Photo by Yuttadanai Mongkonpun / EyeEm

Kiwi shoe polish and civilisation

To dress respectably is to dress respectfully

Artillery Row

After over a century of being on sale in Britain, Kiwi shoe polish has announced it will be pulling out of the British market and shifting to others instead. It has blamed the rise of working from home and the increasing ubiquity of trainers for the change, as casual shoes don’t require formal polishing.

Growing up in the 1990s, the polished leather shoe was still ubiquitous, first at school and later at work. Even now it’s normal to see school boys on the streets of London in their navy polyester blazers, untucked white shirts and black leather shoes. Amongst adults however, who are less likely to be subjected to uniform mandates, there has been a slow collapse in dress standards. At first it was just the tie-less dress down Friday, which turned into smart casual chinos and shirts being the weekday norm, followed during the covid years by the current low of wearing joggers whilst working from home.

Holding to high dress standards can feel like a snub

Does this really matter? From a utilitarian point of view, no. Shoes are shoes and so long as they protect the feet, what should it matter how they look? What’s more, formal shoes tend to be more expensive, they require more work to look after, and they’re usually less comfy to wear — at the beginning at least.

Dress standards overall have shifted towards the casual. Wearing formal shoes with casual clothing, apart perhaps from the brown brogues and jeans favoured by a segment of middle aged creatives, is hard to do well. Social expectations have also shifted. Turning up to meet friends in a park on the weekend or popping down the pub in polished double monks is likely to lead to funny looks. Whilst prior generations thought nothing of wearing suits on the weekend — or even, like my grandfather, to do the gardening — they’ve become more formal and rare over time.

That said, even the capsule wardrobes drawn up by minimalist fashion bloggers which fill the internet usually include a suit and leather shoes, even if only to be worn to weddings and funerals. In those situations, even the most utilitarian will give into social pressure and alter their dress to fit the seriousness of the occasion.

This contrast in social pressures, not to wear a suit on the weekend or trainers to a funeral, suggests that the sartorial shift is not entirely down to practicalities. Culture plays a key role, with the decline of the formal shoe as much due to social conformity as to ease of wear. To wear formal clothing is increasingly to mark yourself out, by appearing serious and following a standard of dress which dates back to Beau Brummell and aristocratic fashion. In our age, where the ideal of egalitarianism is so prized, to remind others of their own informality by holding to high dress standards can feel like a snub.

Of course, this hardly means that modes of dress have actually become utilitarian. We’re as fascinated as ever by fashion; magazines groan with reviews of dresses worn by celebs. The humble trainer can now come in limited edition runs which cost hundreds of pounds new and substantially more if sold later. Indeed, some firms which focused on shoe polishing are now looking at repairing and cleaning trainers. The variety of trainers has also exploded, with the white leather sneaker becoming a default “smart” shoe for many — at home in Silicon Valley, on a date or in the office.

Protestors wear the usual cheap cotton and plastic trainers

Despite modern society’s obsession with climate change, even activists from groups like Just Stop Oil or Extinction Rebellion conform to social norms and can usually be seen in casual clothing. This is in spite of the fact that wool suits and leather shoes are made from natural materials that are biodegradable and can last for decades if well looked after. Instead protestors wear the usual mix of cheap cotton and plastic trainers or raincoats. Perhaps it reflects their apocalypticism, where they find it easier to imagine the apocalypse ending their disposable culture than trying to mend their ways.

I suspect that there are deeper impacts as a result of this shift. Shoe polishing makes valets of us all, rich and poor. The simple acts required force us to slow down, to take care of what we are doing, to do something physical. In doing so, we come to a greater appreciation of the shoe, buffing out an errant scratch, taking extra effort to shine the toecap, feeling the satisfaction at the end of a job well done. This greater understanding isn’t a million miles away from Marie Kondo encouraging us to thank our possessions. It may explain why shoe polishing remains popular in Japan, where a wordless video demonstrating technique can rack up nearly a million views.

To focus on external appearance can be vain, but it can also be respectful, offering the way we dress to others as a mark of our esteem for them. Anyone can understand why turning up to a funeral in trainers would be disrespectful, but the reverse is also true: to dress well is to treat others well. Wearing properly shined shoes shows that you’ve taken time and effort with your appearance, to the benefit of all. It also demonstrates a desire to be respectable, a much maligned intention. It is no coincidence that, as standards of dress fell, so too incidents of anti-social behaviour rose. A world where dressing respectably is the norm is also one where respect is more likely to be found.

Thankfully, although Kiwi shoe polish may soon be gone from our shelves, other shoe polish will remain. The internet, Instagram especially, has led to something of a revival in the art of dress. It may no longer be the mainstream, but new companies appear all the time, making use of direct sales in particular to offer men classic footwear at more modern prices. A better future beckons, where dressing well is both the norm and more affordable.

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