The first loafer, as known and loved by men today, was reportedly inspired by a 1930s photo in “Esquire” magazine, which captured a group of Norwegian dairy farmers wearing slip-on shoes. The farmers were standing around the “loafing” area where cows were waiting to be milked, which is why in 1933 the Spaulding Leather Company of New Hampshire trademarked its new line of men’s footwear as Loafers.
A Maine shoemaker named John Bass had seen the same article, but was slower to act on it than his neighbor. So when Bass introduced his version of the loafer in 1936, he called them Weejuns, which was slang for Norwegians.
One of the characteristics of the Bass shoe was a diamond or lip-shaped notch in the decorative, supportive leather band than ran across the instep. Some say the design was supposed to represent the lips of John’s wife, Alice, kissing each pair on their way out the door. But teenagers who wore the shoes started putting a penny in the slot for good luck, and the penny loafer was born.
Because they could be slipped on, loafers were popular with students and adults alike in casual, social settings. Because the shoes were made of leather and often had simple, understated embellishments on the vamp, loafers could also be worn to work. In particular, the tassel loafer, some with wing-tip designs over the toe, became popular with attorneys and white-collar professionals.
Manufacturers known for their men’s loafers include Florsheim, Johnston Murphy, Bally, Clarks, Kenneth Cole, Gucci, and Cole Hann. The Italian fashion house of Ferragamo also makes loafers, as does Red Wing, which is more commonly associated with work boots than casual shoes. And if you still want a pair of Weejuns, Bass sells them in burgundy, black, tan, or brown.