THE GOOD OLD SHOE OF THE GOOD OLD BOYS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The deck moccasin, the official casual shoe of the old-boy network, is falling apart -- and that's just the way the old boys like it.

The shabbiest examples -- tattered brown leather, frayed and knotty rawhide laces, dirty white soles and down-at-heel backs that speak of years of abuse and a high old time -- are still seen in the best places.

The old boys hold on to their aging, disintegrating footwear with the affection and tolerance reserved for youthful peccadilloes. While their sons walk in surfer sandals and high-performance sneakers, the 30-plus-and-counting set holds to the shoes that defined their gilded youth.

The '70s and early '80s were the hey-hey days of preppie style -- prescribed and fixed by insider signals -- when deck shoes walked confidently through any social situation.

They were welcome at house parties, garden brunches, wedding-rehearsal dinners. Why, they even peeped from beneath clerical robes at high church services.

Their distinctive weathered patina could be achieved only by a rigorous social calendar. Deck shoes slogged through undergraduate beer bashes, summers abroad, sand dunes at the summer-share cottage in Henlopen Acres, Hunt Cup fields, mint julep parties in the country and even Annapolis weekends under sail.

They were worn with the confidence that correctness and belonging bestows; a shoe designed for gentlemen yachtsmen could not slip up.

It's no wonder that some men are loathe to let go.

Surgeons patch them with precision stitches, lawyers have been known to mend them with dental floss, and men without craft skills ask the needlepointer in the family to help. Impatient types try Krazy Glue or wrap them with duct tape.

The prototype for deck shoes was invented in 1935 when Paul Sperry, an avid yachtsman, was looking to develop a skid-resistant shoe to wear while boating. One icy morning, so the story goes, he noticed his dogs' sure-footed balance. When he examined the bottom of the dog's paw he found a pattern of grooves. Sperry cut a similar pattern into a rubber sole, attached it to a shoe, and the Sperry Shoe Co. of New Haven, Conn., was born.

The Sperry Top-Sider, the white-stitched, white-soled, two-eyelet brown moccasin with rawhide laces, was the leather original and role model for subsequent refinements and many look-alikes on the market today.

"We haven't rested on our laurels," says David Furhman, director of corporate communications for Sperry Top-Sider. "We made the original shoe to prevent slipping and it was born out of necessity. Now we're updating with different models with varying degrees of technology.

"The classic original still appeals to what I would call the 'aspirational' market, people who want the look that originated with the Sperry name. The original still has status, and, frankly, not all of the purchases are made by serious boat people."

In 1980, the paperback publication of Lisa Birnbach's "Official Preppy Handbook" gave Top-Siders the tongue-in-shoe stamp of approval. She spelled out the old school/old clothes/old money connection for the masses. Trendies finally figured out that one distressed pair of Top-Siders was more desirable than two pairs of new imitations.

And there were welts and blisters across the land as prep pretenders tried to rush the deck shoe aging process to meet a weekend party deadline.

"The originals take a while to break in, and they were designed that way. Once broken, however, the leather wears like iron and is tough to kill," says Mr. Furhman.

Today, the company offers a variety of softer, pre-washed models with an aged finish and an insole engineered for greater comfort. The traditional look is still strong but less hidebound. A new generation of deckies is coming on board, but after a soft life in sneakers they will want their comforts.

The old crowd now may scoff at these deck shoes for sissies. In their day it took a real man to tame and break a deck shoe and it was done with bare ankles. It's a case of form following function. Wet socks are not practical on the water; boaters forgo them, even when they trot off to cocktails and canapes at the club.

It's never too soon to start deck shoe training.

The Sperry label is now owned by the Stride Rite Corp., which makes little facsimile deckies in children's sizes and markets junior shoes under the Sperry brand.

William Paulikas, Sperry sales manager for Maryland, Delaware, Washington and the Virginias, says the Baltimore-Annapolis corridor, with its proximity to many waterways, is a wonderful place to grow into deck shoes. And grow out of set ways.

"Many men are looking at the new artificial finishes which already come with some character, like faded madras cotton," says Mr. Paulikas.

The new boater is willing to adapt to new developments and technology also, says Gilbert Cohen, owner of Cohen's Clothiers for Men & Young Men in Yorktowne Plaza, which caters to the North Baltimore boat-shoe set. There are deck shoes engineered for improved watertightness, comfort and traction.

"Top-Siders, Docksides, all-over-the-place sides, are basically no more than a variation of the brown moc and white rubber sole original," he says, "but now there are so many new brands and designs in the game -- Timberland has engineered a different shoe and Rockport also makes the look. They all push comfort and innovation."

The original moccasins are still being sought by the old-timers, who will have to learn that nothing is forever, says Mr. Cohen, "and some kids coming in here wouldn't be caught dead in deck shoes."

However, in Annapolis, where sailing style prevails, salt-crusty shoes are still a point of pride, says Biz Snyder, co-owner of Snyder's Bootery on Main Street. He laughs along with the die-hards who won't let deck shoes die.

"It's a way of life," he says. "I see shoes around here that are literally falling off the feet. Some guys have walked them right down through the soles. I also see lawyers wearing them to court with a three-piece suit and no socks."

That's boomer style. The younger set is moving from the boat slip to rugged mountain terrain for inspiration, says David Kuchta, men's buyer for Hess Shoes.

"The fashion crowd is after the Timberland inspired hiking boots," he says. "Even in the summer you'll see clunky lug soles worn with shorts. Don't get me wrong, we still sell thousands of boat shoes, but as a utilitarian purchase rather than a fashion statement."

In Towson, shoe store owner Alex Rudolph is also selling mocs to the set-in-their-ways set. But not to many others. His Towson Bootery sold boatloads of mocs to all types of people in the '80s, he says, but today it's back to the same niche market of preppies.

"In today's huge and varied casual shoe market of sandals, walkers and boots, the traditional deck moc is more dead than alive."

Tell that to the man who is holding to his deck shoes for dear life. Don't tell him Birkenstock sandals -- worn with socks sometimes -- are becoming the shoe of summer. That may may just drown all his illusions.

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