The evil of pointy shoes

Practicality rules men's footwear, writes Annalisa Barbieri, though whimsy sometimes gets a toehold

Silly fashion commentators (not serious ones like me), or elderly female relatives with not much to do, will tell you that you can tell a lot about a man by his shoes. This is nonsense, but also true. You can tell a lot about what a man thinks of himself by his shoes, but not a lot about his intentions per se. I have an acquaintance who delights in emailing me to say, "I'm wearing XYZ shoes today. What does that say about me?" He's not quite so perky when I home in on some little insecurity he would hope to keep hidden. One day he declared he was wearing "candy-stripe high-top sneakers with plastic brogue detailing". It took me a while to recover from the mental image his email conjured up. "Is it your birthday soon and are you in a panic about it?" I asked. He went very quiet for a while before meekly admitting that, yes, it was, and yes, he was.

Until recently, men's shoes were about practicality, not fashion - quite unlike women's shoes (which, if we all behave, I will cover another time). During the Renaissance, men's shoes became wider - as did the male silhouette in general - to denote importance. But even that was a fashion sprouted from practicality: it was rumoured that Charles II of France had six toes, so he started a trend for extra-wide shoes to hide his freaky feet. In the late 18th century, a bit of vanity crept into men's shoes, in that the buckles started to be worn far forward on the toes and the shoe itself would be cut high, near the buckle. This made it awkward to walk, so, rather than suffer such whimsy, men switched to laces. Because of this pragmatic approach, most men have good feet and bad shoes, quite the opposite of the case for women.

Mercifully, it is now permissible to wear brown, or suede, shoes in town. Brown shoes were previously the preserve of the country gentleman and suede was regarded as a rather effeminate choice. In 1926, in Clothes and the Man, G F Curtis wrote, with some indignation: "I actually saw a man in the Carlton Hotel entrance hall, one night last summer, wearing brown shoes, a dinner jacket and a straw hat. He was, presumably, an American but even so . . . !"

The best shoes for men - that is, good ones affordable enough that you don't have to go thieving to pay for them, are, paradoxically, from Marks & Spencer. I say paradoxically because its women's shoes are shit. But one of its ranges of men's shoes are designed by Jeffery West and, for just £55 (some do go up to a heady £65), you can buy shoes that are a bit of a wonder: they have all the edge of a fashion shoe but retain a classic beauty.

A final word. If you are childish, and want to annoy someone deeply and evangelically religious this Christmas (perhaps you are holidaying in the United States), wear shoes with an elongated point to the toe. These were once seen as the work of the devil because, the thinking went, you can't kneel to worship in pointed shoes. In other words, you must be a very bad man.