The Tassel Loafer’s Unexpected, Triumphant Return

The law-firm staple finally lets it all hang out.

Tassel loafers are like immoral women, less popular than they should be and often seen on aging execs. Much maligned by the less-than-less-is-more Scandinavian-design crowd, they’ve become a  signifier of out-of-touch orthodoxy as well as an insulting synecdoche for (paradoxically) white-shoe lawyers. Fortunately, that’s beginning to change as more-inventive brands—Grenson, Brunello Cucinelli, and Johnston & Murphy, to name a few—embrace the kiltie, the tasseled, and the Belgian. 

And it should change. The look was popularized by the Hungarian-American actor Paul Lukas after a star turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and was initially considered more rakish than rarified. That reputation changed when the design was adopted by the Alden Shoe Company of Middleborough, Massachusetts, and pretty much every Ivy League alumni association. The shoes were a logical step up from the penny loafers favored by enrolled preppies and became the starter shoes—the chukka boots of their era—for successful young professionals. The tassel loafer’s reputation never recovered.

Fortunately, irony and mischief are endemic to American fashion. As soon as they tasseled loafer became associated with Beltway insiders and named partners, they became the subject of the best sort of caricature. Legendary sneaker designer Ronnie Fieg and Hiroki Nakamura, the postmodern Japanese cowboy behind Visvim, put tassels on the sides of their shoes or doubled down on fringe, creating a sort of cigar-store-Indian-goes-to-a-rave look that is impossible not to like.

Inspired, the brands that had been selling responsible tassels to responsible men for years started to push the leather envelope, creating shoes that had both fringe and a bit of edge. Florsheim released a moc-toe version, Cole Haan released a sneaker-soled suede kiltie-tassel combo, and Tod’s released a monk-strap kiltie brogue that looks ready to shake down a penny loafer.

Consider this good news for men who like a bit of counter-programming. The new breed of tassel loafer is neither a rustic tribute to life in some imagined cabin in Vermont or a streamlined ode to life in a Boeing wind tunnel. They’re rakish. They’re what they once were.

And we’re happy to have them back.

Photos by Daniel Zuchnik / Getty Images