First Dress Shoes On A Budget

If you’re a young man putting together the beginnings of a professional wardrobe, one of the components that you really want to get right is your shoes. Chances are you have a limited budget, and can only afford to buy one pair for now. I see so many guys getting this wrong that I am compelled to offer some advice.

The first decision you’ll make is whether to go with black or brown shoes. I recommend black for these reasons:

  • Black shoes are more versatile than brown as they can be worn with almost all colors.
  • Black shoes are the more conservative and formal choice, which is a good thing.
  • Black shoes can fill multiple needs – church, weddings, funerals, galas, and job interviews.
  • Brown shoes require more advanced color coordination skills to match your outfit.
  • Brown shoes come in many different shades, requiring matching belts and watch bands.
  • Brown shoes will be worn less frequently by the typical office worker.

You should definitely have both colors for a well-rounded wardrobe but you want to get black ones first if you can only buy one pair.

The second decision is going to be loafers versus oxfords. The obvious choice here is oxfords, as they are more formal and conservative, and as such they will be appropriate in a wider variety of situations. It’s always better to be a little overdressed than underdressed – unless you are so affluent that you want to downplay your wealth.

Loafers are cool but too casual for job interviews.

It should go without saying that your shoe uppers should be constructed from 100% leather. There are no substitutes that are acceptable here. You should also look for leather insoles, as a lot of manufacturers try to cut corners and stick you with synthetics. Any surface that is coming in close contact with your skin all day should be all-natural whenever possible. Leather insoles feel better on your feet and last longer. They are often removable for cleaning or replacement.

The welt is the strip of material that connects the sole to the upper. Goodyear welt construction is the superior choice. The process was invented in 1869 by Charles Goodyear Jr., son of the famous rubber innovator whom the tire company is named for. Aside from the durability, the main advantages of the Goodyear welt is that it provides good waterproofing, and allows the shoes to be re-soled when needed. This is especially important on the more costly brands, where the upper will last much longer than the outsoles. You don’t want to just throw them away every time the soles or heels get worn down.

The outsoles are the bottom of the shoe that comes in contact with the ground. Once again you want pure leather outsoles when possible. Leather outsoles are more expensive and harder to find now that so many manufacturers are using Chinese rubber as a cheap alternative.

Along with leather outsoles, you want stacked leather heels. Hopefully you’re seeing the pattern here – higher end garments and shoes are almost exclusively made from natural materials. However, if you’re going to compromise at all, then a rubber heel is not that bad. It actually helps provide a better grip, which can be especially important if you live in an area that gets a lot of rain or snow.

So to recap, your first pair of dress shoes should be black oxfords, with leather uppers, leather insoles, Goodyear welts, and leather outsoles. You shouldn’t get anything too fancy like wingtips, monk straps, or Chelsea Boots – there will be plenty of time for that later.

Even after narrowing it down to these features, we’re still left with a vast array of choices. There are cap toes, plain toes, and brogues. There are balmorals and bluchers and derbys, which are all very similar with subtle differences.

Luckily we can make it easy for you. There is a particular make and model that is so nicely balanced and time-tested, so perfect for business wear, that it has become the de facto standard among all well-dressed gentlemen from Wall Street to Washington. If you have only one pair of dress shoes in your closet, this is the one to have. We are of course talking about the Park Avenue, by Allen Edmonds.

Top Choice: The Allen Edmonds Park Avenue

Allen Edmonds is an American shoemaker founded in Wisconsin in 1922. They employ excellent craftsmanship and high quality materials, along with superb styling. These traits have earned them a sterling reputation among business executives around the world.

While certainly not entry level, the pricing of Allen Edmonds shoes is within reach of most, and their quality construction guarantees that you will get your money’s worth while cheaper shoes won’t last nearly as long. What’s more, Allen Edmonds has a “recrafting” program, where they will restore your shoes at very reasonable prices to have them looking new again.

Allen Edmonds Park Avenue

Another aspect of Allen Edmonds, and all higher quality dress shoes, is that they offer width sizing in addition to length. You are able to get a much more precise and comfortable fit when you can choose from several widths.

Unfortunately I don’t receive any compensation from Allen Edmonds, I just recommend them so highly because they are terrific shoes that tick all the right boxes. Made in the USA, old world craftsmanship, quality leather, traditional styles, and great balance of price to value.

I’m a firm believer in spending more on higher quality items rather than buying cheap and buying often. It’s true that you could buy three cheaper pairs of dress shoes for the same price as one pair of AEs, but I would take the single high end pair any day. They look better, they feel better, and they are a long-term investment. If you can afford the $400 for your first pair of dress shoes, there is absolutely no contest: buy a pair of black Allen Edmonds Park Avenues. They will look great and earn you the respect of those in the know, including the guy who is interviewing you for that well-paid job.

That said, a lot of people just can’t spend that much at first, so here are some additional options…

The next rung down from Allen Edmonds is Johnston & Murphy, in my opinion. Their shoes are pretty well-made, with nice traditional styling and decent materials. The do cut some corners to keep their prices down, and it shows, but it’s nothing too drastic. They are a pretty good compromise for the lower budget. Johnston & Murphy makes a shoe called the Melton Cap Toe, with the same exact styling as the Park Avenue, at about half the price tag. They are made from premium calfskin, with leather lining and outsole, and Goodyear welt construction. I own a pair of these myself and they have served me well.

Johnston & Murphy Meltons

Traveling further down the budget ladder, if you can only spend $100 on your dress shoes, I would recommend the Florsheim Amelio or Postino cap toe oxfords. These have leather uppers and insoles. The compromise comes in the rubber outsoles, lack of Goodyear welts, and open lacing instead of the closed lacing style of the Park Avenues and Meltons. They are definitely passable and Florsheim is a reputable manufacturer that’s been around for a long time.

Finally, the lowest budget option is to peruse your local Goodwill or Salvation Army and try to find a pair of lightly-used Allen Edmonds or better. If you have a couple months to spare, and you are willing to check your thrift stores each week, you will probably come upon a great pair of shoes at bargain pricing. A lot of dress shoes are purchased for one or two special occasions and then sit in the closet for years until they are donated. If you don’t mind possibly wearing a dead man’s shoes, thrift stores can be a perfectly valid option until you earn more money. Protip: if you live in a large city, go to the thrift stores in the most affluent parts of town…elderly widows often donate extremely nice suits and shoes from high-end makers when their husbands pass away.

Good luck and let me know what you ended up getting in the comments below!

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