Put your best foot forward: what our shoes say about us

As the hole in a financier's sole causes outrage in Romania, what other signals does a man's footwear send? Our reporter takes a look at the international language of shoes

Sole trader

AMIDST the chaos and uncertainty of the global financial meltdown, it's reassuring to know you can still judge a gentleman by the state of his shoes. That's the lesson learned the hard way last week by Jeffrey Franks, the International Monetary Fund's envoy to Romania. On a visit to the country, Franks had every reason to expect a chilly reception as he urged fiscal restraint and warned of the dangers of hyper inflation. What he didn't expect was that his footwear would dominate the headlines.

Photographed at a meeting with the Romanian President with a sizeable hole in the sole of his shoe, Franks' sartorial gaffe provoked fevered discussion in the media about whether the man from the IMF was too poor to buy a new pair, or just plain rude.

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As holes go, it was nowhere near the size of the one in Romania's economy, but the state of Franks' shoe, taken as a sign of disrespect for his hosts, overshadowed his sober analysis of the economic situation. "There is no excuse to go to the president of a country with torn shoes," said popular television commentator Mircea Badea. Romanian cobbler Stefan Filipas put down his awl and waded into the row, offering to make Franks a new pair of shoes crafted from local materials, "so he has something to remember Romania by".

It's unlikely that Franks will need the reminder. Not since an impoverished Charlie Chaplin fried the sole of his shoe and ate it in the 1925 movie The Gold Rush has the connection between a piece of shoe leather and a financial crisis been made so clear. But then shoes, the things which mark man out from the beasts, our last protection from walking on the grubby earth, are loaded with significance, symbolism and sartorial meaning. Whether you want to make a personal or political impact, it pays to get your shoes right.

Historic shoes and foot taboos

FRANKS should be glad his meeting was in Bucharest and not Bahrain. In the Arab world, turning the sole of your shoe to someone is a grave insult. Throwing your shoe is even worse. Who could forget the moment when Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi threw his shoe at American President George W Bush at a press conference? The gesture, intended to show contempt for the most powerful man in the world, sent sales of the shoe soaring across the world after the Istanbul-based manufacturer renamed it the "Bush". The Baydan Shoe Company was forced to hire 100 new employees to keep up with demand. More recently, a screen showing video images of Colonel Gaddafi in the main square of Libyan rebel stronghold Benghazi came under a shower of shoes as the dictator denounced his opponents as "rats, dogs, hypocrites and traitors".

A shoe doesn't have to be thrown to make a political impact. When Russian premiere Nikita Krushchev hammered his shoe on the desk at a United Nations meeting in 1960, he shocked the world with his show of angry contempt after the Philippines delegate accused the USSR of imperialism in Eastern Europe.

All sole-destroying stuff. But the history of shoe-related political gaffes seems to show that it might not be too late for Franks to turn his fortunes around. In 1952 when US presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson was photographed at a rally with a hole in the sole of his shoe, the image was published around the world. Until then Stevenson had been portrayed as an aloof liberal intellectual, out of touch with ordinary people. But he succeeded in turning his footwear faux pas to his advantage by explaining that he had worn through his shoe leather walking miles on behalf of the American people. The shoe with the hole soon became a symbol of Stevenson's campaign. If only the IMF envoy had shown such nifty footwork.

Can you really judge a man by his shoes?

NOT every shoe-related slip-up has the power to outrage an entire nation but men everywhere would be wise to learn from Franks' mistake. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man can, and will, be judged by the state of his footwear, whether at a press conference, job interview or on a first date. So how should a gentleman dress below the ankle?

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From brogues to loafers, Converse to conservative lace-ups, Chelsea boots to desert boots, espadrilles to flip flops ... with such a mind-boggling array of styles, surely men could be forgiven for getting it wrong occasionally. Not so, according to writer and 'shoeologist' Donna Sozio.

In her book, Never Trust A Man In Alligator Loafers, Sozio sets out to teach women worldwide how to judge men based solely on their choice of footwear. For Sozio, the most serious no-nos include white trainers, the wearer of which she deems "a classic non-communicator". She devotes a whole section of the book to "red flag shoes", which, sorry Mr Franks, includes shoes with holes, scuffs or loose stitching. "Unravelling shoes are the worst: where else is he coming undone?" writes Sozio, whose fans include legions of women who have dumped men on account of their footwear.

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Of course the shoes you should wear depend on the message you're trying to convey. Trendy creatives may get away with beaten-up sneakers but black lace-ups still rule in the City. Confusingly, the rules don't apply all the time: wealthy men break them in order to show they don't apply to them. Rapper B.o.B. wore a pair of Loake Oxfords for his Grammy Awards performance earlier this year but far from a style misstep, he set tongues wagging with his bold departure from the rulebook.

Prince Charles wears shoes which have been discretely patched on the uppers. Witness too the billionaire Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg. One of the world's richest men, in charge of one of the world's most stylish cities, Bloomberg famously owns two identical pairs of loafers which he wears on alternate days in order to extend their lifetimes and get value for money – he didn't get to be a billionaire by frittering away his money, or time, worrying about his feet.

Shoe rules from a fashionista

FOOTWEAR etiquette might be complicated but we've come a long way since British fashion designer and designer to the Queen, Hardy Amies, looked down at the journalist's shoes during an interview and remarked, "Brown in town, how amusing."

Fashion blogger Margaret Davidson, who runs Penny Dreadful Vintage, is on hand to help guide men through the sartorial minefield. She says: "Men have forgotten how to wear proper shoes. A great pair of smart leather shoes is one of the wisest investments any gent can make. A suit may make a statement about your style, but the shoes make a statement about your substance. Your shoes are the building foundation of your outfit – if you cut corners, the whole thing will come tumbling down."

"High street brands can be great for fashion shoes, but if you want to impress then invest in a pair of high-quality men's boots or brogues from a traditional company such as Church's, Trickers, Grenson or Loake," she adds. Her dos and don'ts include:

• Do know your shoe styles. For an everyday casual style try loafers or boat shoes. Smart casual, go for Chelsea boots, winklepickers or Beatle boots.

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• Don't criss-cross your laces. Shoes should be laced in horizontal lines.

• Do look after your shoes. Clean with saddle soap then condition and polish. Store with shoe trees to keep their shape.

• Don't wear formal shoes with jeans.

• Do match your belt to your shoes.

What do your shoes say about you?

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DOES wearing the correct shoes mark you out as a gentleman? Maybe, but more certain is that wearing the wrong ones will mark you out as an oik. Robert Johnston, associate editor of men's magazine GQ, can understand where the Romanians are coming from. Johnston recently turned a candidate for a job down because his shoes were a mess. "I could never employ someone who didn't care about their footwear," he says. "It's disrespectful to go to a meeting with your feet hanging out of your shoes."

As for the old rules like not wearing brown shoes with a blue suit or suede in the office, Andrew Loake, managing director of Loake Shoemakers concedes that many of the old rules no longer apply. "When it comes to shoes, the lines are much more blurred these days. There are still a few style don'ts – for instance novelty socks. Formal events such as weddings and any job where you are required to wear a suit, are probably the only instances where the rules still apply. After that, it's down to personal style and it either works or it doesn't."

For Johnston – whose feet today are smartly shod in suede moccasin boots – one thing that is never acceptable is wearing socks with boat shoes, driving shoes or espadrilles. Johnston adds, "It's amazing how many questions I get asked on the topic of shoes. Men are still very nervous when it comes to footwear." If only the IMF envoy had sought the advice of the experts before he put his foot in it.