Oxfords are indispensable, and what would warm weather be without the loafer? I’m also particularly fond of those transitional shoes that straddle echelons of formality becoming at once more versatile while remaining slightly off—like monk-straps. Heavily soled derbies, a variety of brogues, pebble-grain boots, suede chukkas and quilted house shoes all find use in my rotation too. But there is one shoe that goes uncelebrated: the knockabout shoe. Sundays are for knockabout shoes.
A knockabout shoe must be comfortable and efficiently put on and removed. But the list of qualifying characteristics ends there; what defines this category of footwear is more about what a knockabout shoe isn’t. Jodhpur boots in suede can balance beauty and casual ruggedness; they are no more knockabouts as are patent pumps with little silk bows. Similarly, a knockabout shoe is not just a retired good shoe; any trace of luxury or elegance would betray a noble birth. The charge of a knockabout shoe is far more challenging: it must be both disposable and precious, deriving the latter from the former. A knockabout shoe is purpose-built for its thankless station.
The boat shoe is probably the most common example. White, non-marking rubber soles suggest sport; the oily leather uppers seem at home beneath cotton trousers. Socklessness is required. They are equally invisible and familiar—a difficult compromise. Boat shoes are not ideal though. Winter is a challenge. And the nautical—and by extension, yacht-club—pedigree have dislodged boat shoes from knockabout status as of late, placing them somewhere on the fashion spectrum.
White- and dirty bucks are very good candidates. Versatile, relatively shapeless, certainly not serious, the buck could once be found stamping around campuses and cities as reliably as the athletic shoe is today. They suffer similar afflictions as the boat shoe (seasonal, fashionable) although perhaps to a lesser extent. Sadly, bucks struggle beneath an additional problem these days: retailers have conflated them with real dress shoes, charging accordingly, some even several hundred dollars a pair. This is grounds for immediate disqualification as a knockabout.
A canvass version of a buck in some neutral color, as can be seen in vintage ads floating around the internet, would be ideal. Of course these are impossible to find. I instead resort to the canvass plimsole for summer. In blue or cream these are surprisingly versatile, looking less athletics and more aperitifs than one might think. They also launder well on a regular cycle. The trick is to find very plain versions, with little more to them than reinforced seams and vulcanized rubber parts.
My other knockabout shoe is my favorite: The Wallabee. I’ve had mine since college, making them some of the oldest shoes in my closet. If wear to the thick crepe sole is any indication, they have forty years to go. I do not know what voodoo holds them together; they just stubbornly endure. But the Wallabee's most important feature is that they are indisputably ugly. They suggest only gardening, or cleaning the attic, and if worn in public couldn’t possibly be confused for an attempt at good looks. They send a single, consistent message: I am engaged in some task that would endanger my better shoes. And this is precisely why the knockabout shoe is vital—they are the vanguard, preventing premature wear or damage to the rest of the collection. And they do so without the prospect of being taken to the Opera. Now that is loyalty.