MANual of Style

Lesson 13: Sneakers & Sandals by Shreyas
8 February, 2010, 11:02 pm
Filed under: Casualwear | Tags: , ,

Shoes are good. If we didn’t have shoes, we’d all have to step in things all the time. It would be terrible. Respect shoes.

The most diverse category of casual shoe is the sneaker, or “trainer” for our friends across the pond. As the British term implies, sneakers originated as athletic shoes; thus they have rubber soles, and you can find sneakers designed for the performance needs and style preferences of many different activities. If you’re looking for style and comfort (rather than shopping for a specific sport), you need to know the weight and construction differences between types. Many brands specialize in one sport or another, and they often make street shoes in similar styles. A street shoe is usually labelled as a sneaker or athletic shoe, rather than “basketball shoe” and so on. The specific construction of one style of shoe might be more comfortable or flattering than another for you.

Basketball shoes are usually heavy, have thicker soles, and tend to be high-tops. I also find that they tend to be flashier and stranger than the average sneaker. They’re good if you want to look taller or anchor the eye at the ground, since they have a lot of visual mass and thick soles. They’re also good if you want to make your feet look bigger, which you might want to do if you have particularly broad shoulders and smaller feet. If you actually want to use these for exercise, they’re crappy to run in (they’re designed to support you when jumping), so save them for show or basketball.

Soccer shoes usually have cleats. Similarly-styled street shoes look like this. They tend to be low-profile shoes with thin, flexible uppers and soles; in other words they’re pretty much the stylistic opposite of basketball shoes. The flash in soccer shoes often comes from color rather than construction. I once had a pair in dark green and lime suede. Soccer-style shoes are good for deemphasizing a large foot, since they’re small and tend to be constructed of soft curved lines. I like them because they’re flexible and breathe well.

Running shoes are lightweight, low-topped, have an upturned toe and thick soles. The upturned toe visually shortens your foot, so this is another option if you want to minimize your feet. The design of running shoes tends to either be very traditional or kind of weird (shoes with new technology invariably show off that technology on their exterior somehow), but they tend to be less flashy in general than basketball shoes. They’re good if you want to be light on your feet and not draw too much attention while doing it. Running shoes also breathe well, which is important if you spend a lot of time in your shoes.

Chucks (or Cons) are named after Chuck Taylor, a basketball player who popularized the style. (Classic Chucks are high-tops, as you would expect of a basketball shoe.) They tend toward a thin upper made of canvas, with no padding at all, and the style is pretty standard, though they come in a wide variety of colors and prints. Other than this, their features remain similar to other basketball shoes. Personally, I find Chucks to be more of a liability than anything else; they have white on the vulnerable toe, where it is likely to get scuffed and stained. However, if the uppers get dirty, you can just throw them in the washer because they’re canvas.

That’s by no means an exhaustive list, but they’re the basic types that most athletic shoes relate to.

The right sneaker for you

Once you’ve got an idea of what style works best for you, it’s time to go to the store and try some shoes on. Any good shoe salesman can size you and tell you what to look for, but everyone’s feet are different, so you should definitely walk around in a new pair of shoes (just do a lap around the aisle in the shoe store) before you commit to it.

Once you take care of that you can think about color and detail. A safe way to add color to an outfit is to add brightly-colored shoes; they don’t necessarily have to relate to your outfit as long as you’re wearing neutrals or sticking to a single color. However, if you do buy brightly-colored shoes, you have to keep them clean. This goes doubly for yellow and white, which show stains the soonest, and triple for Chucks because they’re canvas, so if you don’t wash them promptly, the stains will soak in and you’ll never get them out. Regardless, it’s a good idea to have a pair of dark sneakers in neutral tones for wear when the weather is crappy.

Rather than going for one or the other extreme of color, you can also choose a subdued non-neutral that looks good on you. These are really tough to find, but I think they make a lot of impact.

Decide on the level of detail you want—contrast stitching, panels of different colors, patterned canvas, logos and other embellishments—based on how much care you want to put into your shoes and how much attention you want them to draw. More detailed shoes call for more care; since people will look at them more, you should take good care of them. Lacing is an easy, low-investment way to personalize your shoes and add or suppress detail. You can change the color of your laces for various effects, or you can lace them in different patterns for graphic or functional effect. Check out Ian’s Shoelace Site for some really in-depth discussion of shoe lacing methods, including how-tos, pros and cons of different methods, and other good stuff.

Changing your laces is an effective way of refreshing a pair of tired shoes, too. Clean them well and put in a new pair of laces, and it’s almost like having new shoes. I have one caveat, though: brand-new laces will take a while to lose their factory gloss and look integrated with your shoes, so this is a place where it might be preferable to experiment with contrasting colors.


You should always wear socks with shoes, and never wear socks with sandals. See, the purpose of socks is to keep your feet warm and absorb moisture (i.e. sweat), so your shoes don’t get stinky over time. If you leave out the sock when you’re in your sneakers, they soak up sweat and dirt and become a breeding ground for smelly things and foot infections. It isn’t pretty. On the other hand, the reason sandals are open is to allow air to move freely over your feet, which socks interfere with. Also, you’ll look like someone’s grandfather if you wear socks with your sandals.

Generally, it’s a good idea to pair light socks with light shoes and dark socks with dark shoes, even if you firmly believe that no one will see your socks. (I have this advice from my fiancée, who I consider to be a reliable authority on hosiery.) It’s presently trendy to wear exactly the minimum sock you can and still separate yourself from your shoe. I think that’s a good thing to do if you’re wearing shorts and have nice ankles, but I also find that no-show socks tend to slip out of position and become uncomfortable easily, so when in long pants I opt for slightly longer socks.

(Note that despite having their own heading, socks are not footwear in their own right.)


Sandals are essentially a shoe sole lashed to the foot with some arrangement of straps. As distinct from flip-flops, sandals fasten to the heel or ankle in some way, so the foot and sandal move as a unit. These straps are your friends. When looking for sandals, be aware of what parts of your foot will be exposed vs. covered, and choose sandals that cover the parts of your feet you like the least. If you are embarrassed by your hairy toes, get something with a strap that covers them. If you don’t really want your foot to be visible at all, but you want the airflow and freedom from socks that sandals provide, get yourself some huaraches.

Sandals are good for hot weather and any situation where you might be taking off your shoes a lot, but it’s difficult to find one that provides the support and traction for high-stress activity. They tend to give an even more casual look than sneakers and complement already summery attire well.


Flip-flops, or thong sandals, have straps that only hold the toes against the sole. They’re the most casual type of sandals, usually inexpensive, and come in a wide variety of patterns, colors, and sole treatments. Since you can see the footbeds of flip-flops all the time, they’re often decorated. They’re demanding to wear—as you step, your toes have to work to grip the bottom of the shoe and push it back into place with each motion. If you’re not used to it, walking in thongs for long periods can be painful.

With flip-flops and sandals, be aware that you’ll get tan lines on your feet.

We’ll talk about more kinds of shoes later. I’m starting to feel long-winded. See you on Thursday for casual accessories!