Robert Mitchum’s Cordovans
Demonstrative of my thought process in action, on pondering ’70′s crime films, in this case, ‘Charlie Varrick’ and ‘The Friends Of Eddie Coyle’ after discovering that ‘…Eddie Coyle’ – which is a first-rate Boston-based heist thriller with some of the best dialogue of all time (based on a great novel too), is set for Criterion’s lovingly restored DVD treatment in a few months. This is down to a hint in their newsletter. It also means I opted to refrain from watching a bootleg today. I can wait. How such a film languishes in cultdom is a whole ‘nother topic of rant.
This led to a consideration of Mitchum’s ’70′s output, containing a frugal handful of classics, but classics nonetheless, where he was perfect for these world-weary roles. He was the model of grizzled cool then, but in his first wave of success, he was particularly iconic. On his 1948 arrest and incarceration for marijuana possession, one look truly stands out – somehow he wrangled permission to break prison uniform code to wear his fine-grained Cordovan shoes along with his regulation prison attire. To those trying to balance authentic utitilarian looks with costly accessorising today, the brutal truth is that you won’t top Bob. And rather than crow about his sartorial accomplishments online, his presumed intent was to retain some of his glitzy status and freedom by way of footwear.
I’ve never been 100 percent as to the original source of the photo below – photographers and journalists were invited in to share Mitchum’s humiliation, and he in return was apparently very civil. LIFE ran a lengthy piece on his enforced stay, but this image isn’t my favourite. In Lee Server’s biography of the man himself, ‘Baby I Don’t Care’, an image of Mitchum sitting in his cell displays a particularly distinctive blend of basics and luxury. Unfortunately a broken scanner leaves me at the behest of Google Images.
This led me to ponder the shell Cordovan shoe.
To answer Red’s enquiry, “How often do you really look at a man’s shoes?” A lot. Shell Cordovan footwear is something I aspire to wear. With the leather in question taken from an equine source, and having horsey friends I should feel guilty at this aspiration. But I’d sooner see the hide from it’s rump on my feet than going to waste. Plus I won’t pretend I wouldn’t get a kick from telling them that I’m rocking shoes made from Shergar. More dignified than ending up as glue or canine chow too. For a second I even thought prices might drop, with the tragic slaughter of racehorses due to the current economic climate, but I guess the time consuming process of cutting, vegetable tanning and splitting would still remain.
First created in Cordova in Southern Spain – hence the name – and used to bind books and suchlike, shell Cordovan is also known as ‘crup’ in the UK. Dense, soft and well-wearing, it can apparently be applied to goat or pigskin too. But that would be cheating.
As a Brit, and one who thinks we run the shoemaking game, I have to confess that when we’re talking shell Cordovan, I still instinctively think stateside. I always imagined Bob was sporting a nice pair of Aldens. These are the shoes I would like to own. The pictured wingtips are pretty impressive.
Alden Cordovan wingtips
Alden have been in business since 1884, and their shell Cordovan comes from the Horween Leather Company, based in Chicago. I particularly admire onetime company president Arnold Horween Jr’s declaration that, “As tanneries go we’re not the biggest, the fastest or the cheapest, which means we need to be the best. Our business is built on doing things other people don’t, won’t or can’t.” They’re not cheap. But as well as making exclusive pieces for stores like Leather Sole , Alden reputedly make shoes for other brands too, which means if you buy some Cordovan numbers from Brooks Brothers, they’re from the same source.
Shell Cordovan shoes from Brooks Brothers
Florsheim Imperial were apparently makers of ‘status shoes’ in the ’50s and ’60s, but nowadays, I’m not sure as to what’s being produced. They seem to have become a big corporate entity. Seemingly, Wisconsin-based Allen Edmonds is still putting out some great footwear, and they’re famous for using the costly leather too. Rider Boot Co. make some interesting pieces too, including a 7-eyelet wingtip boot, incorporating three speed eyelets.
If you can look beyond the comedy corporate music and voiceover, this Allen Edmonds factory tour is a good watch -
Florsheim Imperial Kenmore shell cordovan longwings – picture stolen from Georgia at Style Forum
Allen Edmonds Cambridge in Cordovan – stolen from the excellent Indigofan
As with anything detailed and clothing-related, obsessiveness follows, and there’s much debate over Japanese Cordovan. The Shinki-Hikaku tannery, in business since 1951 boasts “More than half a century with horse leather”. I think Warmcraft is their in-house brand. World Footwear Gallery has some amazing stock and great imagery. In Japan, there seems to be huge demand for quality formal footwear, with brands like Spain’s Magnanni rightly deified.
Warmcraft x World Footwear Gallery – made in Japan
Can’t forget about the homegrown legends either. While I think the hunger for ‘crup’ might be more prevailent in the US and Asia, British brands have a heavy rep globally so they all make Cordovan pieces. Crocket & Jones, Church’s (as bought then sold, then bought again) by the Prada group and Tricker’s make some good designs. Tricker’s make some crazy variations on their Stow Boot from the material, in off-the-wall shades like green.
Crocket & Jones Shell Cordovan 2007/8
Tricker’s Cordovan Stow Boot in green – pic stolen from Thomas7610 on Style Forum
I don’t really understand the appeal of Augusta and Carol Christian Poell’s pre-distressed laceups. While I’ve got a lot of respect for both labels (particularly CCP), given it’s susceptibility to minor marking/welting from rain, I imagine it’s not hard to get your own special effects from sustained wear, despite its reputation for longevity. Their use of oiled Cordovan is interesting though. While it already has high oil content in the leather, it would make them a little more versatile, but at the same time compromising the original aesthetic appeal. Each to their own I guess. Alden themselves offer a thorough maintainence guide to looking after your purchase on their site.
Augusta pre-distressed Cordovan lace-ups
Carol Christian Poell pre-distressed Cordovan laceups
Somehow, I don’t think Bob would approve of all this fuss.
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