I'll admit it: I loathed loafers for the longest time. As someone who wears a size 12, they somehow shrunk my feet to disproportionate levels. I looked like a bowling pin inverted. But then I busted out a pair of Cole Haan loafers I was loaned — and, you guessed it, never returned — for senior prom. (This was some 10+ years ago.) Dust aside, they fit and felt good. I wore them out to dinner and spotted several others in slightly different, albeit similar, styles. (Bonus points for my well-worn pair.)
What's driving the loafer boom right now? Why's he wearing them too? Is it sneaker fatigue? A newfound desire to dress up again? Streetwear's diffusion into everyday styles? Who knows — probably a mix of it all. While sneakers are popular, the best ones are hard to buy.
Needless to say, the traditional style once saved for businessmen and Europeans uninterested in sneakers is booming, with more options to choose from than ever. And more new brands making them, too. Whether you're returning to the category or dipping your toes for the first time, here's our guide to the most popular styles: Belgian, tassel, Horsebit, penny and lug loafers.
Henri Bendel — the same retailer who brought Chanel and Balenciaga stateside — birthed the style when he approached cobblers directly to produce shoes his particular way; they were stitched inside out and then turned right ways to ensure a smooth stitch. He launched a company off their success — Belgian Shoes — and the Belgian loafer's ascension began. Yes, they've endured but have largely faded from popular wear, and in most cases been replaced by the bulkier penny loafer. As such, these are dressier shoes but are still deserving of wear.
The origins of the tassel are less transparent. Some state the first-ever pair was probably an import, a one-off piece someone returned from a trip with. Word spreads quick, as we all know, and subsequent spin-offs appeared in all of the major metropolises. Officially, Alden was the first to make a "tassel loafer" — they coined the term — but then they made editions for retailers like Brooks Brothers. Nowadays tassels offer an extra something to an otherwise plain pair of shoes.
Gucci created the horsebit loafer as an homage to their saddle-making business. They manufactured a miniature version of the equestrian tool called a snaffle bit and placed it on the upper of their signature loafer (a loose term for a slip-on shoe). The move was rich as hell and remains a luxurious look. In fact, Horsebit is a term that only describes pairs done by other brands. The style, it seems, is uniquely Gucci's.
A Norwegian shoemaker conceptualized the earliest penny loafer, sources say. But it was the company G.H. Bass that popularized it stateside. They put a "saddle" of leather across the upper — their signature, if you will. They dubbed the original iteration a Weejun — a phonetic reference to Norwegian — but they colloquially became known as Penny Loafers; dueling theories both attribute the term to prep school students.
There's no real history here. Putting a lug sole on a loafer probably happened out of necessity; a "we have these shoes, but there's snow!" kind of situation. Perhaps it was a fashion statement. Either way, finding loafers equipped with Goodyear-welted soles or Vibram tread proves increasingly common. Plus, they're more flattering for feet of all sizes — especially as pants silhouettes trend bigger.