In any field of human craft, there are crowd-pleasers and insiders’ choices. Some creations are instantly recognized and widely regarded. Think of an iconic Rolex or a cubist painting by Picasso. Others are quiet masterpieces, prized by those in the know. Consider the sterling reputation of A. Lange & Söhne among watch enthusiasts, or Joaquín Sorolla for Spanish painting aficionados. Cordovan shoes are in that second category.
Tanned horsehide is less commonly used for shoemaking than calf leather. It is limited in supply, more difficult to work with, less comfortable on the first wears and considerably more expensive. It’s harder to enjoy, and of course this is exactly why enthusiasts appreciate it. Take any common product–up to and including Coca Cola, the beverage of utopian internationalism–and I can show you some hipster who will only drink the kind that’s hecho en México. The internet has given said hipsters a million fora to reaffirm their viewpoint. But this an ounce is too cynical: delving into any subject means learning to appreciate the difficult and the unusual. It’s the reason wine lovers gravitate toward the tannic majesty of old, rare Bordeaux. And the reason why cordovan is worth the difficulty.
The word “cordovan” derives from Cordoba, the Spanish city which became a leading center of tanning in Europe on account of the arrival of the Moors in the eighth century. Originally the term referred to sheepskin, but expanded to include horsehide and ultimately any high quality leather. It provided the French term for shoemaker—Cordonnier—and the English word probably came via France, where the finest shoes were made. Cordovan appears in English back in 1387, where the knight Sir Thopas in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales wears cordovan shoes and a silk robe “that cost many a half-penny.”
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, while “cordovan” settled into its modern meaning, horsehide tanning declined (along with the gastronomic interest in horses). But a few tanneries kept up the tradition of working with this uniquely strong, long-lasting material. Alongside operations in Italy and Japan, the most famous is the Horween factory in Chicago, founded in 1905. There, horsehides are still vegetable tanned and dyed in a distinctive range of colors: black, navy, several golden browns, and the iconic “Color 8,” a deep brown-burgundy.
Cordovan is to calf leather as whiskey is to fine wine. It’s sophisticated yet rugged. Cordovan’s exceptionally strength is both its blessing and its difficulty. Unlike good calf leather, cordovan doesn’t leave the factory
Cordovan will never crease. Instead it forms soft ripples around the toe box, creating a worn-in look while remaining as smooth as the day you bought it. Its pores are extremely fine, giving a shiny, smooth appearance without vast amounts of wax. It can take serious punishment and brush up like new in minutes. For these reasons it makes beautiful boots, whether brogued dress boots such as George Cleverley’s, or workwear-inspired models like Visvim’s Serra Shell hiking boot. Equally, the unlined cordovan loafer is a Bostonian classic, combining understated New England elegance with the Yankee reverence for things that last. But while boots and loafers are the typical avenues for cordovan, I’ve been enjoying a pair of Norwegian split toe bluchers: they’re sleek enough for the office, but have a bit more heft and visual interest than the typical dark brown captoe.
When it comes to maintenance, there’s little to do. Shoe trees are essential, and you can smooth out the ripples from time to time or you can embrace them. If you do want to minimize the ripples, use the back of a spoon. If only the remains of a living creature will satisfy you, get the deer bone sold for the same purpose (but for goodness’ sake only use the middle section, not the pointy ends–and enjoy explaining to your normal friends).
Cordovan’s tight, waxy surface will shine with little more than a quick brushing. Aficionados divide into two camps, those who use creams, such as Saphir Médaille d’Or Cordovan Cream, and those who swear off any product save for a bit of polish, which is basically added and then removed again by brushing. Whichever path you choose, brush them “as long as you can stand it” and you can’t go far wrong.
When Chaucer describes Sir Topas wearing cordovan, he’s making clear that the knight had the finest of shoes, but he might also be suggesting a man who can fight on his feet as well as on horseback. Whether you are the jousting type or more of a desk jockey, cordovan is worth your time—it will reward your patience with a lifetime’s service.
Pictures from the Shell Cordovan Shoe and Boot Thread on Styleforum.
- Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales translated by David Wright (Oxford University Press, 2008)
- Laura Hodges, Chaucer
Array: Patterns of Costume and Fabric Rhetoric in The Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde and Other Works (Boydell & Brewer, 2014) and
- Hippolyte Dussauce, A New Treatise on the arts of Tanning, Currying, and Leather-dressing (1867)
- Alexander Watt, The Art of Leather Manufacture (1885)