The Humble Origins of Broguing

If brogue holes were originally cut into shoes in order to let water drain out, wouldn’t that sort of… let a whole lot more water in, too? Wouldn’t that just create as many problems as it solves?

I couldn’t help but think this when I first heard about the original intention behind broguing. Maybe it was because my first attempt to understand the idea consisted of imagining myself, wearing a pair of modern brogues, walking through a marsh and thinking about how miserable I was because of all the holes in my shoes. After all, shoemakers historically spent a considerable amount of time developing methods of welting that wouldn’t pierce the insole just to avoid the possibility of a thread wicking moisture from the ground into the shoe. And then, after all that, someone just said, “screw it, I’m poking holes in mine”?

I think the key to understanding the idea behind brogues is to get the modern image of a decorated oxford out of your head and start thinking in terms of life on a soggy Irish farm. These shoes were created in an environment where getting your feet wet was a given and many people opted to go without shoes for that reason. One woman (around the year 1850) gives an account of her relationship with shoes in such an environment:

“…shoes would give me my death of cold. If I go out to look after pig, or fowl, or to cross to a neighbor, I cannot go three yards without getting wet beyond my ankles. If I have shoe and stocking I must change them, or sit in them. I could not afford to have (like the English quality) so many pairs, then I must sit in the wet; but if I run out in my natural feet, all the time I’m on the batter, my feet though wet are warm, and the minute I come in I put them before the fire on the warm hearth stone, and they are as dry as the heart of a rush in a minute.” (S.C. Hall)

It was this type of concern that brogue shoes were originally thought of to address. These people needed something to protect their feet that wouldn’t stay full of water when they inevitably got wet and which would dry quickly afterwards. Because this type of problem typically didn’t befall someone with a great deal of money, the original style of construction reflected a… thrifty customer base. The shoes needed to be strong enough for farm work, cheap enough for a farmer to afford, and they had to let water out the minute it got in.

Consequently, the original brogues were made in a manner entirely unlike traditional English shoes. They were constructed with untanned, unlined hide and sewn with strips of leather instead of twine; before anyone started punching holes in them, these shoes originally let water pass through them by virtue of the loose stitching that leather thongs yielded. The pieces of the shoe were assembled wet, without the aid of a last, and then turned inside out, stretched over a last for the first time, smoothed over with an iron, and set by a fire to dry and harden. The heel was made from leather scraps that had been mixed with glue, like paper-maché, and compacted into a heel shape. After the shoe was dried it would receive a rub with a tallow-soaked rag and then was ready to wear. An interesting side note: the original brogues were made just a little bit larger than their wearers’ feet and the extra space was stuffed with straw or hay; presumably to help absorb moisture.

Irish Brogue

The early brogue style (pictured without perforations)

Some accounts say that a pair of brogues, being untanned and loosely stitched, would only last for a few days before becoming unusable. For this reason, making them was a domestic task, at least for a certain period of time, that everyone would have been familiar with and making a new pair of brogues may have been a weekly chore. In other places, and more so in later times, broguemaking became a skilled craft practiced by specialized tradesmen.

It’s hard to say exactly how or why these peasants’ shoes made their way out of the farm and into the average person’s wardrobe but it would seem that Queen Victoria might have had something to do with it. Apparently, after purchasing Balmoral Castle in 1852, the Queen developed an affinity for talking long walks in the Scottish countryside and had special shoes made to suit this purpose. While the Queen herself would not have needed perforated shoes for the same reason that the farmers did, it’s entirely possible that the shoes she had made at Balmoral were influenced by the local style and adapted to a more refined quality. From there, it would appear that “Balmoral” style shoes with decorative perforations entered popular dress and became an established trend by at least 1905.

Balmoral Castle

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