The pros and cons of leather shoe soles

The sleek, refined option.

A leather sole is often found on the business end of a dress shoe; as such, the majority of shoe brands have several leather soled options in their portfolio. Oxfords, derbies and all manner of loafers have a high chance of coming equipped with leather soles as the manufacturer’s standard.

Unlike some shoe sole options, standard leather soles aren’t capable of all-purpose usage. While they’re the pinnacle of options for a sleek aesthetic, donning a pair of shoes with these soles in the wrong weather can see you walking into a slippery situation. However, the positive caveat with leather soles is that they can be inexpensively adapted to solve the slip issue.

A near new leather sole on the Thomas George Collection penny loafers. A leather sole won’t hold this appearance for long!

Leather soles have many benefits; while lacking the sponginess of a crepe sole or the hardy weight of a Dainite sole, a good quality leather sole will be very durable. When they’re well cared for, these soles can last a good decade.

The sleekness gives more than visual appeal alone. With this characteristic comes a lightweight sole that makes for easy walking – when paired with a good quality footbed – and a satisfying clacking sound when you walk on a hard surface.

While often denounced for a lack of grip, good quality leather soles can provide a surprisingly adequate amount of grip, depending on the surface you use them on. For example, the Crockett & Jones suede derbies I bought in 2021 have performed well enough that I’m yet to even consider having a thin rubber outsole applied.

Where leather soles fall down is wet weather and rugged performance. A leather sole is a dangerously slippery option in the rain, providing little to no grip. The thin and elegant construction of a leather sole is naturally unsuitable for rugged use, though leather soles aren’t touted for utility in such a situation. A complete shoe collection will include an option better suited to rugged use.

Versatility is perhaps the crowning quality of a leather soled shoe. While its standard form is unsuitable for wet weather use, an inexpensive rubber outsole pad – from a maker such as Topy – can be applied to any leather soled shoe by a cobbler. This solves the issue of grip, and can allow a leather soled shoe to be used in lightly rugged terrain.

When it comes to the quality of leather soles, the old adage you get what you pay for rings true. Cheap leather soles will fall apart quickly, while quality ones will last a long time, providing maximum versatility if paired with the likes of a Topy. However, any welted or other recraftable shoe doesn’t die with the demise of its OEM sole; aftermarket soles will play an important part in the life of a quality shoe. Some notable makers for aftermarket soles include the well-reputed and now defunct J. Rodenbach (JR) tannery, Baker, and the Kilger tannery who now own the recipe to JR soles. A skilled cobbler will be able to source and recommend ideal sole replacements for your shoes, so it’s best to let your cobbler do the work for you.

A handy giveaway for deducing the age of a leather sole is the colour; when the sole is nearer to new but the crisply painted appearance of the sole has worn off, the leather underneath will be quite bright and pale. The older the sole, the darker these worn areas will be. Age holds no arbitrary power over whether a resole should happen, though it can give you an idea of how long until one might be needed; older, darker soles are more worn and will be more prone to splits and tears.

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With content features ranging from appearances on popular menswear hubs (The Rake, StyleForum, Put This On) to French perfume newsletters and university course readings, Sam is a writer, designer and enthusiast in the fields of menswear and fragrance.

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