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