The ritual of shoe care.
The ritual of shoe care.
Image: 123rf

I laugh when I recall my younger self, bursting at the seams with revolutionary vigour, a curt answer to every question and a disdain for any hint of tradition, ritual or convention. Given half the chance, I’d easily proselytise the most hardened unbeliever into whatever ideology was the flavour of the moment, throwing in a few misquotes for good measure.

Oh, the joy of youthful arrogance.

As I look back on those days, I’m reminded that life certainly has a sense of humour. The very tenets I found abhorrent as a young person are the values I now lean on as an adult, having gained a bit of experience through life’s many ups and downs. 

Mention the word ritual, and it conjures esoteric or religious connotations. While this is true, ritual can also mean a series of actions or types of regular and invariable behaviour. It’s different from a habit or routine in that there is an intention that underpins the activity.

If you have read any of my other musings here, you will find I take a somewhat different point of view regarding men's wear and, more specifically, style. While I love colours, fit and fabric, I’m deeply curious about things overlooked and unseen.

One of the rituals I find the most grounding and fulfilling these days is polishing my shoes. Given the breakneck speed at which life appears to be moving, the seemingly mundane, repetitive task of cleaning and polishing shoes allows me to quiet my busy mind and just be in the moment. It’s also the perfect time I’ve found to enjoy a single malt. While I understand that this ritual of shoe care in this context is personal, I want to encourage you on two fronts. First, creating a habit of cleaning your shoes is never a bad idea. The adage, You can tell a lot about a man by his shoes, may seem archaic, but I’ll wager you will never be short on compliments. And second, find a ritual that works for you, anything from walking the dog to an evening spent journaling.  

Taking care of your shoes  

As a general rule, try not to wear the same pair of shoes for two days in a row. Never pry off shoes by stepping on the heel. If you have shoetrees, they should be inserted and the shoes should preferably be placed on a shoe rack that allows for adequate airflow, especially for leather soles and footwear worn in inclement weather, so they can dry. Shoetrees draw out any moisture and will also help iron out creases at stress points.

There is some technique to giving your shoes the best care and to use products correctly. Below is a list of essential shoe-care products and a step-by-step process that will keep your shoes looking tip-top. I often find that men will spend hard-earned cash on shoes but skimp on shoe care products; as always, buy the best you can afford. We forget that leather is essentially animal skin of the animal and has pores that need to breathe. With the correct products and care — leather should be supple and breathe — you will significantly extend the life of your shoes.

Wooden shoe trees.
Wooden shoe trees.
Image: Dion Govender

Shoe-care starter kit

  • Leather conditioner — an essential shoe-care product, leather conditioner does precisely what the name suggests. Generally, a liquid in a neutral, milky colour that will keep the leather soft. Apply weekly.
  • Shoe cream — a product that is somewhere between a conditioner and polish. It has the added benefit of restoring colour to the leather. Apply weekly.
  • Wax-based polish — used to protect the leather from water and dirt and achieve a glossy shine. Apply monthly.
  • Shoehorn — used to insert the foot into the shoe. Slipped behind the heel, the shoe horn is used to protect the counter.
  • Shoetrees — shaped to fit snugly, wooden shoetrees are often made from cedar wood and help maintain the shape of the shoe. The wood draws out moisture from the leather and imparts a pleasant smell to combat any funky foot odours.
  • Shoe brushes — quality brushes are made from horsehair and are used to remove dirt and dust. Brushes are also used to spread polish or cream and to initially buff the polish that has been applied.
  • Soft rags or shoe chamois — I’ll often use an old T-shirt that has been cut into pieces. You will need a small square to apply the polish and a clean, soft cloth to give the shoes a final buff. A Shoe chamois can be bought from most cobblers.
  • For suede shoes, you will need a suede shampoo. Suede colour renovator, suede brush, and a suede eraser are used to remove stubborn dirt or waxy/oily stains. 

Shoe-care process

Step one

Start by completely removing the laces from the shoes, if it has them. Using a clean brush, remove any visible traces of dust and dirt. Pay attention to the area where the shoe uppers meet the soles.

Step two

Using a soft, clean piece of cloth, lightly apply the leather conditioner evenly over the shoe. You’re looking to massage the conditioner into the leather as this process will prepare the leather for the other products. Be sure also to include the tongue of the shoe.

Step three

Lightly apply shoe cream with a soft piece of cloth. Just a note at this point: shoe creams come in different colours. If you’re not sure that the colour matches your shoe, first try a little of the cream in an inconspicuous area of the shoe — the tongue is a good option.  

Step four

The final step is to apply polish. Using a soft piece of cloth or polish brush, apply a thin layer of polish to the shoe, including the heel and sides of the sole. The wax in the polish will create a beautiful high shine but, more importantly, also create a barrier against water and dirt.

You need to polish your shoes only every four to six weeks. A little conditioner and shoe cream every other week while enjoying a single malt is perfectly acceptable. Here’s to rituals.

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