Monday, July 5, 2010

My Birthday Bucks

I have worn white bucks for a very long time.  In fact, I've worn them my entire adult life.  They are my favorite summer weekend shoe when I want to wear something with tone and that is more substantial and provides greater support than a pair of loafers or moccasins.  Not only do I love the way white bucks look, I like the lore of them, and I have a sentimental attachment to mine, as they were a gift to me from my older brother, Frecky.

Frecky gave me my first (and only) pair of white bucks in 1977 for my twenty-first birthday, when he informed me that "No self-respecting gentleman doesn't have a pair of white bucks in his wardrobe," and that it was time to remedy that shortfall.  And Frecky would know, as he was then rather a Beau Brummell of the preppy school of dressing, having recently graduated from Yale and was attending the University of Virginia Law School.  He was also something of a mentor for me when it came to learning the important and finer points of perfecting my sartorial equipage, mixing (and savoring) such libations as planter's punch cocktails or mint juleps, and dining in grown-up restaurants with nary a parent in proximity.

At the time I was between semesters at Yale and spending the summer working at a lowly job in a lofty law firm in Washington, D.C., living with my father and (newish) stepmother in their townhouse on Embassy Row.  That was a bit of a trial, as they weren't used to having a loutish college boy under foot, and they continually bombarded me with difficult and nosy questions when I had the misfortune to come under their laser-beam scrutiny.  They also informed me that they expected me to do my own laundry (even when they had a full time housekeeper who did theirs, and who had done mine in the past) and that I would also be responsible for taking care of various menial chores and projects that summer in return for their allowing me to live with them rent-free, even though I was (according to them) earning good money.  The nerve!

Much to my relief, my newly married brother was also living in Washington that summer and working at the same law firm as I, but employed there as a much more exalted Summer Associate.  So I saw quite a bit of Frecky that summer, which was a great pleasure to me.  Not only was I fond of him and looked up to him, but he was full of all sorts of good advice as to how to manage my humorless father and his irritating wife, having trod the same path only several years before.  One day early in July, having lunch with Frecky in Lafayette Square, he informed me that he had decided to give me a present of white bucks for my twenty-first birthday.  And not just any white bucks, but white bucks from the only purveyor that one was to buy such exalted footwear: Barrie Ltd. of New Haven, Connecticut, located right next door to J. Press in the middle of the Yale campus.  What joy!

The small problem that Barrie was in New Haven and we were in Washington was remedied by a quick phone call from my brother to place an order for a pair, which arrived in the mail several days later.  I was excited to put them on my feet for the first time, and I felt like a swell when I wore them to the office where I was working.  It didn't matter that Barrie had sent a pair that was one size too large for my feet--I was thrilled to have them, and wore them constantly.

And I've worn the same pair of white bucks ever since, for over thirty years.  There have been times when I haven't given them a lot of wear, but that has not been the case for more than a decade.  And it's a good thing that Barrie sent a pair that was a size too large, for my feet grew in my forties, and the bucks now fit perfectly.  Once Memorial Day hits I pull them out and wear them at least once or twice a weekend.  I also wear them weekdays when I'm on vacation, such as during our recent trip to Italy.  And I take good care of my bucks.  I've had them resoled and reheeled countless times, I've had new insoles added, I've had the leather cleaned, and--more recently--I had a failing leather heel of one of them rebuilt.  I also regularly pounce them with a Buck Bag that contains white powder made for whitening white buck shoes.  Sure, they don't look spanking new, but that is fine with me because one doesn't really want to wear blindingly clean, straight-from-the-shop bucks.  It is far better that they boast some age.

You may know that white bucks are the source of the expression "white shoe," as in "He works at a white-shoe law firm," a firm that employs elite and moneyed professionals and that draws its clients from a similar world.  However, you may not know that at one time men were referred to, in certain circles in this country, as "black shoe," "brown shoe," or "white shoe" fellows.  "Black shoe" men were those who could afford to own only one pair of good leather shoes, which of course would be black--the safest and most versatile shoe available.  "Bown shoe" men were more affluent and could afford to have an expanded shoe wardrobe beyond basic black.  "White shoe" men were the most affluent, those who could afford to own many pairs of shoes, including shoes as impractical and upkeep-requiring as white bucks.

Today, when most people (at least in the Western world) have ready access to reasonably priced shoes, such distinctions are no longer meaningful.  But at one time--in the first half of the twentieth century--those were fairly commonly used expressions that many people understood instantly.   Men who wore white shoes--in this case, bucks--were understood to be more affluent and dandified than the average Joe.  And that is part of the allure of white bucks.

Tell me, do you or someone you know wear white bucks?

All photos by Boy Fenwick


  1. Two men in my family own white bucks -my husband and his father. Neither have worn them in quite some time. I think I'll encourage my husband to dig his out of the closet this summer...

  2. Yes- I have a pair which are languishing in the closet. Thank you for reminding me. Time to drag them out and take them for spin: my own birthday is at the end of the week! Daniel

  3. I wore white bucks! Not as they were meant to be worn, however (I am female!) We were required to wear them as part of our marching band uniform. I do remember that they were quite comfortable for marching long distances and yet looked quite spiffy at the end of the day. Some of my male classmates did, however, wear them casually, with khakis or jeans.

    My husband has always been a jeans-and-hiking-boots kind of man, and the modern science department, which has its own rigidly egalitarian sartorial code, does not look kindly on blazers, let alone white bucks, except among its most eccentric, emeritus members.

    I remember the brown/white shoe rule, however. My grandmother once remarked of my dollhouse family that they must be rather well-to-do, as they were all wearing brown shoes.

  4. If you want to be hard-core, old school white shoe, you need have your valet black the sides of the soles each and every morning.

    As in:

  5. Overwhelmed that you have had them for 30 years-now I must think what have I had that long, clothingwise. Since I can't wear fantastic shoes anymore my niece has inherited. Do hope to see those bucks soon. pgt

  6. Great post. My current pair of white bucks shod me for the trip home from Sibley Hospital with the newborn LFG and her mother. Ten years ago last Thursday.

  7. I love you, you crack me up in the very best way!

  8. My two young sons wear white bucks, but not my husband. I match their socks with their pant color - is this correct? I'd love to see them on my husband, but he's Italian and it's a very foreign concept - a look that he thinks is for WASPs only. Please describe an ideal outfit, including the bucks, so I can convince him...

  9. I love the look, and indeed my guy has white bucks that have seen a few years through their soles!

    Art by Karena

  10. Dear Reggie: A most excellent post. You may recall that "bucks" is a fond truncation of the original favored material for such footwear: "buckskin." In Our Modern Times, one is more likely to encounter bucks made of humbler cowhide suede but they wear nicely just the same. Fondly, your brother, Frecky.

  11. Unless I'm going to something that requires a dark, discreet suit & the shoes that go with it, I don't wear anything but white shoes in the summer. Most of the time it's a pair of plain white bucks--a cleaner or dirtier pair, depending on what I'm doing & where I'm going--but there are also saddle shoes in white suede, one pair with a tan saddle, one with charcoal, a pair of pointy-toed double monk-straps in white calfskin and somewhere, there's also a pair of brogues in the shaggiest white suede I've ever seen, which I've only worn a few times because they're a bit much, even for me, and that's coming from a guy who spends the summer in seersucker pants. I don't even own a pair of jeans.

    These days, I'm the only one in my family who dresses like this, but somewhere there's a snapshot of my parents as newlyweds, and in it, my dad is wearing a bright plaid shirt, red pants & white bucks. He looks totally cool. I'm not sure how well that look went over in Danville, Illinois, but it must have not been a success, because I not only don't recall ever seeing him dressed like that, I don't even remember those things hanging in his closet, and, mixed in with the typical Danville wardrobe of a bunch of dark suits & ten-pound shoes, you'd think they'd have been easy to spot. At any rate, I have no conscious memory of that Beta version of my dad, but apprently, I imprinted on white shoes early on. I think I need to hunt up that picture & put it out.

  12. I do like my white bucks. I have hard time though, much like your reader of wearing them with many things other than my seersucker suit. While I know many would say it's cliche or costume, but i'm from the South, I live here and it's natural to me.

  13. I did a post last summer on a fellow I met at a party who was wearing linen shorts and white bucks. he told me that he now cleans his using one of those Mr. Clean magic erasers.

  14. My husband wore white bucks as part of his sailing team uniform. They now live in the back of the closet, no matter how many times I tell him how great they'd look. Oh well.

    What a lovely tribute to your brother.

  15. I love white bucks! I have a great pair that I don't wear often enough. I'll be hitting them with a buck back soon and taking them out for a stroll!

  16. My father used to wear white bucks regularly, but you couldn't pay me to wear them - at least not out in public. They're just not my style. I do admire that sort of tradition though, and on rare occasions I still wear my decades-old "earth shoes". They're ugly as sin but have true sentimental value for me! I'm also probably the only one old enough to even remember this particularly unattractive footwear:)

    While I'm here I'd like to sincerely thank you for publishing this blog, Reggie. Last week I accidentally ran across it while looking for old-house-related blogs, and over the last few days I've spent a good deal of time reading through your archives. Very interesting and entertaining stuff there! Oddly enough, I think I may be distantly related to your Mr. Hackett! One of my ancestors, namely an Elsie Houghtaling Bogardus from Coxsackie, NY, had a brother named Jacob who was born in 1799 and is buried in East Nassau, NY. On his tombstone the name is spelled "Jacob Houghtling" (without the "A") but I think he may still be the same "Honorable Jacob Hotaling" depicted in your portrait. That surname was changed over the generations and has been spelled a million different ways. In fact it was often spelled completely differently by members the same immediately family. In any case, small world isn't it?

    Lastly, please pardon this jarring non-sequitur but I just have to ask this...are you and your spouse familiar with a 1934 Constance Bennett movie called Outcast Lady?

  17. Bucks are glorious. I have tried in vain to persuade my son to wear them, but he refuses rather more adamantly than is necessary, arguing that he would look like Atticus Finch. Perhaps when he is twenty-one....

  18. Staircase Witch: Tell your husband that white bucks are very versatile and look good with jeans, in addition to the more expected trouser he may be thinking of. Thanks for your comment.

    Ancient: I am glad that some still maintain such standards. I shall have to direct my manservant to this link.

    HFK: Thank you, Reggie tries to sneak bits of amusement in his essays when possible, otherwise he is afraid they would be deadly dull.

    Gourmet Mom: Here's how Reggie wore his bucks this past weekend: Saturday: navy Lacoste, khaki shorts, sockless bucks; Sunday morning to church: gray and white seersucker jacket, blue gingham shirt, stone-colored khakis, ribbon belt, and pale yellow socks with bucks; lost the jacket and rolled up my sleaves for lunch alfresco at a nearby golf and tennis club; Sunday evening at large benefit dinner dance: linen jacket, white BTOC shirt, tropical weight gray flannels with red/white/blue striped ribbon belt, dark red socks with bucks. In general, if I wear socks with my bucks, I wear socks that are lighter than my trousers but I made an exception for evening on Sunday in honor of Independence Day.

    Frecky: I owe it all to you, dear brother.

    Magnaverde: Goodness me, what I would give to have a gander at your shoe collection!

    DAM: Break the mold and dare to wear bucks more often and with a broader wardrobe of options. They are a remarkably versatile shoe.

    PD: What a good idea, thank you.

    Ryan: I am happy to email you a better picture of Buddy, I mean Judge Hotaling, if you'd like. Please email me. And yes, I'm familiar with Outcast Lady, a remake of the Green Hat by Harold Arlen. Funny coincidence, isn't it?

    ddu: In certain circles Atticus Finch is a role model, worth emulating!

  19. Reading this entry brings wonderful memories of my older brother, Tom, who also taught me about Grownup Life and how to approach it. Thank you for that.

    As for your question about bucks, I'm a visitor from a different universe. As much as I enjoy reading about yours, no one in my childhood was aware of their existence, and today ... I'll just say no one wears them, and leave it at that.


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