I think one of the more useful things we do in this subreddit is help people find the right words to describe things. So I decided now would be a good time to write a guide explaining what exactly a loafer is, and then explaining the categories of loafers. I'm going to explain this in simple terms, partly because I don't know all the technical terms that might be relevant here... But if anybody wants to contribute, I'm absolutely open to additions.
I'm doing this about loafers in anticipation of this weeks _/$ thread, which will probably be loafers, even though we had a very handy guide on penny loafers at different price points recently... Basically, you guys have two cheat sheets to work with, so you have no excuse to not make that thread amazing.
What isn't a loafer?
A Moccasin is not a loafer. A moccasin has a toppish part (I guess you might call it a vamp), and then a seam connecting it to a sideish-wrap-around-the-bottomish part. That is to say, they might not have a separate sole! The sole and the side might be the same piece! Even if they do have a separate sole, it is probably soft. In no event does a Moccasin have a heel. Here's some history and detail. The soft sole is good for grass and forests, but bad for paved European roads. You would not wear a moccasin in a city, so you wouldn't wear it in modern business. It's a very casual shoe.
Unfortunately, I now need to touch on the way shoes are made: Shoes are generally made by stretching a piece of leather (or whatever) around a solid foot-shaped thing until it looks like it could wrap around a foot. This foot-shaped thing is called a "last." Most European dress shoes are "lasted" from the top-down, creating a downward curve, and have a hard sole slapped on. Moccasins, however, are generally "lasted" from the bottom up, and then have the "upper" (the toppish part) slapped on. So the curvy part of a moccasin is at the bottom, and the seam usually doesn't curve with the contours of the foot.
A Driver is pretty much a moccasin that was inspired by loafers but then turned back into a moccasin ad midnight when its fairy godmother's spell wore off. They have little ball thingies on the bottom that add some grip. Jack Erwin makes some. Since they're not constructed like dress shoes, and since they're super casual, you can go ahead and cheap out on these. These usually come with a vamp that is reminiscent of penny loafers or sometimes bit loafers, but again, they are not loafers.
Slippers a.k.a. Dress Slippers a.k.a. Prince Albert Slippers a.k.a. Smoking Slippers are a sole + a solid curved upper. They do not separate that toppish part from a sideish part -- their upper is often wholecut. I fucking love these things. They have a dress shoe's sole, so I'd say they qualify as dress shoes, but you probably want to wear them casually. They can come in velvet, suede, or smooth leather. These can be worn casually. If they're "smoking slippers," or have any embroidery, they should only be worn casually. Plain black velvet slippers are also black tie appropriate. Hell, they can even be pulled off a few places in the middle. But, at any stage, you need to know what you're doing. They're a tricky shoe to wear -- you gotta rock it, or not wear it at all. But damn, are they sexy.
For avoidance of doubt, the word slipper is also used to describe these cozy things, but those are more moccasins than they are slippers... technically.
You might also call chelsea boots slip-ons, but no, they are not loafers. Sandals and "slides" and stuff are also, and I hope this is obvious, not loafers.
What is a loafer?
A loafer is essentially a slip-on shoe with a moccasin-like upper (top + sides), a separate, rigid sole (leather or, in some cases, rubber), and a heel. There's always some sort of seam connecting the sides to the top (or "vamp" but I'll call it the top because that's probably easier to understand) -- even if it's subtle, like in these Ferragamo apron toe bit loafers. If you see no seam along the top -- if your shoe is, for example, wholecut -- it is not a loafer, it is a slipper.
When I say "slip-on shoe," I mean that a loafer does not have functional closure mechanism. No functional laces, buckles, straps, velcro... nothing. You just slip 'em on.
The loafer seems to have two different origins -- idk, I'm not a historian. One story is, some British dude named Wildsmith came up with them, as a simpler variant on other British shoes. The other is, they came from Norwegians in Aurland who saw some Native American moccasins and thought, "you know, that's alright -- now let's smash that into our dress shoes and see what happens -- their toes were more moccasin-like, and thicker, so we call them "moc toes." If you've heard the word "weejun" that's what G.H. Bass decided to call his line of these Norwegian-style shoes. You'll see the names "Wildsmith" and "Aurland" again soon. Some Belgians independently came up with their own loafers based on slippers -- I'll get into them, as well.
Boat shoes technically are loafers, since they have a rigid sole with a (small) heel and a moccasin-style upper. That said, if you go around calling boat shoes loafers, you'll get slapped. Do you want to be right, and slapped, or wrong, but unslapped? Do not wear boat shoes outside of super casual scenarios. (I love me some boat shoes, though). Everything below, except for boat shoes, generally counts as a dress shoe.
Most of the materials you might use to make any dress shoe work for a loafer too. Mostly leathers, including suede. Suede works nicely on a casual loafer, as it does on a casual anything else. You probably don't want patent leather. You might want velvet, but that'll be hard to care for. I'm not going to dig any deeper, since this applies to all shoes, and I want to keep this focused.
Like all dress shoes, the soles of a loafer can be stitched or glued, and stitched is better. I won't get into details here either, since, again, you can find this info in a general shoe guide. Again these shoes are made with a last, or pretend foot thing.
Most dress shoes are lasted from the top-down. That is to say, imagine I take a big stretchy piece of leather and stretch it over the top of your foot. This creates a smooth downward curve. That's sleek. That's pretty dressy.
Loafers, however, are half-inspired by moccasins. And moccasins, as we discussed, are lasted from the bottom up, which means that their toes are not a smooth downward curve -- but lets get into that below... Many brands will refer to this as "genuine moccasin construction," but remember, moccasins wouldn't have a hard sole and heel stitched on, because Native Americans weren't about that, so it's more "moccasin-style lasting."
Moccasin-style lasting usually goes hand in hand with a thick moccasin-like seam, for a "moc toe." Since it takes these elements for Native American style, and since the shoe isn't very sleek, it's not the most formal thing. You should probably wear these in casual looks -- like, wear them with shorts and no show socks before you wear them a suit. Generally.
European-style top-down lasting, on the other hand, is usually paired with an "apron toe" with a tiny seam for a smooth downward curve. Since it's a sleek Euoropean style, it's relatively formal. You can wear these with a suit just fine, but they'll usually look odd with shorts or jeans or no show socks.
Types of Loafers
Penny Loafers -- including Aurland and Wildsmith -- loafers, are loafers with a "saddle," a sort of strap going across the top with a sort of diamond-shape opening near the top/middle of the strap. The story goes, Ivy League bros put a penny in that opening to remind them to call their mommies every day. Whether they did this because they were homesick, or kind, or afraid that they'd lose their inheritance, I haven't the foggiest, but one way or another, they were mamma's boys.
The strap can go all the way to the sole -- "full strap" -- or just to the seam – "half strap" or "pinch" -- or to the seam, but then with a thick roll on the seam -- "beefroll". Beefrolls are suuuuper casual -- don't wear them with a suit. A lot of American companies have gotten to making beefrolls with hand-sewn moc toes, which, even with a dress shoe sole, is especially casual. You'll see that style on a lot of drivers for that reason.
The "Aurland" loafer, since it is based directly on the moccasin, has a moc toe. This is relatively casual, which is why a lot of companies (like Rancourt above) combine it with the beefroll for a very casual "dress" shoe. Half/full straps are still relatively casual, but less so.
The Wildsmith loafer has an Apron toe. Again, this is a European style, so it's noticeably dressier. A lot of people here will tell you still not to wear them with suits, but you're probably fine in the real world. Some people consider getting something like this in patent leather for black tie, though, and that's wrong. You would be looking for velvet slippers or patent leather opera pumps.
Tassel Loafers are, believe it or not, loafers with a sort of a tassel thingy. This is what I'm talking about. Yeah, Alden made the OG tassel loafers, with Brooks Brothers. They continue to make great ones today. These are the youngest and arguably stupidest-looking loafers, but, confusingly, they're popular with rich old people and are considered relatively formal. This has to do with the idea that the tassel is based on laces, and laces make things more formal, even though laces here are partially inspired by the moccasin. Note, also, that the "laces" go around the side on these particular Aldens -- I'm not sure what this is called, but it is again reminiscent of the moccasin. Finally note that Alden seems to last from the top down, but their seam is thicker than some Apron toes. Some other tassel loafers may be lasted from the bottom up.
Venetian Loafers don't have a tassel, or a strap, or anything. They're kinda "plain." BB/Rancourt makes these conspicuously named American Venetian loafers. Although "plain" is almost always associated with formality, Venetian loafers are actually more casual, because of the moc toe. In case you're seeing a pattern: none of this shit makes a ton of sense. Formality is a little arbitrary.
Belgian Loafers are a little different. Originally made by Belgian Shoes, and inspired more by slippers than by moccasins, they often have a tiny bow. They also tend to have a slightly different construction and usual last, with a small seam, but still very distinct top and side parts. Baudoin and Lange is another great brand that does custom jobs here. Since they're based on slippers, they're usually sleeker than other types of loafers. This also makes them more formal -- probably the most formal loafer by most standards. You'll notice that there's a patent leather one on B&L's website, but I wouldn't recommend it for Black Tie, or at all, really. I'm not sure how these shoes are lasted -- it seems like there's a discontinuity, and a few very separate curves -- so I'm going to sleep, watch a few videos, get back here, and edit this.
Bit Loafers a.k.a. Horsebit Loafers a.k.a. Gucci Loafers a.k.a. Snaffle Loafers (call them this ONLY if you're a British cartoon character). As you can guess from one of the names, they were made by Aldo Gucci, based on, as you can probably not guess from a different name, a metal horse bit. I have no idea what a horse bit is. Anyway, they're defined by that metal thing that apparently has something to do with horses. Gucci's originally came in black with a gold bit and moc toe, but they exist with apron toes, as with the ferragamos I listed above. Even moc toe bit loafers can be formal, because that's how the elites felt like wearing them some of the time. Other companies make them these days, but Gucci really wants to be the only company that makes them, considering they pioneered the style and it helped significantly to make their brand what it is. If you want to talk about Intellectual Property... well, that's my day job, so hire me for an hour, and we can get into that. You can afford it, Mr. Gucci Loafers.
Since they're associated with Gucci, and have a shiny piece of metal in the mix, bit loafers can be ostentatious. These are the kind of things you wear when you either want to flaunt wealth or turn some heads. That said, don't try flaunting wealth with Cole Haans, they're really a cheap shoe (cheaply made), and snobs will know it -- if you must wear those, wear them for the latter reason, to turn heads.
Fun fact: the Met has a pair of Gucci bit loafers on permanent display. These things are fashion history.
Other Loafers include Kilted loafers, which are dumb, so I'm not going to get into them, other than to call them dumb. Come at me, kilted loafers. Some loafers have buckles, kind of like double monks. That's dumb too. You don't need a seal mechanism for a slip-on shoe. Some have some "lacing" in a moccasin-style bow, like these Carmina String Loafers. I like those. Tom Ford has gotten to making some chain loafers lately, and if Tom's doing it it ain't wrong, but these are going to be difficult to pull off -- harder than bit loafers, either. Again, boat shoes are technically loafers, with a lacing situation -- I know I said laces make a thing more formal, but boat shoes don't really count because they aren't dress shoes at all.