Traditionally, Oxford shoes described a style of men’s footwear with closed lacing, a design dating back to 18th-century Europe. Sometimes referred to as Balmorals in the United States, the standard Oxford shoe, with its flat-capped toe and smooth leather finish, was once considered the dressiest variety of men’s shoe, but Oxfords evolved to encompass a range of popular looks.
One key characteristic of Oxford shoes is that the pieces of leather punched with eyelets are stitched beneath the shoe’s midsection or “vamp” and meet in the middle to form a tight line over the tongue when laced. In contrast, on shoes with open lacing—known as as Derbies or Bluchers—the two eyelet-punched sections for laces are sewn over the leather vamp, which emerges as the tongue at the top of the shoe.
Though the origins of the name Derby are still uncertain, the term Blucher was adopted in homage to Prussian military officer Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, who helped defeat Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo. Blücher had supposedly redesigned his soldier’s boots with open lacing to create a wider opening for the foot, making them more comfortable and quicker to get on and off.
Oxford shoes got their nickname after the look became trendy among Oxford students in the early 19th century, but today, the term is often misused as a stand-in for a variety of leather dress shoes, including Derbies, Bluchers, and Brogues. Among the elite who wore such designs, the rule was generally as follows: Minimalist shoes with fewer seams were the most formal, whereas increasing the ornamentation and amount of leather used made shoes more casual.
During the 19th century, men increasingly wore Brogue-style shoes, a flashier look that evolved from Scottish walking shoes. Known in English after the Gaelic name, “bróg,” this footwear featured perforated patterns or “broguing,” which was originally punched completely through to the interior to help moisture escape after walking through wet fields. Since becoming a staple of upscale wardrobes, variations on the Brogue have included the quarter-Brogue, with perforation only along the toecap seam; the semi- or half-Brogue, with punched designs on the seam and a medallion on the toecap itself; and the full-Brogue or Wingtip style, featuring broguing along most seams and a decorative pointed toe with “wings” that stretch around the sides of the shoe.
Brogues were adopted by fashionable men and women during the 1920s, especially the flashy “spectator” variety made using two-tone leather. Meanwhile, so-called “saddle shoes,” were a sportier Brogue style that debuted in the early 20th century, featuring white buckskin and a black or brown leather instep.