Of all the various types of Italian footwear, loafers will always be one of our personal favorites. And if you’re here looking to learn more about the history of loafers, chances are, they hold top ranks in your wardrobe as well.
While we love the common loafer styles on the market today, we want to go back in time and show you how we got here. In our loafer history lesson, we’ll discuss key moments the origin of penny loafers and tassel loafers, along with Gucci’s famous horse-bit loafer line. Then, we’ll give you our opinion on where the future of loafers is headed. Let’s dive right in!
History of Loafers: Explaining the Origin of Penny Loafers, Tassel Loafers, and Other Styles
If you asked many people where the history of loafers began, they’d tell you it was in the early 1900s when American travelers encountered Norwegian fishermen rocking a style they’d never seen before - which were referred to as tesers. Meanwhile, the British claim they introduced this style specifically for King George VI in 1920s as his footwear of choice to “loaf about” in.
But, there are ancient artifacts suggesting Native Americans were the first to rock this style, with moccasins (or, Makasins as the Native Americans actually called them) that very closely resemble the earliest loafers.
This is the biggest point of contention in the history of loafers: who was truly the first to devise this style? Norwegian fishermen and native Americans aside, let’s just focus on what we know to be fact - which is that the first pairs of loafers to be sold commercially in America can be traced back to the 1930s.
The First Pairs of Loafers to be Commercialized in America in the 1930s
The first commercially sold loafer was produced by a company called G.H. Bass. As the legend goes, this company didn’t even come up with the idea to create loafers themselves. They were contracted by Esquire and a highly-touted New York fashion house: Rogers, Pete & Co.
This duo knew that loafers would be well-received here in the states as it was in Norway and throughout Europe. But, they needed an American manufacturer to help them bring their concept to life - enter G.H. Bass.
The three worked together to design, manufacture, and launch the first loafers - known as “weegun” loafers, a name which comes from the tie to Norway. This initial style was quite rudimentary. It featured a crescent moon design and a strip of leather stitched across the shoe’s saddle.
The first ad for these shoes was placed in the New York Herald Times in 1936. While G.H. Bass made the shoes, they were sold in Rogers, Pete & Co. NYC storefront. The branding called out to wealthy, well-dressed men in America. And over the next few years, the loafers cemented themselves in culture. You’d find Weegun Loafers on the feet of the country’s elite sportsmen, societal figures, wealthy men, and anyone who wanted to be perceived as a well-dressed man.
Eventually, they made their way into Ivy League schools around the country and became popular among the youth. And that’s where the origin of the penny loafer begins.
The Origin of Penny Loafers in Ivy League Colleges
There’s no telling when penny loafers were actually born, we just know that it was a huge turning point for this style. The name comes from the manner in which youth used the cutout on the instep of the shoe to hold pennies. It’s been said that they did this so that they always had a few cents on hand in case they needed to make a phone call. Others claim keeping a penny in your shoe was a symbol of good luck.
Whatever the case, the term stuck. You still see penny loafers today. And, this style gave way to one of the other popular modern loafers: the tassel loafer.
The Introduction of the Tassel Loafer in the 1940s
The penny loafer was simple, elegant, and sophisticated. And because it was such a smash hit, other companies took note and brought their own designs to the forefront. Many of these came and left, but one that’s remained timeless over the decades is the tassel loafer.
First introduced by Alden Shoe Company in the 1940s, this style was a more formal alternative to the penny loafer. As the name suggests, it featured leather tassels on the front of the shoe.
Just like with the early weegun loafers, men - and at this point, even women - flocked to stores to get their tassel loafers and ensure they were a part of the culture. If you cared about status, you owned a pair. Sophisticated scholars, lawyers, and fashion-forward thinkers pushed this style forward. Eventually, a new era of loafers was born.
The Gucci Loafer is Born in the 1950s
This is the point in loafer history where we really start to get excited - because Gucci was responsible for creating the Italian flair associated with loafers today. This brand was born in Florence, Italy in the 1920s. But, the family saw an opportunity to move into America and put their own twist on the country’s footwear of choice.
Gucci introduced their Horsbite Loafer in 1953. And as you’d expect, the shoe encompassed an Italian flair. They were all black as brown was seen as too casual at the time. But the real distinction of this footwear was the metal horsebit situated across the shoe, which is where the name comes from.
At the time, this shoe was reserved for only the wealthiest individuals - holding true to the Gucci brand. If you wore a pair of Gucci Horsbits, you were somebody. This specific type of loafer was so pivotal that it earned a spot in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1985. And 60 years after the launch of this shoe, creative director Frida Gianni worked on launching an entire exhibit for this shoe at Gucci Museo - the brand’s own museum.
Bringing Loafers to the 21st Century
From the 1950s to early 2000s, prominent figures wore loafers and helped popularize them. Some notable namedrops include Elvis, John F. Kennedy, James Dean, Buddy Holly, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, and more. Because of this, they were seen as a symbol of elegance, sophistication, power, and wealth. Their diffusion skyrocketed as each of these status symbols and many others made their mark wearing loafers.
Up to this point, loafers didn’t change much. What did change is the manner in which they were worn. Now, they were worn by more than just the wealthy and sophisticated. Anyone who wanted to put their best foot forward could own a pair of loafers as they became more accessible. This was key in getting loafers to where they are today.
And, they weren’t just limited to the most elegant of outfits - ballroom gowns and suits. They were well on their way to becoming known as the most versatile footwear choice for men and women alike - which is where they sit today.
Where Loafers Sit Today
These days, loafers are still regarded as a fashionable choice for men or women, regardless of setting. The difference is in how accessible they are. You can get your hands on the best loafers online at the click of a button - and without breaking the bank, mind you.
Now, you can wear loafers with seemingly any type of outfit - as you’ll learn in our article on how to style loafers. Loafers are business casual, making them a great choice for semi-formal or smart casual settings. But, you can also wear loafers with a suit or tuxedo in more formal settings. There is rarely a bad time to wear loafers. You can even wear loafers with jeans without looking out of place. It’s all in how you style the rest of your outfit.
Another reason loafers are still so popular nearly 100 years since being introduced is how many different types of loafers there are on the market. All the styles we discussed throughout the history of loafers are available online.
And now, you can find loafers in a greater variety of colors and materials. Beyond the basic black or brown leather loafers, you can find loafers in suede or velvet. And, you’ll find colors ranging from cognac to navy, birch to sage, petrol, and even two-toned styles.
Having all this variety at your fingertips makes shopping for loafers more fun than ever. The best place to shop, though, is at Del Toro - where you’ll gain access to the premier selection of Italian loafers for men and Italian loafers for women.
We honor the tried-and-true process of traditional Italian shoemaking to create footwear that doesn’t just look stunning - it feels comfortable on your feet. You’ll love your Del Toro loafers as much on the first wear as on the hundredth wear. They’re classic, comfortable, and filled with charisma and personality. Head over to our site and take a look and see which catches your eye.
Wrapping Up Our Penny Loafers History Lesson
It’s time to bring our penny loafers history lesson to a close. As you can see, the loafer's history spans almost a century - even longer depending on who you ask. Throughout the history of loafers much has changed - including the style itself, who is able to wear them, and how they’re worn.
But with all this change, a few things have remained constant. These are a must-have in any man or woman’s wardrobe. In fact, this is more true today than ever before. Loafers are as versatile as it gets, which is why they’re among the best Italian shoes you can own - right up with velvet slippers.
Now, the only thing left to do is grab your own piece of loafer history over at Del Toro: the premier choice for handmade Italian shoes. Experience firsthand why our shoes have been raved about in GQ, Vogue, the New York Times, and more. You’re going to love the way you look and feel wearing Del Toro.