Rituals of Shoe Care

Evan Riddell

The rituals involved in men’s dressing offer a sharp demarcation from work and home, even if one’s office is currently the dining room table. Beyond that, participating in ritual offers comfort in familiarity by relying on studied practice and muscle memory. Many of our customers celebrated Easter this past weekend, though I’m certain this time was a markedly different than years previous. While the holiday ostensibly catalogs the resurrection, its current civil form celebrates nature’s return with the new life of spring, represented with images of fresh grass, bunnies, and eggs, which definitely feels odd in a pandemic. Unlike past years where we would go out to brunch with the rest of the family, this year's Easter was spent with my wife in the house admiring our budding garden, watching the rabbits that have made our back yard their home, and preparing my family’s ragu.

Spaghetti isn’t a traditional Easter dish in my family, but these are certainly nontraditional times, and we have plenty of time to spend in the kitchen right now. I learned the all-day preparation of pasta sauce from my mother, who in turn learned it from her grandmother, who learned it from her family back in Italy. Lots of garlic, oregano, and basil—“Make the pot look like it’s a field of grass,” was the oft-repeated recommendation. I’ve been making it for over a decade, always the same way, from when the first seasoning happens to when the meat is introduced to the rest of the sauce, to when the red wine goes in (which generally means when I get to have a glass).

Cleaving to a ritual, whether in cooking, worship, or dressing, is reassuring and familiar, and developing a practiced hand at a task becomes its own joy. In this time of too many hours of the day, listlessly browsing TV or staring at social media, I’ve enjoyed the rituals of maintaining my clothing. How razor-sharp can I press this trouser crease? How smoothly can I iron my dress shirt? And my absolute favorite: how glossy-bright can I shine my shoes? All of these acts take practice and one will certainly make mistakes, but to see the results of one’s handiwork can only inspire pride at a job well done. Most importantly, they all focus the mind on the task at hand, staving off intrusive thoughts of dread, ennui, or boredom.

Well-made shoes are an investment, and they require maintenance, whether they’re worn week after week or stored in the closet for special occasions. The calfskin used on the uppers is susceptible to cracking without moisture, and without something strong inside to give the shoes shape when not in use, the tension built into the sole will eventually pull the toes up into uncomfortable imitation of jester’s shoes. At the shop, I often recommend to my customers who purchase a pair of goodyear-welted shoes to invest in a pair of shoe trees and polishing accessories, and that they take a night every few weeks to really put the work in on their footwear. I’ll wear a pair of pajama pants I don’t mind getting dirty, and I like to put on a “rainy day movie,” something that doesn’t require much thought, like Indiana Jones or Hot Fuzz. I’ll pour something easy-drinking, especially if there are a few pairs to shine—a good brown ale or a glass of Malbec for me, thanks—and crack open my shoe shine kit to select my tools for the job.

The most important tools for a well-executed shine are the brushes and polishing cloth. I prefer a horsehair shine brush and dauber, and a good flannel cloth adds a mirror-like quality faster than most any other cloth. The horsehair bristles are tough enough to scratch off the grime and dust that accumulates even on fine leather shoes, but helpfully are too soft to damage the skin. Of course, never use the same brushes, daubers, and cloths on shoes of sufficiently different colors. I can remember the time I mistakenly started to polish my walnut wingtips with my black brush, and how much effort was involved to balance the other shoe to match its now slightly darker mate. I’ve seen some guys keep a brush, dauber, and cloth for black, dark brown, mid brown, and tan each, but I find that to be a bit over-kill and my shoe valet would be bursting at its seams. I stick to black and browns, and I’m careful to wash my tools of excess polish if I’m jumping from a light color to dark.

Before diving into the actual shining, one must be sure the leather is as clean as it can be, as the dust trapped under layers of polish ends up giving the shoes a cloudy affect, which we’re certainly not after here. Remove the laces or undo the buckles, and give the shoes a quick once-over with a damp rag or paper towel, focusing especially on where the upper joins the sole at the welt. Let the shoes dry, and brush them with the shine brush in quick back-and-forth motions across the toe cap, along the quarters, and on either side of the heel counter with medium to firm pressure. This ensures any remaining bits of grime have been removed, and the friction heats up the top-most layer of polish enough to more readily accept another coat.

Sometimes this is all that’s needed and I’ll skip the rest, but we’re taking our time and really enjoying the act of polishing and its repetition. If the shoes are particularly dry, use a conditioner or leather lotion to restore more of the moisture to avoid cracking. Apply with the dauber in circular motions to ensure even distribution, and set the shoes aside for a few minutes while the leather soaks up the application. Once they appear dry, brush back and forth with decently firm pressure all over the shoe with the shine brush to remove any excess. If the leather is in otherwise good shape, go right on to selecting a good polish.

We carry Allen Edmonds’ cream polishes, which I prefer because they will actually help keep the shoe nourished with moisture and will also quickly show vibrant color when applied. Their polishes are easily labeled to match traditional colors, and their clear neutral polish is great for already burnished shoes, unusual colors, and rare leather types. I even like it when I give my black oxfords a mirror shine for a black tie event. If the shoes are dark brown, go with brown, and if they’ve got a bit of red to them, go with chili. However, I like to have a bit of fun with tan shoes that have been so popular in recent years. Generally, one should use a walnut polish, but I’ve found these to be the perfect canvas for working in a bit of patina by darkening the toes, heels, and creasing across the vamp with brown polish. Because the cream applies only a thin layer, this won’t truly change the color of the shoe unless a lot of work is put in.

Just like the leather lotion, work the polish in evenly with the horsehair dauber in circular motions, with extra focus on the toes and heels. I’m always amazed at the damage wrought on the very end of the toes of my shoes, no matter how much effort I make to avoid missteps on uneven sidewalks, catching corners of doors, and the worst offenders of all, gas and brake pedals. A little extra love to the scuffs and scratches will obscure even the deepest wounds in the leather, and I like how they eventually add character to otherwise gleaming oxfords. I find perfectly preserved footwear a bit too precious, as appreciation for something only develops with wear and care. After a coat has been applied, brush the shoes down with the shine brush, and start over with another layer. I like to do three or four rounds of this for a deep, rich result, perhaps throwing a bit darker cream on and then covering it with the usual shade.

Once the shoes look properly colored and are brushed of excess polish, I’ll cradle one in my lap and take the flannel cloth to it, focusing specifically on the toe and heel, as the flexible parts of the leather will quickly lose any luster with a little wear. The faster and harder, the better, as the friction heats the polish up to become smooth for a glossy, gleaming appearance. I spend a good amount of time on this portion of the process, to see how shiny I can make the toe caps, but when I can see myself in my footwear, I consider it a job well done.

From cleaning to the final polishing, the process can take as little as twenty minutes for a single pair, but I prefer to take a little more time and work on a few pairs at once, working from dark to light shades. It’s rewarding to see two or three pairs ready to go, even if they’ll only be worn around the house or to the grocery store. The effort and pride taken in the process is relaxing and easy to begin, though difficult to master. My wife likes the smell of the shoe polish and the sounds of the brush on the leather, and I appreciate the craftsmanship of a well-made shoe, and how it ages as I wear and care for it. The ritual, performed the same way every time, focuses on achieving the very best blots out a bit of the uncertainty and the doldrums we’re all currently fighting. Experiment with technique, and always strive to make it better than before. 

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