for a basketball or running-style sneaker to be harmonious with smarter wardrobe items. However, new sneaker styles are constantly being released so it is by no means impossible. In the meantime though, stick to the checklist above and you should be safe.
So now we have the perfect pair of dressy, versatile sneakers defined, what are the golden rules for rocking them?
The Five Golden Rules For Sneakers
#1 Keep Them Clean
You should always have clean shoes, but this rule goes double for sneakers. As part of your outfit that's already casual, you want them to look as smart as they possibly can.
An underappreciated benefit of buying a quality leather sneaker is, unlike cotton, dirt will not soak in. Any dust or grime will stay on the surface and can be wiped straight off in most cases.
#2 Match Your Outfit's Silhouette
Wearing a slim, dressy sneaker with a suit? Go for a slim-cut suit to match.
Harmony and intention are critical to an outfit. A chunky sneaker combined with tailored clothes will over-accentuate your footwear and give you a ‘clown shoe' silhouette.
Save your chunky sneakers for heritage workwear or streetwear looks which normally use boxy or relaxed fits. Straight-cut jeans will be a lot more forgiving on your footwear when someone takes in your overall shape, trust me.
#3 Choose Complementary Or Contrasting Colors
This one comes down to where you want to draw people's eyes.
Do you want your sneakers to be the center of the show? Use a stark contrasting color to draw attention eg. black jeans with white sneakers.
If you want everyone's eyes to be on your shirt or jacket, employ complementary colors eg. light gray chinos with charcoal gray sneakers.
#4 Choose Leather
It's not illegal to wear a cotton or fabric sneaker. However, leather is a reference to dress shoes, adding more sophistication to your look.
Leather is also easier to clean and maintain (mud just wipes off) and will age gracefully, forming a nice patina.
#5 Don't Break The Dress Code
I love sneakers but with great power comes great responsibility. Sometimes the smartest course of action is to put your sneakers back in the closet and put on your dress shoes instead.
As I've said from the start, sneakers are fundamentally casual. Unfortunately, this means there are some places and events (formal weddings, up-scale restaurants and clubs) where sneakers just can't go.
Look at it this way, it will feel even better the next time you slip your feet into those tennis-style sneakers. Plus, dress codes are slowly but surely relaxing, and makers are experimenting with more and more formal sneaker styles. It might only be a matter of time before a pair of dressy sneakers can take you anywhere…