White buckskin shoes became a symbol of insouciant membership in the croquet-playing, country club elite when worn uncared for, unchalked, and as mere utilitarian foot gear with manifest indifference to their special twixt-Memorial and Labor Days proper place. The more neglected and decayed the better. The most “shoe” of all would be the ones repaired with tape.
We still refer to “white shoe law firms,” but young people at Yale today, alas! no longer remember the adjective which, back in my day, used to represent the supreme compliment.
Saying that someone was “shoe” described him as approximating the ideal of Yalieness itself. Being shoe meant that one possessed sophistication, the capacity for effortless achievement, and the specifically Prep School elite version of cool in its highest expression and form. The concept of shoe was essentially the same quality that Castiglione referred to in his treatise on The Courtier as sprezzatura.
The wearing of beat-up, ill-maintained (formerly white) bucks during school year, outside the proper Memorial-to-Labor-Day season, represented the perfect badge of membership in the elite because while mere ownership of white bucks in itself would serve as evidence of affluence and access to the sunlit fields of Gatsby-ish country club life, the ability to treat white bucks as fungible, the ownership of an older pair which could be demoted and conscripted into routine knock-around daily use demonstrated long-term upper caste membership, enough to wear out one’s white bucks.
Ivy Style has resurrected from the crypt of American culture a must-read 1953 Esquire magazine article discussing shoe in the concept’s heyday.
At Yale there is a system for pigeonholing the members of the college community which is based on the word â€œshoe.â€ Shoe bears some relation to the word chic, and when you say that a fellow is â€œterribly shoeâ€ you mean that he is a crumb in the upper social crust of the college, though a more kindly metaphor might occur to you. You talk of a â€œshoeâ€ fraternity or a â€œshoeâ€ crowd, for example, but you can also describe a manâ€™s manner of dress as â€œshoe.â€ The term derives, as you probably know, from the dirty white bucks which are the standard collegiate footwear (you can buy new ones already dirty in downtown New York to save you the embarrassment of looking as though you hadnâ€™t had them all your life), but the system of pigeonholing by footwear does not stop there. It encompasses the entire community under the terms White Shoe, Brown Shoe, and Black Shoe.