Let’s clarify something first: when it comes to men’s dress, “formal” refers to a tuxedo, a dinner jacket, “black tie” or evening wear, not a regular suit. The number of menswear resources referring to regular suits as “formal” attire is depressing, kind of like those folks who interchange “custom” or “made to measure” with “bespoke” – all signs that you’re reading the work of an amateur.

Now that we’ve got that settled, let’s talk about shoes.

Velvet evening slippers with leather tassels from Tom Ford.

Formal men’s footwear is in a league of its own, never to be confused with shoes for regular wear, even “dress” shoes one wears with suits. Often called “pumps,” men’s formal shoes are mostly distinguished from regular dress shoes by the material of the upper, which is either black patent leather or velvet.

The “Berman” Patent Leather Oxford from To Boot New York.

Another distinguishing feature of a formal shoe is its general lack of distinguishing features, except for the occasional satin bow or tassel on some designs. Formal shoes are mostly plain, with no broguing or fancy stitching. They’re usually just plain lace-ups or slip-ons, like loafers or slippers.

An exception to the plain design rule can be seen on the velvet evening slipper version of formal shoes, showing up in the form of ornamental embroidery on the top of the upper. Crests and monograms or emblems like animals or skulls and crossbones are designs one might find. Unlike their patent leather cousins, velvet slippers can be fun to wear with a good pair of jeans in a casual-chic mode, especially slippers with an interesting emblem with a story behind them.

Scorpio embroidered velvet slippers from Shipton & Heneage. (I’m a Scorpio, which would give me a good reason to wear something like this.)

Beyond that, pumps are plain. Plain and shiny or velvety. Everything else is just a regular shoe and, technically, inappropriate for formal occasions.

So when you get that invitation to a black tie affair or an occasion asking for “formal dress,” don the tux with the proper evening shoe and count yourself among the few who know what they’re doing.

And please… wear a bow tie, not a regular necktie, no matter how black it is. (Unless, of course, you’re a hired chauffeur or a pallbearer.)

NOTE: The featured patent leather slip-on under the headline of this post is the “Delevan” Loafer from To Boot New York.


  1. Christopher R. Fortunato

    Dear George, I love the last comment “unless you are a chauffeur…… I really dislike long ties on tuxedos which started at Hollywood awards events and never look right. The only long cravat in formal wear belongs on a stroller or cutaway.

  2. Jay Hails

    Am I reading the work of an amateur if he’s one of those folks who interchange “oxford” with “derby”?

      • Hi George, to be more technically accurate, it depends on whether the eyelets are stitched under or on top of the shoe’s vamp. And like Jay, I found it a bit confusing that you would present a patent leather derby for a formal wear shoe, that’s called an ‘oxford’. Perhaps it was better to just use an example of an actual oxford, by a manufacturer that knows the difference as well.

    • The “oxford” evening shoe pictured from To Boot is technically a derby, but I didn’t take license to rename the shoe.