According to fashion lore, back in the eighteenth century, Oxford university students, a restless lot by nature, began to grow particularly unhappy with the uncomfortable, constricting fit of the above-the-ankle boots then in vogue. Putting their practical wits to work, some students took to scurrying across campus in low-cut shoes that were as easy to walk in as they were to get out of, given the eyelets for lacing up the vamp. Needless to say, this cooler, more comfortable shoe style soon became known as the oxford, named after the venerable institution located 50 miles west of London.
While oxfords became the accepted footwear style at universities throughout Britain and managed to get a nod of approval even from London gentlemen who tended to shrug off anything "new and fashionable," the look still swung in and out of vogue for nearly two centuries. As late as the 1900's, men in America as well as in England regarded oxford shoes with a reserved disdain, refusing to wear them.
In the book, "If The Shoe Fits," author Bill Severn writes that when oxfords made of light tan calfskin were delivered to stores in upstate New York in 1898. the proprietors complained, demanding that the manufacturers take the shoes back so that the tops could be put on them to make them "salable." It is anyone's guess whether the retailers' requests were ever actually taken seriously.
By 1915, oxford shoes were more widely accepted, as shown by the many advertisements boasting of their heretofore unheralded qualities. In fact, the oxford became the most popular gentleman's shoe through the Twenties and Thirties, aided in no small part by returning servicemen only too happy to kick off their government-issued, heavy military boots. For his part, in 1924, the Prince of Wales ushered into vogue the first suede oxford, known then in England as reverse calf, during a visit to the United States. Judging from the controversy his suede shoes stirred up--one observer called them "a mark of great effeminacy"--it is surprising that the Prince did not find himself chauffeured right back to Britain. So much for fashion invincibility.
The oxford shoe of today bares little resemblance to its ancestor, at least as far as shape and construction are concerned. The modern day oxford is lighter in weight and narrower in shape than those of earlier decades, which needed to be heavier and clunkier to balance out the wider trouser legs and heavier clothing fabrics. As suits became lighter in weight over the years, and trouser width narrowed to a trimmer line, so too did the oxford shoe experience a paring down of sorts. Current trends point to the return of thicker crepe soles and chunkier heels, but classic oxfords remain just that--classic--and should endure any and all vagaries of fashion.
The term oxford is often used incorrectly in describing any low cut shoe. But there are subtle differences between a genuine oxford and all other low cut styles: the real thing has a vamp (the top part of the shoe front) that is stitched on top of the quarters, or sides, of the shoe, with lacing of three or more eyelets over the instep. With a saddle oxford, a leather piece, usually in a contrasting color, extends from side to side over the instep, much like that of an actual saddle.
Quality oxfords have uppers of calf or kidskin, which are soft and lightweight. Hand or bench-made welt construction, a cobbler's craft that has been with us for about four centuries, consists of a narrow leather strip sewn by hand to the insole and upper, with the sole later attached to the welt. Another earmark of quality construction is leather soles and lining. Leather is a slow conductor of heat and will retain warmth in winter, while repelling it in summer.
According to statistics from the Footwear Council, a man may walk an average of 115,000 miles in his lifetime, putting stress on 26 bones, 107 ligaments and 19 separate muscles in each foot in the process. So for the man who wishes to avoid returns to the shoe store at regular intervals, buying the best possible shoes--preferably oxfords--may well be an investment in health as well as style.