Shoes are dangerous, financially speaking. Watches are expensive, sure, but it’s shoes that’ll do real damage to your wallet. Buy the wrong the pair, or the right pair in the wrong colour, and you can wave goodbye to hundreds if not thousands of pounds worth of tailoring. After all, not even the finest Savile Row suit can be saved from a seriously misjudged pairing.
“Your choice of footwear can instantly change the aesthetic of your suit,” says Topman personal shopper Frazer Goater, who suggests before doing anything that you invest in a stalwart of the shoe rack. “A pair of black Derbies will provide you with a footwear choice for any suit colour; from grey, black or navy to heavy checks and impactful floral designs.”
What follows is a guide to which other combinations definitely work, and coincidently, which ones definitely do not. That’s not to say though, that there aren’t exceptions in every case. Colour, like style in general, is largely subjective, so it’s important to experiment. Still, to paraphrase one Señor Pablo Picasso, you need to know the rules before you can break them.
Time was, selecting a pair of shoes to wear with a suit was as simple as choosing between formal Oxford shoes and slightly less formal Derbies. Now though, in a more relaxed and less rule-bound era of menswear, everything from leather sandals to sneakers can serve as ‘suit shoes’, provided you know which type of suit to pair them with.
Still, for the most part, the classics endure: Oxfords and Derbies are the bona fide godfathers of smart footwear, and no man should be without at least one pair of each in his wardrobe. A pair of black Oxfords (elegant, svelte and the perfect partner to a classic dinner suit) and a pair of brown Derby shoes (a handsome workhorse of the footwear arena, versatile enough to be worn to work or a wedding) will stand you in good stead for whatever your calendar throws at you.
As one of the most versatile colours in the wheel, it’s hard to go wrong with a navy suit. Not only does this particular shade of blue complement pretty much every skin tone, but it’s the perfect balance of smart and casual that’ll serve you just as well in the office as at dressier affairs.
A chameleon though it may be, there is still a clear favourite when it comes to footwear pairings. Brown leather or suede styles are your best bet here. No need to fuss about the exact shade: hues from tan to dark chocolate will sit comfortably with navy, their richness offering a pleasing counterpoint to navy’s steely neutrality. The exact style is entirely negotiable too, so choose from Oxfords, Derbies, loafers or Chelsea boots depending on what works best for the occasion at hand.
Not a fan of brown? Try deep burgundy leather, light grey suede, or – for a more contemporary take – minimalist white sneakers or off-white canvas kicks. Black shoes work too, but remember you’ll need to wear them with the confidence of someone who’s cool with bending the rules.
Grey is a solid all-rounder when it comes to shoe suitability. As a neutral colour, it’ll pair well with pretty much any hue the colour bods at Pantone cook up, from oxblood leather to dusty pink suede. That said, there are some classic combinations worth having in your repertoire.
Being cool, grey tends to team best with warmer, richer shades that pop when paired with either a light or dark grey. Dark shades of brown, burgundy, oxblood and navy all inject enough colour for a clear point of difference, but pastel shades work just as well, particularly in summer.
For a more classic take, choose black. Black leather shoes, Chelsea boots or similar brogue versions never fail to impress alongside a grey suit, particularly fine wool suits in light grey or more rugged wool suits in darker grey shades.
Black shoes, of course. Other colours work in a pinch, but it’s best to steer traditional with this one. Despite it being a neutral colour, black doesn’t make for as effective a blank canvas as grey, meaning that while you can technically team a black suit with contrast-coloured shoes, the overall effect comes off more brash than finely blended.
Our advice? Black Oxfords as the first port of call (especially for formal events), followed by Derbies, monk straps, Chelsea boots and brogue boots. If that all sounds a little too snooze-inducing, try incorporating colour by opting for an Oxford or brogue with contrast sole detailing or panel; white, off-white and oxblood work well in this regard.
Still too subtle? Try suede loafers or velvet slippers in jewel tones or go all out with what could be loosely termed ‘novelty’ shoes – metallic gold or silver, paint-splattered or otherwise printed styles. Definitely not advisable for buttoned-up engagements that aren’t black tie — though it that case you should really be wearing a dinner jacket — but a stylish way to shake things up anywhere the bouncer won’t bar you for wearing them.
Given their name, you’d be forgiven for thinking neutral colours such as beige, off-white, taupe and so on would team seamlessly with all types of shoe on your rack, but the supposed wallflowers of the colour wheel are more temperamental than appearance might suggest.
The trick to accessorising a neutral suit is finding shoes in a colour that is both different enough to contrast with it, yet similar enough to complement its earthiness.
What’s that exactly? Any shade of brown (try experimenting with different shades depending on the lightness or darkness of the suit), black, white (in the form of sneakers only) and certain pastel shades including blue and pink (particularly good in summer, which also happens to be the best season to wear a neutral suit). A neutral suit in linen, cotton or a blend thereof is also the one suit style you can get away with wearing sandals with. Sans socks, of course.
Bold, contemporary and stylish year-round, a blue suit is a worthwhile investment for men whose suited social engagements skew more smart-casual. Less traditional than navy, tailoring in lighter shades of blue is also marginally less versatile, so you’ll need to tread a little more carefully when it comes to shoe choice.
As with navy, brown shoes work well with lighter shades of blue, but while dark browns complement navy’s depth, you’re better off sticking to lighter brown hues with blue tailoring. Tan Derbies, brogues and monk straps work well, as do slightly richer shades of brown – think milk rather than dark chocolate.
Pairing a blue suit with black shoes isn’t a sackable offence either, but black’s inherent dressiness can jar slightly with blue tailoring’s lack thereof, so take any blue-suit-black-shoes combination for a good test drive in front a full-length mirror before leaving the house.
Like a light, slate or mid-grey number, a charcoal suit looks sharp with shoes in black, burgundy and oxblood. Unlike suits in lighter shades of grey, however, a charcoal one won’t play well with navy or light brown footwear.
Because it’s a neutral colour with a lot of depth, charcoal is best paired with strong hues that subtly punctuate, rather than starkly contrast with it. By far the best options in this regard are black and burgundy styles in a high-quality leather that, after you learn how to polish like a pro, are sumptuous in colour. Brown works too, but only in rich, deep shades like chestnut and mocha.
While there may be exceptions for the suit colours mentioned thus far, there aren’t any when it comes to charcoal. So, veer away from this advice at your peril.
A smart partnership indeed, a single-breasted navy suit and black shoes is an office-ready outfit no man’s work wardrobe should be without. Stick with a plain, pattern-free suit and style with black Derbies or monk straps for a look that’ll boss the boardroom.
This combination is a tried and trusted failsafe for formal events. Traditional and more than a little inspired by the British countryside, it’s executed best with a grey or checked grey suit and brown Derbies, brogues, Chelsea or brogue boots.
Another wedding favourite, this combination offers a more traditional, vintage-inspired alternative to a light grey suit and brown shoes. Remember: charcoal is a rich and intense shade of grey, which means the brown shoes you team it with need to offer a similar depth. Styles-wise, brogues, brogue boots and monk straps strike the smart-casual balance you’re looking for here.
Black and brown shoes too dull? Try bookending navy tailoring with an eye-catching injection of colour. Burgundy shoes – especially Derbies and monk straps – make for a characterful counterpoint to a navy suit’s cool tones. It’s a winner for pretty much anything that isn’t black tie, but use in the office at your discretion if you don’t want a disciplinary.
Need a suited look for summer? Say no more. This Riviera-inspired combination plays a blinder in the brighter months. Opt for a suit in cotton, linen or a blend of the two for optimal breathability and match with a pair of leather or suede Derbies, brogues, monk straps or – to nail that upscale Italo vibe – loafers.
If there’s one formula to note down, it’s this. A handsome twosome whatever the occasion, a navy suit and brown shoes is a classic combination you can rely on now and forever. One thing worth keeping in mind is that these colours have a tendency to look casual; to ensure you stay sharp opt for a shoe from the smarter end of the spectrum such as an Oxford, Derby or monk strap.
A punchier, more youthful alternative to wearing a navy suit and brown shoes, this sartorial set-up works well for work and smart events with a relatively relaxed dress code. Don’t skimp on the suit (cheap fabrics look exactly that in brighter shades of blue) and choose shoes in shades of brown from tan to chocolate. Anything lighter will contrast too starkly, while anything darker won’t contrast quite enough.
Marks & Spencer
Before you run for the hills, allow us to explain. While footing a black suit with brown shoes may sound like something cooked up to cause a stir at Fashion Week, it is in fact proof of how sometimes breaking the rules can prompt some exceptional results. Much like marrying black and navy, with enough difference between the two to make it look purposeful it can look damn good. Plus, David Beckham has been seen doing this on multiple occasions, and if it’s good enough for him.
Different, but not dramatically so, these two colours paired makes a safe bet for guys that want to stand out without going full Pitti peacock. As for the suit, a punchy, vibrant shade such as cobalt works best, while the shoes should be in a saturated black leather that looks almost patent but, you know, isn’t.
A cold-weather classic, this duo has globetrotting spy written all over it, especially if teamed with a black fine-gauge roll neck. To ensure you come off more James Bond than dock worker, opt for a fine wool suit rather than anything weighty and pair with jet black shoes; Oxfords, Derbies and monk straps give a particularly slick finish, but brogues and brogue boots will work too.
Whether you’re jetting off to a summer wedding abroad or looking for something the right side of dandy for parties at home, this peak summer tie-up promises to set you apart from the more predictable choices made once the mercury rises. As with any suit you intend to wear for sweating season, look for linen, cotton or a linen-cotton blend; as for the shoes, stick to suede styles in lighter shades of blue.
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