After WWII, it wasn’t until the early 1950s that life in Europe and America resumed a sense of normalcy. As prosperity and, more importantly, security in society returned, cities and highways flourished, people settled, started families and resumed jobs – and cars became part of every household’s purchase plans. With more people driving daily and often over large distances, car comfort became a big selling point.
This spawned a whole world of allied industries, and one of them was driving shoes. The company that first thought of this innovation was unimaginatively called ‘Car Shoe Co.’ What they did differently was to take away the thick sole, which made regular shoes stiff, and replace it with a softer, minimal rubber sole. Not only would such a shoe be more flexible, it was also lighter and, back in the day when clutches weren’t all that buttery, this feature was a definite advantage. The rubber also made for better grip on the pedals than traditional leather, and it extended onto the back of the heel, a part that often rests on the car floor while driving. Then, in the late 1970s, young leather maker Diego Della Valle was inspired by an old pair of driving shoes that he had seen in New York, to make a fancier pair at his family’s leather works in Northern Italy. Thus was born the iconic Gommino, under the brand name Tod’s. With 133 rubber studs on the sole and soft Italian-made uppers crafted meticulously by hand, it drew the attention of the legendary Gianni Agnelli, the chairman of Fiat and global fashion trendsetter for more than 50 years. He wore it during a television interview, and the rest is history.
Every famous brand today has its own version of the driving shoe. Little has changed about the design: exposed stitching, rubber pebble soles, often with a front-tie helmlacing and mostly with an absorbent leather lining. The basic silhouette is cut with a curved, rectangular toebox (although sometimes they can be more oval than square). Suede is more in vogue nowadays, but it is not uncommon to find them finished in a soft, smooth leather with a gentle sheen.
Having tried out the more established brands over the years, I have in recent times discovered some lesser-known makers of driving shoes. Here’s a list of my new finds.
Jack Erwin: They do a fairly standout style that combines penny loafer uppers with driving shoe bottoms. Considering how most of us use them to get about town, they are among my favourite brands.
L’Bardi: A relatively new brand, focussed on keeping things artisanal yet affordable. They do unusual shades (like impala and gunmetal grey) so they can look unique even while retaining a classic silhouette. And you can have them embossed with your initials.
Aurelien: These online chaps are really nifty. They claim to get their stuff from the same factories that dole out the designer stuff, but minus all the branding, advertising and store rental woes, they can make great stuff available for a lot less. They do the tie-up versions, but also some with old-school tassels. Their shape is definitely more rectangular than round. They also use contrasted stitching for effect. The shoes look smart and well-constructed, and are on my list of acquisitions in the near future.
Quoddy: More boat shoe specialists, but always handmade (also only made-to-order) and with a relaxed (roomy American as opposed to sleek Italian) form. They’re extremely sturdy and with an exhaustive list of customisation options.
Bata: For those who aren’t yet convinced to shell out fourdigit (actually, it’s usually five) denominations in our currency for a pair of driving shoes, Italian-butnow-local Bata has launched two variants but, keeping the wary Indian buyer in mind, they are more semiformal moccasins than true-blue driving shoes. Now that you have some choices beyond the usual, go forth and experiment. Just one thing – lose the socks, or if you must, get ones which are cut super low and won’t show at all.