Simple Shoe + Boot Care: Everything You Need to Know to Properly Care for Footwear
I inherited a shoe addiction. My mother has it and her mother has it. When I was a preteen, my shoe obsession was so out of control that my family called me Imelda Marcos. I didn’t understand the reference at the time, and for those of you who don’t know, Imelda Marcos was the First Lady of the Philippines and her husband Ferdinand Marcos ruled as dictator under martial law from 1972-81, at the helm of a corrupt and brutal regime. According to a news station in Australia, “When protestors stormed Malacanang Palace, it was famously discovered that more than 2,700 pairs of shoes had been left behind in Imelda's wardrobe.”
So basically when I was a preteen my family compared my shoe addiction to that of a despot’s wife. Let’s be clear that it wasn’t that bad, but I often bought lots of what I now affectionately call “garbage shoes:” synthetic boots and shoes from fast fashion retailers that cost very little, lasted not very long, and are now spending an eternity in a landfill. Terrible for the environment, terrible for my wallet, and a terrible time suck, having to locate the “perfect” shoe every few months.
My attitude toward shoes shifted when I worked at Johnny Sole, a Portland institution for footwear that closed in 2016. For twenty-three years, the store’s owners carried shoes and boots that were made to last. A good portion of my paycheck went back to the store, and three years later, the items I bought at Johnny Sole still have a lot of life left in them; both because of the integrity of the brands and because I learned how to properly care for shoes.
Now, I only own a dozen pairs of boots and shoes (year round). My philosophy around shoes (and clothes in general) is to buy less, buy well, and take good care of what I own.
Buy Less, Buy Well
Before you can properly care for your shoes, you have to locate brands that are durable and styles that you know will last. Yes, this usually means a higher price point, but start shifting your mindset because (1) you’re not going to be purchasing the same quantity of shoes as before and (2) the cost-per-wear will be lower the longer you own them.
That said, just because an item is expensive does not mean it’s well made. I’ve seen designer shoes that are future garbage. Sometimes you’re paying for the clout of a name, not the quality of manufacturing.
So far I’ve had the best luck with brands are manufactured in the United States, Mexico, Spain and Italy, but there are exceptions—certain brands manufacturing in those same countries are just as bad as the baddest garbage shoes at fast fashion retailers. I tend to locate a handful of companies, some small and some large, and stick to those tried and true. (If you’re interested, contact me for an advising session and I can share brands I personally trust that aligns with your style, none of whom have ever paid me a penny to say anything nice or not-nice about them.)
When buying, I look for leather uppers, a leather insole, and a leather sole. Yep, all three. (For a detailed menswear perspective on construction, read this article in Primer.) I was a vegan for years so I understand not wanting to wear animals. But synthetic shoes and boots are straight-up chemicals, not biodegradable, and since synthetic materials don’t breathe well, shoes can break down faster because they get sweaty and gross. Real leather is going to be more comfortable, durable, easier to care for and repair.
[A note about fit: This seems like a no-brainer, but you also want to make sure shoes fit correctly: (1) Check that the ball of your foot is lined up with the widest point of the insole. (2) Your toes should not be scrunched at the end of the shoe, because the leather won’t stretch there. (3) When trying on a shoe, bend your foot like you’re up on your toes. That line across the top of your foot is where the shoe or boot will stretch, so it’s okay if it’s a little tight. If you bend and find gaping fabric or leather there, that means the shoes are too big. (4) Likewise, it’s okay if it’s a little tight around the heel, as that can stretch and mold with wear. Leather-soled shoes can be stiff at first and you might feel a little heel slippage, but it shouldn’t be too much. (5) I like to take my time trying on shoes in a store, because as your foot warms up the leather, it’ll start to feel like a good fit, or you’ll notice where it pinches and doesn’t feel quite right. These are an investment you’ll want to wear for a while, so take your time trying on shoes.]
CARING FOR SHOES + BOOTS
New shoes are usually treated by the manufacturer, so it’s fine to wear them out of the store (yes please)! As they wear, keep up with regular conditioning to help leather shoes and boots last longer. The Art of Manliness has a very detailed and illustrated version of shoe care, but I like to keep it pretty simple. (At the end of this post is a brief list you can refer back to.)
If my boots or shoes are dirty, I simply brush them with a horsehair shoe brush. Sometimes I’ll just use a cotton dish towel to wipe off dirt. If it’s mud, I find it’s helpful if I let it dry, at which point it easily brushes off.
If you live in a wintery place like Wisconsin, be sure to brush the salt off your boots. Years ago I ruined a pair of Frye boots because I worked at a store that sold artisan salt (yes, really). I’d commute in the rain and the wet boots would soak up all the salt spilled on the floor. Because I didn’t know how to take care of them, the leather cracked beyond repair, and the boots molded.
When the leather looks a little dry, or rain isn’t beading up on the surface of the boot, then I know it’s time to apply a neutral leather conditioning cream to my boots using a soft cloth. I bought an 8 ounce tin of Frye’s weatherproof dressing three years ago and I still have some left. There’s something real satisfying about the consistency of it, and I love working it into the leather. Some people swear by mink oil cream, which I also use. Whichever you choose, be aware that it could slightly darken the leather. I find that my conditioning cream darkens the leather slightly, but over time it fades.
When you’re applying the conditioning cream, work it into the sides of the sole, the stacked leather heels, and the tight space where the leather upper meets the sole.
Usually that’s all I need to do to keep my shoes and boots looking fresh. (Easy, right?) The conditioning cream will help with weatherproofing, but if I know it’s going to be particularly rainy, or snowy (thanks, Wisconsin), I might spray them with another weatherproof treatment and let them dry.
(Again, if you’re interested in specific products for shoe and boot care, contact me for an advising session and I can share brands I trust, none of whom have ever paid me a penny to say anything nice or not-nice about them. )
Cobblers + Protective Soles
Aside from regular conditioning, the most important thing I do to keep leather shoes and boots in good condition is to go to a cobbler and have a protective sole added. You can wear the shoes for a bit to break them in, so no need to rush straight from the store to the cobbler (unless you want to, then go for it).
Any cobbler should be able to do this for you, and the price ranges from $20-50, depending on the shoe, boot, or sole. Most leather boots and shoes already have a heel tap to ensure against too much wear on the back heel of the boot. A protective sole is simply a synthetic outer that attaches onto the front sole of the shoe. Cobblers usually have examples that they can show you, including different weights and colors.
Once you have a protective sole added, simply check the soles every so often to make sure you don’t wear through the protective sole into the actual sole of the shoe. Once you’re close to wearing all the way through it, bring the shoes back to your cobbler for another set of protective soles.
It’s cheaper for cobblers to replace protective soles than it is for them to completely resole a shoe. By adding protective soles and proactively replacing them, you’re extending the life of your shoes and boots.
I’ve owned a pair of Wolverine 1000 Mile boots for three years now (pictured below) and I’ve never had to re-sole them. The heel taps that come with the 1000 Mile are thick, and I’ve yet to wear through it. I’ve replaced the protective sole once, and it’s about due for a new one.
Which brings me to the last general rule of shoe care: have more than one pair of shoes.
When you wear the same pair of shoes day after day, they’ll wear out quicker. Shoes need time to rest just like you and me, so alternating the shoes you wear will help with the longevity of each item. And if your shoes get wet, let them air dry completely before wearing them again.
Simple Shoe + Boot Care:
When buying, locate brands that are durable and styles that will last
Have a cobbler add a protective sole to leather-soled shoes
Replace the protective sole and heel taps before they wear into the sole itself
Wipe away dirt using a horsehair brush and/or a soft cloth
If you live in a wintery climate, be sure to clean the salt off your shoes regularly
Condition the leather upper, sole, and heel with a conditioning cream (or mink oil)
Use a weatherproof spray if you live in a region with a lot of rain
Own more than one pair so you can alternate each day
Allow wet shoes to dry out (some people swear by shoe trees but I don’t use them)
Now go onward and enjoy great shoes! If you need ideas of shoe and boot brands, or cleaning products, I’m happy to share with you a list of products and brands I trust. To be totally transparent, these are all brands whose products I’ve actually purchased. None of the information in this article was influenced by the brands mentioned or pictured, and I don’t currently earn anything by featuring them. I’m just passionate about it and I want to make it easier for you to transition to an ethical wardrobe and take care of what you own.
Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, contact me through the website: https://cedecreative.com/about/