What’s an oxford when it’s absolutely, definitely not an oxford…but is still, somehow, called an oxford?
It’s difficult to fathom how one one of the most common shoe terms became one of the most surprisingly contentious shoe terms. Because we all know what an oxford is, right?
Well, just in case, let’s break it down real quick:
An oxford is traditionally a lace-up shoe where the vamp (the part that goes over the toes and ball of the foot) is sewn over the quarter panels (the parts that include the eyelets, or facings). This is referred to as a “closed lacing” (sometimes “closed facing”) design.
In contrast, a derby is another lace-up shoe, built the opposite way—the quarters are sewn over the vamp, to create an “open lacing” design.
Generally speaking, oxfords are usually worn for formal affairs—weddings, funerals, black tie dinners, fancy galas, and so on. Derbies and bluchers are a bit more versatile, and are considered appropriate anywhere from casual outings to an office job environment.
Seems like there are some clear distinctions, right? So, then…what’s the deal with all these very obvious derbies being called and marketed as oxfords?? Like this:
Wait a Minute What’s Going On Here??
Confused? You’re not alone. For years, shoe nerds who have taken pride in their encyclopedic knowledge of a vast shoe glossary have scratched their heads at this phenomenon. “Oxfords? Those aren’t oxfords…I thought…huh?”
The confusion around “work oxfords” appears to have originated from North American brands like Red Wing, Wolverine, White’s Boots, and other work boot companies that operated throughout the 20th century—leading even more modern brands to continue the mis-naming tradition.
Oak Street Bootmakers makes a shoe called a Trench Oxford, which sure looks like a derby…but it ain’t called the Trench Derby. Red Wing Heritage still proudly sells bluchers like the Postman Oxford. Viberg has perhaps one of the most sought-after derbies of all, the once-dead, now-revived 145…Oxford.
There seemed to be a clear pattern at play: a prevailing internal logic amongst the North American work boot industry consistently out of step with the rest of the shoe world. These low shoes have perennially been given the oxford moniker, in spite of technically (definitely) being derbies.
So how and why did the oxford-that-isn’t-really-an-oxford become a thing? When did it start? Who started it?
I figured the best way to root out any kind of definitive answer was to go straight to the source: the bootmakers who just can’t stop calling their derbies oxfords.
The Quest for Truth Begins
First up: Chris Warren, sales director at Wesco Boots. Unfortunately, Warren wasn’t quite sure where the naming convention came from. The Scappoose, Oregon maker refers to their low shoes like JH Classics as oxfords, and from what Warren can tell, it’s just always been that way for Wesco. “A lot of people are like ‘oh, I like your low cuts, I like your oxford style,’” Warren said. “It just kinda stuck, and we ran with it.”
As for Viberg and their 145 Oxford shoes, Brett Viberg told me that he was certainly well aware the pattern was that of a derby shoe—Viberg actually sells a derby without an external heel counter panel called, well…the “derby shoe“, in addition to an oxford also called (you’ll never believe this) an oxford.
However, Brett didn’t call the 145s “oxfords” as an homage to the American boot companies’ shoes. Instead, the name was chosen by Nepenthes, the Japanese retailer Viberg partnered with when launching their fashion-forward styles in Japan. Viberg chalked it up to being a bad translation. When the 145 Oxford was later sold in North America, “we didn’t bother to change the name,” said Viberg.
Just How Far Back Does This Oxford Misnomer Stretch?
Talking to Mike Wilkie, VP of Marketing & Merchandising at Oak Street Bootmakers, I started to uncover just how far back the oxford “misnomer” went. Wilkie didn’t have any concrete insight into why so many low shoes were called “oxfords,” but he was convinced that the nomenclature may have been influenced by the United States military. He showed me a photo of an old World War II-era shoebox that Oak Street had used for reference. “NAVY OXFORD,” it read.
“The military quartermaster who wrote the spec probably just looked in a catalog and saw a derby, thought it was an oxford, and that was that,” Wilkie said. “I doubt anyone would have raised an eyebrow.”
It didn’t seem too far-fetched to believe. One could imagine that with the pressing need to supply American armed forces during World War II, shoe companies like Corcoran and Red Wing would have dutifully fulfilled whatever orders were being given to them by the War Department, without setting someone in Washington straight over what was actually an oxford and what was a derby. Perhaps after the war, servicemen just referred to these shoes as “oxfords” no matter what the lacing pattern was, and the name just stuck.
The White’s Oxford Breakthrough
But then all of a sudden it turned out that the erroneous oxford name predated World War II—by plenty—after speaking with Jacob Mannan, brand curator and archivist at White’s Boots. Unfortunately, Jacob didn’t have any answers for why shoes like the White’s Oxford were called “oxfords”…but he was able to share some illustrations and details about how far back the name went in the White’s Boots brand history.
“The first oxford shoe White’s made premiered in 1932,” Mannan said. “It was positioned as a dress oxford. It was hand-welted, made with kangaroo, kid, or French calf upper, double row stitch cap toe, oak sole, medium arch, and leather or rubber logger heels. The upper is unique in that it had 7 eyelets, not 6. It was one of the most expensive models in our entire catalog, clocking in at $18.00 in 1936, right in the heart of the Great Depression.”
In 1958, the White’s Oxford was tweaked. Mannan said that the pattern “was brought down to 6 eyelets with a plain toe and offered in black, medium brown or cordovan [aka burgundy]. It held true to all the other specs offered in the 1932 model, but it was positioned as a semi-dress Oxford, rather than a dress.”
“The 1958 model,” he added, “is what we make today.”
While the old White’s catalog suggests that the original White’s Oxford was designed to be more formal like traditional oxford shoes, they’re clearly made with a derby pattern.
But as it turns out, the Great Depression wasn’t the first time shoes of this style were called “oxfords,” either.
Red Wing Opens Their Oxford Archives
That came to light after reaching out to a couple folks at Red Wing Shoes—Michael Larson, product design and development manager for the Minnesota bootmaker’s Heritage line, and Clare Pavelka, Red Wing’s corporate archivist.
I wrote an email explaining my quest delving into the origins of the oxford “misnomer.” When they got back to me a few days later, I was floored—they had pulled out all sorts of old catalogs and advertisements to go searching with me on this odd little Easter egg hunt.
From what Larson and Pavelka found in their corporate archives, it appears Red Wing was selling “blucher oxfords” as early as 1907, referring to shoes with a derby pattern. Red Wing—having been established in 1905—had used the oxymoron from the beginning. In fact, Red Wing had “no instances of calling shoes ‘derby’ or ‘derbies’ regardless of lacing system,” according to assistant archivist Michelle Engel.
Red Wing sold many styles of low shoes over the years, always employing “oxford” as the catch-all—sport oxfords, service oxfords, the “3-in-1” oxford (“for Work, Sport, or Semi-Dress”), all kinds of stuff.
“The naming convention of footwear has evolved over time based on trends in marketing,” Larson explained. “Sometimes, consumers preferred detailed descriptions and other times, the shortest possible description was in vogue.” He gave the example of how Red Wing used to sell “6-inch blucher boots” to indicate the facing type, but eventually it was shortened to simply “6-inch boot.”
“Same happened with low-cut shoes,” Larson said. “It was ‘Blucher Oxford’ and ‘Balmoral Oxford’ until ‘blucher’ was dropped.”
Engel passed along a photo of a work-oriented closed-lacing oxford, which Red Wing sold back in ‘91. While it technically meets the criteria of an oxford, it still seems like a far cry from the more traditional designs.
Alas, even after I received such a treasure trove of old advertising materials from Red Wing I still had no clue why “oxford” became the shorthand for all of these work boot companies’ low shoes. The folks at Red Wing didn’t have any solid answers, either.
“The joke around the office here is that while we are called ‘Red Wing Shoe Company’ we make hardly any shoes, and it would make more sense to be called ‘Red Wing Boot Company,’” said Larson. “But, since ‘shoe’ is an all-encompassing broad term, that is what we are called.”
“Similarly,” he added, “‘oxford’ is sort of a catch-all term used to define the height of a low-cut, laced shoe, regardless of the style of the facing.”
The Conclusion (?)
Whatever the reason “oxford” became the catch-all roughly a century ago, it’s stuck around since then. Not only does the reason for the oxford misnomer remain a mystery (we’re TRYING HERE, DAMMIT!!), but the question of who originally mislabeled these shoes remains unsettled as well. Did it originate from the boot companies? From the shoe shops? Or maybe it was the customers themselves?
It seems all we can really do is speculate. Oak Street’s Mike Wilkie cultivated another theory, that “back in the day, American shoemakers simply had fewer patterns and reference styles to work from, so oxford and derby essentially became one and the same. If someone came asking for an oxford, they were sold a derby, and the buyer then ran around town hyping his oxfords.”
Whatever, or whoever, decided that these low lace-up shoes should be called “oxfords,” the North American work-boot-brand nomenclature has been more or less consistent for over a century—and it doesn’t seem like the companies that use it will be changing their language anytime soon.
Does it matter? Not at all, in a way. For the normies who don’t care nearly as much about this stuff as anyone who’s still somehow reading this does, the distinction between oxfords, derbies, and bluchers is essentially moot. Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing bit of semantic drift that I had a grand old time almost dissecting.
The ultimate lesson, for now? Derbies and bluchers aren’t oxfords, except for when they just are.