How a shoe invented for sailors ended up on every college campus in America

Boat shoesFacebook/SperryBoat shoes on a boat deck.

You know what boat shoes are. They’re inescapable in the summer across America, from the cities to college campuses and everywhere in between.

The soft leather moccasin-toed loafer-style shoe has made an indelible mark on American style, whether you like them or not. It seems hard to believe, but it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when boat shoes hadn’t taken over the feet of young men like an invasive species.

Like their name implies, boat shoes were first created for sailors. As the story goes, a man named Paul Sperry had a problem, a Sperry spokesman told to the Huffington Post. His leather shoes would slip while he was on the deck of ship.

However, he noticed his dog Prince had no issue climbing up slippery icy cliffs. After closer inspection, he noticed tiny grooves in the paws. To mimic this on a shoe, Sperry used a penknife to cut the bottom of a rubber outsole shoe to provide additional traction.

What Sperry didn’t know is that this process was already invented, just not applied to sailor shoes. It’s called Siping, after John Sipe. It was patented in 1923 with competing claims as to why — some say he worked in a slippery slaughterhouse, some say he was a sailor tired of slipping on wet decks.

The first of Sperry’s shoes introduced in 1935 had black soles, which left black skid-marks all over the boats they were worn on, according to Gentleman’s Gazette. To combat this problem, he used white rubber soles and the boat shoe as we know it was born.

But still, it was a while before boat shoes reached mass popularity. Sperry scored a contract from the US Navy to make Top-Siders for sailors. Years later, Sperry sold his shoe company to the US Rubber company. It then passed hands again, to Stride Rite, in 1979.

It took until the 1980s for the shoe to reach trendy status when they were featured in influential “The Official Preppy Handbook,” says HuffPo. From there, the shoe’s popularity exploded. The brand is currently a subsidiary of American footwear manufacturer Wolverine Worldwide.

The shoe has become a staple, emblematic of East Coast preppy style in the summer. There’s nothing wrong with wearing the default, but don’t expect to stand out. If you’d like to branch out, try some other options that look similar.

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