Undoubtedly, you’ll have heard the phrase: “No brown in town”, or maybe even “no brown after six”. Even for lovers of classic style, these rules are outdated! Even so, the guidelines can be unclear for wearing black or brown dress shoes. Fear not, as we guide you through the definitive way to appreciate brown shoes and boots, incorporate them into your wardrobe, and create exemplary outfits with them.
Brown Shoes & Boots: The Video Guide
Take a seat, relax, and kick off those old black shoes! Preston is on hand to take you through the spectrum of brown shoes. Whether it’s a pair of mahogany monk straps or walnut wing tips, you’ll be inspired to pick a pair of brown shoes or boots for your next outfit.
Brown Shoes & Boots: History & Evolution of the Rules
The 1800s: Black Shoes Reign Supreme
If we go back in menswear history, we find that Beau Brummell (1778 – 1840) liked his black, champagne-polished leather boots for town wear. Subsequently, leading arbiters such as Comte d’Orsay (1801 – 1852), Hermann Fürst von Pückler-Muskau (1785-1871), Honoré de Balzac (1799 – 1850), Barbey d’Aurevilly (1808 – 1889), and Edward VII (1841 – 1910) followed his example and wore black footwear for formal occasions and in town. During this period, rules along the lines of “no brown in town” or “no brown after six” were very much respected, and ensured people were socially accepted.
The 20th Century: Tides Turn
By the 1930s, Edward the Prince of Wales had relaxed some menswear rules, leading to softer materials and bolder colors. He also was a supporter of brown slip-on spectator shoes (the most common type of two-toned shoes) and brown shoes in general. By the 1950s, even English clothing guides such as Clothes and the Man by Sydney D. Barney advised:
“Business and Daywear in town: a lounge jacket with matching waistcoat and trousers with footwear in black or brown, according to the suit…Brown shoes with a dark blue suit are undesirable.”
Sydney D. Barney
On the other hand, evening dress was still rather formalized; Full Evening Dress with white tie and Dinner Dress both demanded black shoes. These traditional dress codes are much the same today, as you can discover in our in-depth guides. So, you can see, by the 1950s, the “no brown in town” rule was no longer valid, although black was still the color for many business and evening settings.
Modern-Day Views on Brown Boots & Shoes
Today, dress codes are much more relaxed than they were in the fifties, and if you’re wearing a well-cut suit, you are likely to be more well-dressed than 90% of the people around you. Even if you wear more casual brown boots to a restaurant for dinner, chances are that your shoes are still more elegant than many other diners – just make sure you pay attention to said restaurant’s dress code.
Italy vs. England
Many debonair Italians only wear black dress shoes for funerals, weddings, and formal evening events. Otherwise, they prefer wearing brown leather shoes in varying shades – such as dark brown or tan shoes – especially when paired with blue suits. In Britain, black still holds a certain association with business, at least in more conservative circles. Still, many Englishmen wear more than just black dress shoes for business, with conservative styles like brown Oxford shoes becoming increasingly popular.
To be explicitly clear: Today, wearing brown shoes with your outfits is generally accepted both in town and during the evening. With that said, certain outfits and situations still call for certain footwear; light tan shoes may not be the best option for the evening, and black shoes are imperative for black tie. Remember: just because you can wear brown shoes day and night, doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
Brown Shoes & Boots FAQs
Is it ok to wear brown shoes with black pants?
Brown shoes and black pants should be approached with caution, as it largely depends on the shade of brown shoes and the fabric of the black pants. An unusual combination that works would be black corduroy and tan brown shoes or boots, but black pants with brown shoes should typically be avoided as a combination.
What do men wear with brown shoes?
Brown shoes open up a whole realm of possibilities when it comes to creating unique and interesting outfits. As brown shoes pair more easily with more colors than black ones do, you have access to standard colors like greys, browns, and navy blues, as well as unusual colors like greens, reds, browns, khaki, and purples.
Do brown shoes go with all pants?
Brown shoes will go with almost all pants, but it’s worth mentioning that it will largely depend on the style of shoes and pants. For example, a sleek, elegant brown Oxford shoe pairs very well with more formal trouser options, but won’t pair as well with denim jeans. If that’s the style of pants you want to wear, then opt for more casual brown shoes like loafers or suede chukka boots.
Do brown shoes go with everything?
Brown shoes are certainly more versatile than black shoes and will go with a huge range of options in your wardrobe. Be careful though, as not all combinations are foolproof. For example, avoid pairing brown shoes with black ensembles, such as black business suits, formal morning and evening wear. In these outfits, black shoes are the best choice.
Is it ok to wear a black shirt with brown shoes?
A black shirt with brown shoes may be a viable option, as long as you make the right choice regarding your pants. If it’s a look you want to pull off, take some inspiration from The Talented Mr. Ripley by wearing white or off-white trousers with a black shirt and tan brown shoes. Ensure your clothes fit well with a relaxed cut to ensure the overall casual nature of this outfit comes across correctly.
When can you not wear brown shoes?
Brown shoes are best avoided when you need to obtain a higher level of formality. White-collar environments such as board meetings will likely require black shoes, as well as formal dress codes like morning wear and evening attire including black tie and white tie events.
What are the rules for brown shoes?
While you’ve probably heard the phrase “no brown in town” or “no brown after six”, these rules have been outdated since the 1950s. Nowadays, you have far more agency to wear brown shoes in a wider range of settings and scenarios. If in doubt, use black shoes as a fail-safe option.
When Should You Wear Brown Shoes?
Brown shoes can be worn with almost anything, ranging from blue jeans to cavalry twill and corduroy to flannel, worsteds, and tweed. Unlike black, brown leather comes in an endless variety of shades, allowing you to create a distinguished shoe collection that is unique. Here are a few guidelines that you can adopt and adapt to your own sense of style.
Brown Shoes and Business Suits
For 3-piece or 2-piece business suits, in the following colors, in solid worsteds or flannels, pinstripes or faint windowpanes, or Prince of Wales Checks:
- Charcoal Grey Suits: Dark brown works best here, as a nice alternative to black. Pick browns with reddish or burgundy undertones, and avoid lighter browns such as tan shoes.
- Mid and Light Grey Suits: Dark to mid-brown shoes including brighter cherry tones are excellent choices. Once again, avoid tan when wearing darker greys, but feel free to include tan brown shoes with lighter grey suits.
- Dark Navy Suits: Black works well with a navy suit, but cordovan, tan, and dark brown shoes and boots also look magnificent and dashing. Of course, you will stand out visually with light tan shoes and a navy suit – something to bear in mind if you prefer a more subtle aesthetic.
- Lighter Blue Suits: Depending on the shade of blue, you have a whole spectrum of colors to choose from, so you’ll have to look at other features within your lighter blue suits to make the right decision. If your suit is on the casual side, then go for lighter brown tones, while darker brown footwear will pair better with more formal details.
- Dark Brown Suits: Pair a dark brown suit with brown shoes, and skip black altogether. Keep your brown shoes to a complimentary tone, sticking with darker browns where possible.
- Black Suits: Simply put, don’t wear a black suit with brown shoes. Black shoes, in a conservative style, work best.
Brown Shoes and Casual Suits
Casual suits can feature the colors previously listed, but they’ll include bolder patterns, details, or material blends such as brushed cotton, corduroy, and the like. You’ll also find casual suits come in a wider range of colors, too:
- Green Suits: Simply put, brown shoes and boots work best here every time, for all shades. Avoid black shoes, which create too much contrast and are visually jarring.
- Khaki Suits: Dark browns work well here, as do lighter tones of brown such as tan. Avoid black shoes again, for the same reasons as above.
- Tan Suits: Cordovan, cherry, and medium brown footwear choices are great. The reddish tones will play to the strengths of the warm nature of tan suits.
- White & Off-White Suits: Two-toned shoes, such as brown-and-white spectators, are a dapper choice, but dark brown, mid-brown, or reddish brown work well.
How to Pair Brown Shoes & Boots: Expert Tips
For a fail-safe approach, always choose a shade of brown dress shoes darker than your suit color.
If you are confident enough, you can pair lighter brown shoes with darker suits, but be aware that you will gather more attention that way.
Since a 3-piece suit is more formal than a 2-piece suit, the heightened formality of black shoes means they will generally pair better with such outfits. Still, brown shoes and boots can work when they are dark enough in tone.
If you wear a contrasting double-breasted waistcoat in dove grey or buff, consider that black shoes might be best as you will have created a similar ensemble to the formal stroller suit.
Don’t forget that black remains the number one color for business, so if you’re unsure, stick with black. When you invest in your first pair of business shoes, go with a black cap toe Oxford shoe, and choose a brown shoe for your second investment.
Brown Shoes and Sports Coats
As business casual dress codes continue to evolve, pairing an odd jacket with separate trousers creates interesting combinations. Materials may include Fresco, Tweed, Thornproof, Cheviot, Donegal, Flannel, Worsted, Corduroy, Velvet, Cotton, Linen, and Gabardine:
- Charcoal Grey Separates: We suggest black over any form of brown. Dark brown can work, but avoid tan.
- Separates in Mid-Grey: Black works, but dark brown and cherry are also good colors. Avoid tan shoes.
- Odd Blue Garments: All kinds of brown men’s dress shoes can be worn with blue colors – cordovan, tan and dark brown can look especially smart. As before, you will garner more attention with a light tan shoe.
- Denim Jeans & Jackets: Basically, all kinds of brown leather shoes work well, even with black jeans (similar to the corduroy example above). Tan and cordovan oxblood will serve you well here. Leather boots are a natural pair for jeans, though anything with a higher ankle would naturally interfere with skinny jeans (not that we necessarily advocate for such a style)!
- Garments in Red: All shades of brown work well, though reddish brown can look a bit too deliberate. Dark brown and tan are good choices
- Green Tones: As before, try wearing brown every time, for all shades. Avoid black.
- Dark Brown: In a more smart-casual outfit such as this, tan works well when paired with dark brown.
- Black: With black corduroy, tan leather boots (such as chukka boots or desert boots) are a good choice. Black dress pants worn with a sport coat will look best with black shoes, though more casual shoes like black loafers could be a good compromise in terms of formality.
- Unsure What To Wear? Brown is the best shoe and boot color for sports coats and contrasting trousers. Sometimes you may also see boots or shoes with fabric inserts, which can be quite stylish.
Match Your Leathers
If you’re wearing a belt, try to match the color of the shoe to that of the belt. The same applies for any leather accessories you wear on your person, such as a watch strap. Since there are so many shades of brown leather shoes, your belt and watch strap don’t have to be made of the exact same leather or the same color – just try to match them as closely as possible to create a harmonious look. Larger leather items like bags and briefcases aren’t expected to match your shoe color exactly – that would be quite expensive, otherwise!
When Shouldn’t You Wear Brown Shoes?
If you wear formal morning dress (morning coat or stroller) or formal evening dress (white tie or black tie) you should not wear brown shoes – go with black. The exception for this exception could be a tuxedo in brown, as worn by Noël Coward, Nick Foulkes, or Lapo Elkann. In that case, a pair of matching velvet slippers could be an option, but that’s only for the very advanced clothes horse.
Some traditionalists would argue that you should not wear brown shoes to the opera. However, if you look at the general dress code at operas today, you will likely be more well-dressed in a conservative pair of brown shoes than the other attendees.
Learning From The Past: Combining Brown Shoes, Pants, and Socks
Brown Shoes & Navy Pants
In the vintage illustration above, a navy chalk stripe worsted suit is paired with chestnut brown calf leather brogues. This illustration is from the 1930s, proving that men wore dark suits with brown shoes even then. Moreover, they were experimenting with creative weaves, such as these beautiful shadow stripe socks in blue and red (which can be worn with all kinds of navy suits). Alternatively, blue socks with blue stripes would be a more subtle alternative.
Brown Shoes & Warm Tones
The above illustration shows the benefit of understanding color temperature–that is, pairing shoes, socks, and trousers with a warm tone. We’ve used this as inspiration to pair some mid-brown split-toe derby shoes with brown and orange shadow-striped socks that lean into the warm tones. The mottled grey and brown tones in the trousers harmonize nicely with the combination.
Brown Boots & Bold Socks
Here, grey-green pants pair well with mid-brown suede chukkas, underscoring the versatility of both this particular boot style and of suede shoes in general. The ensemble is brightened up further with some yellow socks. Bright pastel hosiery can be a smart way to add a pop of color that isn’t always visible; Fred Astaire was a proponent of this technique, often wearing things like pink socks in his outfits for films. We’ve opted to replicate the look with a pair of tobacco suede chukka boots and shadow-striped socks in khaki and navy. The off-white trousers with a strong cuff add a smart element to this otherwise casual look.
Brown Shoes for Casual Looks
These checked pants are made of Shetland tweed, and they pair well with the rust-orange, over-the-calf socks and chocolate brown Norwegian shoes with crepe soles. This type of sole is more commonly associated with styles like desert boots, though it can work equally well with footwear with a lower ankle, as shown here. Our take on this idea uses a pair of classic cotton chinos with similar orange and navy over-the-calf socks, and a pair of monk-strap loafers in the spectator style featuring brogue detailing that ties everything together.
Tan Brown Suede Shoes for Everyday Wearability
The solid brown blucher or derby is a wardrobe staple because it pairs with almost every kind of informal outfit. The shoe in this illustration, while conservatively styled in terms of its leather upper, has a bit more character in its sole, featuring a solid heel and a layered toe. Keeping tan suede leather as a material, we’re showcasing how a pair of unlined loafers can bring unmatched comfort and style to a similar outfit. Utilizing a similar pattern in socks with an equally light tone, these Fort Belvedere khaki and navy shadow-striped socks offer a bridge between the shoe and the lighter pants.
Brown Monk Straps: A Modern Classic
Here, a classic Prince of Wales suit is combined with a mid-brown monk strap shoe and green socks. Blue would work just as well as a sock color, and perhaps even a combination of green & purple. While monk straps have a historical precedent, as shown here, they have exploded in popularity in the 21st century, as their formality level is above that of styles like loafers and boat shoes, but not quite as reserved as Oxfords. We’ve paired an almost identical shoe with brown Prince of Wales check trousers, and a fine pair of brown cotton socks featuring green clocks – a vintage detail rarely seen nowadays.
Brown Shoes & Purple Socks: A Perfect Pairing
This mid-brown herringbone suit pairs well with a mid-brown brogued shoe and a pair of heather purple socks. There are many styles of brogues, of course, and the more broguing a shoe features, the less formal it is. Inspired by the purple socks, we’ve included a shadow-striped pair in purple and green that perform the same function. Instead of brogues, we’ve opted for a pair of brown suede shoes, which are equally casual.
Change The Look Of Your Brown Shoes With Shoelaces
One of the quickest and most simple ways to change the look and feel of your brown shoes is to simply change your shoelaces. The advantages are simple: it’s quick, easy, inexpensive, and reversible.
Add Shoelaces to Your Closet
Brown Leather Textures
You will notice that brown box calf leather and suede shoes have been becoming more popular in recent years. Buffalo, reindeer skin, and alligator have been classic, yet expensive, brown shoe leathers as well.
Generally, you should keep in mind that shoes with more texture are less formal. Sometimes you may even see ostrich, pigskin, fish skin, or elephant hide for shoes. Most of the time, the last is not a classic shape and the entire shoe just screams for attention–as such, we would instead recommend wearing more traditional leather shoes with formal outfits, and with casual outfits, choices like brogues, brown suede shoes, brown loafers, or ankle boots.
Unlike black leather shoes, brown shoes will develop a patina over time, which can be further enhanced by leather dyes and special polishing techniques. As an example, take a look at this beautiful patina.
Brown Shoes & Boots: Final Thoughts
Brown shoes are not a substitute for black shoes, and every man should own at least one pair of black plain Oxfords. But even in a white-collar environment, there is a reason to invest in brown footwear as it is more versatile, it develops a fantastic patina over time, and it is the better color for casual outfits. If you don’t work in an office environment and rarely attend formal evening events, a single pair of black shoes may be enough for you, but you can never have enough brown shoes!
If you like formal evening wear, invest in a pair of black patent leather Oxfords (in Austria Derby’s) or opera pumps – it is historically the correct choice for evening wear, even though some prefer polished calf skin for evening shoes.
In the broad strokes, brown footwear–everything from loafers to lace-up boots, wing-tips to cowboy boots–sports an amazing versatility, and wearing brown shoes or boots with items as varied as button-down shirts and leather jackets will serve you well. All told, there’s a lot that brown shoes and boots can do for you.
Our Original Brown Shoes Video
We first produced a video guide on brown shoes back in 2015. If you’re interested in seeing how much we’ve grown in the intervening years, you can find that video below!
How often do you wear brown shoes, and what are your favorite ways to wear them? Let us know in the comments!