By NEIL A. LEWIS,
Published: Wednesday, November 3, 1993
To say “tasseled loafer” in Washington is not just to describe a simple shoe, but to utter a political phrase, often part of an epithet.
It is frequently connected to the word “lawyers,” as in those tasseled-loafered lawyers!, although no law degree is required to wear them. And despite its earlier image as the shoe of the postgraduate preppy, it is today a kind of everyman’s shoe, available in all price ranges.
Nonetheless, the shoes have been deployed in recent years as metaphorical weapons in the nation’s political wars.
When George Bush wanted to hurl a wounding barb during the last Presidential campaign, he complained that Bill Clinton was supported by “every lawyer that ever wore a tasseled loafer.”
Mr. Bush may have had reason to believe the charge potent as he had himself once been the target of a tasseled-loafer insult. When he ran for President in 1980, he complained that Ronald Reagan had bested him in a debate in New Hampshire by using unfair tactics. One of Mr. Reagan’s aides retorted in a widely disseminated remark that those with Mr. Bush’s private-school pedigree were generic sore losers. “Those tasseled-loafer guys always cry foul when they lose,” the aide said.
As the nation debates issues like the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Clinton health-care plan, Congressional aides may be heard referring to the “tassel loafers,” a newly made up term referring to the lobbyists, often lawyers, who try to influence legislation.
In France, the tasseled loafer makes its own peculiar political statement. John Vinocur, the executive editor of The International Herald Tribune, said that the shoes were worn, actually flaunted, by young rightists in the mid-1980’s who wished to demonstrate their distaste for the Socialist Government.
To them, the preppiness of the shoe represented American prosperity and free-market conservatism. Thus, it became part of the battle uniform of the young soldier of la contre-revolution.
That all became blurred, Mr. Vinocur said, when many French leftists soon followed suit and abandoned sandals and other proletarian footwear in favor of the tasseled loafers. “It helped them get tables in the better restaurants,” he said.
Apart from the delicious weirdness of having legions of Frenchmen trying to look like the Phillips Academy class of 1964, the French have at least one thing correct. The shoe is certainly a distinctly American creation.
Tasseled loafers so much evoke the elegant era of the 20’s that some clothing historians mistakenly believe they date from that time. They became popular, in fact, only in the post-World War II era.
The Alden Shoe Company in Middleborough, Mass., claims to have invented the shoe after World War II at the request of Paul Lukas, who was a well-known and debonair actor. Mr. Lukas, who appeared in films like “The Lady Vanishes” and “Watch on the Rhine,” asked custom shoemakers in New York and Los Angeles to devise a version of a shoe he had brought from Europe that had little fringed tassels on the ends of the laces.
The two shoemakers showed the design to the Alden company, which drastically modified it, using the tassels as ornaments on a moccasin-style shoe. The earliest tasseled loafers were two-toned (usually with white top panels), and they were originally popular in Hollywood. The classic style was first produced in 1952. In 1957, Brooks Brothers added a version of Alden’s shoe to its stores, fixing the tasseled loafer’s image as the shoe of the country-club set.
Clark M. Clifford, the 87-year-old lawyer who has served as a counselor to several Democratic presidents, is one of Washington’s most elegant and tastefully dressed men. He recalled that he acquired tasseled loafers in the early 1950’s.
“I only think of them as appropriate for weekend wear and relaxation,” Mr. Clifford said. “I save them entirely for that. It seems out of keeping to wear them for business, although from time to time I see someone wearing them that way.”
In the 60’s, when preppy style ran amok, many a tasseled loafer sat at the end of a leg covered with loud madras pants or, worse, trousers with little embroidered whales. Tassels had been used for centuries as ornaments on furniture and even saddles. When they sit on the top of a shoe, they resemble nothing so much as the carved radishes served at some old-fashioned restaurants.
The evolution of “tassled loafer” as a pejorative term for “lawyer” is unclear, but it may have to do with the notion that a man who wears little useless ornaments has, if you will, effete feet.
The top-of-the-line Alden shoe is made from shell cordovan, an especially rich-looking horsehide leather that undergoes a special vegetable tanning process that takes up to a year. The cordovan shoe, usually burgundy-colored, costs anywhere from $315 to $345 a pair (Paris shops sell the shoes for upward of $500 a pair). The classic Brooks Brothers version has distinctive stitching on the back and sells for $345.
The calfskin versions are far less expensive. In fact, tasseled loafers are ubiquitous in all price ranges and style modifications from dozens of manufacturers. They are available just about everywhere, sometimes along with kilties (those little fringed flaps) and wingtip style perforations and sometimes both, which some may find to be garish excess.
Or of course, one could have a pair of restrained tasseled slip-ons made to order at one of the handful of the remaining English bespoke bootmakers. John Carnera of George Cleverley Ltd. in central London says that he makes dozens of pairs each year, many for American clients and that chocolate-brown suede is increasingly stylish.
“We wear a lot more suede on this side of the Atlantic, you know,” he said. He will craft a pair in suede or calfskin for about $1,300. Exotic leathers would cost a bit more.