Brown Shoes, Blue Suit: A Generational Divide
Published in News-Gazette
This is how I remember it, anyway.
I stood still as the petite, Gen Z clerk stretched to measure my shoulders for the tuxedo I was renting for our son’s wedding.
“Forty-two long?” she asked, glancing at me in the full-length mirror.
“Sounds right,” I said.
She checked my waist and inseam. “Thirty-four waist? Thirty-two length?”
“Do you need shoes?”
“No, thanks. I’m a 13 narrow. Better wear my own. What color is my tux?”
Black shoes, I thought. “What color suits are the groom and groomsmen wearing?”
“He’s in dark gray and the groomsmen are in that blue one there.”
She pointed at a headless mannequin swathed in a fitted navy blue suit, matching tie, gleaming white shirt with French cuffs, and…brown shoes.
“What’s with the brown shoes?” I said, voice cracking, struggling more with the incongruity of brown shoes with a blue suit than a headless mannequin with hands and feet.
She squinted at me as if I was the headless mannequin or, in her youthful mind, a time traveler emerging from the mist of a time long ago and far away.
My wife, Yolanda, walked over with the store manager.
“Honey,” Yolanda said, “I don’t like it, but brown shoes and blue suits have been okay for a while.”
“Really?” I said. “When did this happen?”
Four high school guys getting fitted for prom snickered. I’m no mind reader, nor do I possess Superman’s hearing, but I sensed a “Can you believe this old guy about the shoes?” vibe.
“Zoey,” the store manager said to the Gen Z clerk, “why don’t you help these young men? I’ll finish up here.”
Zoey motioned the giggling boys away.
“About the brown shoes,” the store manager said. A slim, forty-something woman, she removed her bifocals and tapped her chin as if struggling to recall dusty, ancient tomes from a history of fashion class. “I believe it started in the 1960’s. You probably remember, bell bottoms, Nehru jackets, everything was up for grabs. ‘The times were a changin’.”
She waved her hands and grinned.
“I was in grade school,” I said, running a hand through my graying hair.
“Well, of course,” she said, smile fading.
She glanced at Yolanda. No sympathy there. Yolanda’s my age.
“Well, anyway,” the manager said, “brown shoes and blue suits are perfectly acceptable. Have been for some time.”
“Never saw it at the bank I worked at when I was in my twenties – the 1980’s by the way – or at corporate offices in the ‘90’s,” I said. “And now, at a wedding?”
“Wear your black shoes, honey,” Yolanda said. “I agree. They look best.”
“Certainly, certainly,” the store manager said. “Nothing wrong with black. Now, let’s try on that suit coat and get you out of…um, that is, get you fitted.”
Later, I mentioned the exchange to my son and his bride and received the Zoey-like stare.
“To be clear,” I said, raising my hands. “It’s nothing to do with the wedding. Your wedding, your call. But it just seems like change for change’s sake and I’ve never understood that.”
“But, Pops,” my son said, “people wear brown shoes with blue suits now. They just do.” The soon-to-be-married Millennials exchanged shrugs, unsure how to explain the obvious.
“I know they do,” I laughed. “But why?”
I shot a pleading look at the ceiling, hoping for a fashion god bolt of illumination. But nada from Prada.
“Look, I’m no fashion maven,” I continued, to laughs and smirks. “But there are classic looks that should not change. For corporate business or an evening event, a dark suit means black shoes. End of story. There’s certain things you don’t mess with. Remember ‘New Coke?’ There was no need to change the formula. It was change for change’s sake. And it was a disaster. They returned to the classic formula in a couple months.”
Yolanda knowingly nodded. More blank stares from the kids.
Looking for affirmation, I scoured the Internet for legitimate sources to support my position. It was slim pickings.
Although not widespread, this started in the 1930’s when Edward the Prince of Wales sported brown shoes with dark suits. Figures. Once a guy abdicates the throne, what rules are there left to follow?
According to the Gentleman’s Gazette, the only time black shoes are required is “formal morning dress (morning coat or stroller) or formal evening dress (white tie or black tie).”
One of the few supporters of my position is the Director of the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow, who made waves by telling aides black shoes were for business and formal events. The backlash from the fashionista police drowned out debate on the China trade talks for an entire news cycle.
So I stand corrected, but unbowed. I’m still not a fan. And Kudlow and I, who stand at opposite ends of the Baby Boom, he was born in 1947, are not alone.
As we talked at the wedding reception a few weeks later, my oldest brother, Scott, who was a teenager in the 1960’s and a bonafide member of the Age of Aquarius, commented on how great the evening was going.
He nodded towards a groomsman. “But what’s with the brown shoes?”