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Big-T & the Bada-Bings


If The Shoe Fits: Two Tone Style
by Lesley Martin

Before proceeding any further, Gentleman Reader, if you are wearing spectator shoes right now and it is anytime before Memorial Day or after Labor Day, take them off immediately. According to the same traditions that frown on sporting a straw hat before June and gasp in dismay at wearing white after early September, spectator shoes are strictly a spring and summer shoe.

Photo ©Tara Sigori

Not sure what qualifies as a spectator shoe? The simplest explanation: two-tone oxford shoes. There are plenty of variations of two-tone styles—balmoral, bulcher, and saddle, to name a few—each having to do with the assembly of the shoe (how many pieces of leather, suede, or other materials go into making it), and how each piece is cut and colored. A spectator can also feature broguing, the perforations that adorn a shoe along the stitching or as purely decorative patterning on the toe. The most traditional style of spectator shoe is assembled from pieces of black or brown leather at the toe cap, back quarter, and instep, with white and sometimes tan suede or buckskin at the front (also called the vamp) and sides. This color scheme can also be reversed, with the lighter pieces at the toes and back quarter, and a saddle-shaped piece of contrasting, darker leather at the front and sides, though technically speaking, the latter are more correctly known as saddle oxfords.

Like most fashion dictates of more rigid days, however—days when men wouldn’t dream of wearing a hat indoors and women wouldn’t be caught dead with their lingerie showing—these seasonal restrictions seems to have fallen by the wayside. Today, catch a man walking down the street in two tone shoes, regardless of season, and people generally think, “Oh, swing.” In the last ten years, the two-tone spectator shoe has become inextricably connected with swing and swing dancers. There are a few obvious reasons why this would be so—after all, the fashion for two-tone shoes hit its peak during the 1920s and ’30s, a time when swing music and the large dance bands were reaching their heyday. “This season, more two-tone oxfords than ever before are being sold,” reads the copy for a snappy pair of spectator shoes in the 1928/1929 Sears, Roebuck, and Co. catalog, before insisting that they are a necessary part of the well-dressed male’s casual or sports wear.

Nevertheless, the history of the two-tone shoe reaches back into the late 1800s, when the properly dressed gentleman was never without spats or gaiters to protect the wearer’s calves and ankles from the daily grime of the street. One theory, according to Laird Borrelli, fashion writer for and co-curator of Shoes: A Lexicon of Style, is that the contrasting look of white spats against the leather shoes and dark trouser cuff became incorporated into the shoe itself. On a more utilitarian note, says New York-based fashion stylist and retro-clothing enthusiast Chad Kincaid, darker tones on the toe caps and backs of the shoes would protect the wearer’s shoes from grass stains—specifically grass stains that a spectator at the races or a golfer might otherwise expect to incur if wearing the white summer dress shoes fashionable in the first-part of the 1900s.

This sporty aesthetic is one connotation of the spectator shoe; the well-turned out male of the Prohibition Era was all about sleek, art-deco lines and jaunty, stylized casual wear, as popularized by Prince Edward of Wales. The Prince of Wales, who wore spectators while golfing, was internationally revered as a man of style. His fashion choices, according to Farid Cheneoure in A History of Men’s Fashion, were quickly emulated by rich kids on the campuses of Ivy League schools throughout the United States.

Back in England, this two-tone style was called the co-respondent. Elizabeth Semmelhack, Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, tells us that a co-respondent in a divorce case is the man who has committed adultery with one’s wife—“a swinger, so to speak”—yet another association well-suited to the flash and daring of the hot jazz era (think Gatsby, think Moveable Feast). A gentleman rake could count on adding a snap in his step with a pair of flashy two-tones.

In flipping through photos of the ’20s and ’30s, the two-tone is in wide evidence. Hollywood stars wore them: Rudy Vallee, Louis Armstrong…the entire Ted Weems Orchestra was outfitted with them in the 1920s, as well as the Harry James Orchestra in the late 1930s. Frank Sinatra and Count Basie had a pair or two. The burgeoning gangster culture of the ’30s appropriated the brash showiness of a spiffily shined two-tone shoe to their wardrobe.

  Photo © FPG Intl., LLC
Yet although Fred Astaire glamorized the style in countless films, you don’t see two-tones on the feet of many Lindy Hop dancers in archival footage or photographs—possibly because they were mostly made with the leather soles too stiff to be comfortable for dancing. Yet the association persists, in large part because of a general popular image of swing that has developed as part of the recent neo-swing movement. In the early days of the swing revival—the late 1980s and early 1990s—the crowds consisted of equal parts swing and jump-blues music fans, dance fans, and retro-clothing aficionados who appreciated the bombastic gangster ethos of the ’30s mixed with the urbane cool of the spectator-clad Edwardian.

Examine the CD covers of albums from such bands as the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the Blues Jumpers, and more than just a few of the musicians are wearing vintage shoes, or contemporary updates of the look. The redux association of hot jazz or swing and two-tone shoes has even been picked up by the most classic of American shoe makers. Johnston & Murphy, a top-end shoe manufacturer founded in 1850 and a sponsor of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, adopted LCJO artistic director Wynton Marsalis as their model in recent promotional pieces.

The Spring 1999 catalog for Allen-Edmonds, another venerable shoe-manufacturer dating from 1922, enlists the memory of Duke Ellington in promoting their 1999 Spring Season spectatored wing-tip. The Stacy Adams web page informs us that “finding the right shoes it just the first step,” and asks us to check out their links to find “the music, apparel, news and reviews that complete your look and entire lifestyle.” The featured links range from neo-swing bands to sites like and, to magazines like Vibe and The Source.

Ruth Rubinstein, in her book, Dress Codes: Meanings and Messages in American Culture, defines the idea of “clothing speech,” or the signals that one’s manner of dress sends out to the people around you. The two tone shoe is a sure fire semaphore for style. It draws the eye and smacks of carefully cultivated dress choices. With a smorgasbord of styles to choose from in the early 21st century, two-tone spectators may be the shoe for you; just don’t let the International Fashion Police catch you wearing them out of season.

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This story first appeared in the Fall 2000 issue of ATOMIC Magazine.

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If The Shoe Fits: Two-Tone Style


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