The Rich History of Penny Loafers–one of the all-time classic shoes


Around 1930, Norwegian shoemaker Nils Gregoriusson Tveranger (1874-1953) introduced a new slip-on design, which he called the “Aurland moccasin.” (The shoe would later come to be called the “Aurland shoe”).

As a boy of 13, Tveranger traveled to North America, where he learned the craft of shoemaking. At age 20, he returned to Norway, apparently influenced by what he had experienced in the New World because his “Aurland moccasin” resembles the moccasins typically worn by the Iroquois (as well as the moccasin-like shoe traditionally worn by the local people of Aurland). Shortly thereafter, Norwegians began exporting the shoe to the rest of Europe. Americans visiting Europe took a liking to the shoe, so much so (perhaps because of their stylistic similarities to the Native American moccasin) that Esquire magazine featured an article on the by-then-popular shoe. The article was visually enhanced by photographs of Norwegian farmers wearing the shoe in cattle loafing sheds, and the rest, as it is said, is history…. In the 1930s, the Spaulding family of New Hampshire, inspired by the Norwegian shoe, began manufacturing a similar moccasin-like shoe, which they called “loafers.” The appellation would eventually become a generic term used to describe any moccasin-like slip-on shoe.

In 1934, G. H. Bass of Wilton, Maine began making his version of the “loafer” which he called “Weejuns,” a corrupted truncation of “Norwegians.” One of the distinguishing features of Bass’ design was a strip of leather stitched across the saddle of the shoe, the strip featuring a stylized crescent-shaped cutout. By the 1950s, “Weejuns” had achieved ubiquity amongst students, who oftentimes would, for safekeeping their “candy money,” slip a coin—usually a penny, enough in those days to purchase one or two candies—into the crescent-shaped cutout. The shoes then came to be known as “penny loafers,” a moniker that endures to this day.

From Native American moccasin to Northern European farmers’ shoe to Southern European summer shoe to classic collegiate footwear, the loafer—especially in America—has evolved into one of the all-time great fashion classics. Today, it would be hard-pressed to find a manufacturer of shoes that does not have some version of the loafer in its collection. Besides being unisex, the shoe has acquired general acceptability: Men have been known to wear patent leather loafers with their tuxedos; lawyers wear calf skin loafers with their fine suits to court; university professors still regard them as essential to the academic wardrobe; and urban dwellers consider the loafer—in all its variations—the ultimate “city shoe.”

One of the greatest resurgences of the loafer occurred in the 1980s when 1950s-inspired secondary school and collegiate fashion called “preppy”(the affectionate of [college] preparatory) became all the rage in the United States and then beyond. By the end of the ’80s, the loafer had come to symbolize a “nonchalance towards privilege.” It was not (and still is not) uncommon for a fashionable young man to wear a blazer with faded jeans and loafers—without socks, of course.

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