The heat is on, the socks are off, the deck shoe hits dry land

Decca Aitkenhead on how to spot an Englishman
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The Independent Online
THE streets of Britain's cities are thronged with foreign men this summer, from German and Spanish football fans to American tourists and Aussie backpackers. Yet, in any crowd, you can still spot the Englishman without even lifting your eyes from the pavement.

There, among the tubby trainers of north America and the crocodile loafers of southern Europe, stands England - in pair after pair of deck shoes.

The deck shoe, also known as the docksider, is everywhere. That leather, two-tone, rubber-soled slip-on with the curious thread-through lace is the summer shoe of choice for middle England, worn with jeans, shorts, chinos and - crucially - no apparent thought.

Its popularity is unparalleled, its all-purpose possibilities plain. But what presents itself as casual footwear, is in truth a careful statement which declares not merely Englishness, but a very particular Englishness.

The sailing shoe originated in America to meet yachtsmen's requirements: a firm grip which would not damage decks, waterproof leather which would drain but not crack, and laces which tightened to fit all around, while allowing the shoe to slip on and off. The design is classic, but its arrival on the high street is recent.

In the past three years, serious sailors' shoes by Timberland, Sebago, Rockport and others, at up to pounds 150 a pair, have been joined by in-house ranges from Clarks, Hush Puppies, even Marks and Spencer, at pounds 25-pounds 40. All report soaring sales. The deck shoe has been absorbed by the stripped pine, Saab and sun-dried tomato school of Good Taste - and while the specialists still promote themselves as "high performance nautical wear", the market they target is more Cambridge than Cowes.

As Hush Puppies' spokesperson concedes: "I'm afraid it's townies driving around in their Range Rovers all over again. Fashion victims like the idea that they are buying the Real Thing."

The deck shoe is the Barbour of footwear. Just as that Eighties icon, the waxed jacket, made vague allusion to an estate in Scotland, so the suburban deck shoe hints of a yacht moored off Monaco. But most boys in the bars of Fulham have come no closer to the nautical life than a cross- channel ferry to France. This is fantasy footwear.

Southampton yacht skipper Simon Biggs growls: "The sight of spotty men in brand-new docksiders makes me sick. There's only one thing worse than brand new docksiders - and that's squeaky docksiders. I wear the damned things every day of my life, but I wouldn't dream of heading up into town in them. Will these people never understand?"

Deck shoe pseuds, like urban 4x4 drivers and green wellie wearers, will insist that their choice is innocuous: comfort, convenience, durability and economy are cited. But only one excuse sounds convincing. "What else," demands a portly, floppy-haired PR boy outside the Beer Engine bar in Fulham, "do you expect me to wear?"

He has a point. Summer footwear for city boys offers few choices, all fairly ill-advised. "I'm sorry," he blinks, "but you're not going to catch me going near those biblical sandals. And if you think I'd wear the German tourist things with big plastic straps, you must be mad." He returns to his table and the company of eight other pairs of deck shoes.

It's hard to imagine just what would flatter these guys' bare legs. The great sock dilemma hangs heavy over the Englishman's summer - winter shoes without socks are absurd, but tennis shoes smell - leaving only the sandal, with its comedic qualities, and the deck shoe.

"Men's feet," reflects GQ magazine's style director Bill Dunn, "are not particularly attractive, and I suppose this whole deck shoe fad has got something to do with that. I'm in a bit of a quandary myself. But there's no excuse for men to dress like a herd in uniform." A biker boots man himself, Mr Dunn may hazard a plimsoll if it gets really hot - but the other possible option, the trainer, is also problematic. "I'm very anti men over 30 wearing trainers. It looks a bit, well, you know - not right."

What does the future hold for the deck shoe? Owners of Millets waxed jackets may refer loftily to their "Barbour", but as yet no brand of deck shoe enjoys such generic status. There are some signs that women are taking to the trend, but, fortunately, they look good in sandals.The threat to the deck shoe will come when its popularity trickles down from Putney to Peckham: only when the waxed jacket began to be worn on council estates did it at last go into retreat.

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