Written by Ivan Yaskey
4th August 2023
We’ve been hearing that the decline of the suit is imminent, that there’s no use for formal dressing for a few years already. That said, a quality pair of dress boots isn’t something you don strictly for special occasions. Rather, they’re a work staple – no matter if you sort through suit separates or lean toward dark denim – and one for looking sharp after the 9-to-5, too. Weddings, class reunions, and conferences? They have you covered, as long as you bring the right outfit.
Within this framework, dress boots aren’t just about style. Construction keeps them going and makes them an integral part of your capsule wardrobe. Whether you’re searching for your first pair or wanting to make a longer-lasting purchase, we’ve compiled some of the best men’s dress boot brands across a wide price spectrum.
What Are Dress Boots?
What qualifies as a dress boot has some wiggle room in the present. It used to be that oxfords and balmoral boots exemplified the top tier. Anything with a thicker outsole or rounded toe appeared too casual.
Yet, the blurring of dress codes and greater emphasis on hybrid dressing break down these boundaries. Today, this group of footwear is intended to be worn for cocktail, semi-formal, and formal events (review our dress code guide for reference on the differences) and can be dressed down for smart-casual with the right pieces.
As such, dress boots share a combination of characteristics:
– A lower-profile outsole, oftentimes made of leather instead of rubber.
– A single-color brown or black smooth leather or suede upper.
– Minimal seams, excluding the basics.
– Minimalist eyelets.
– A more almond-shaped toe and slim profile.
Of course, variations exist – with the most notable being degrees of brogue details. Toward the hybrid direction, thicker, sometimes lugged outsoles end up being more practical, while a round toe provides more room.
– Shoe The Bear
What to Look for in a Pair of Dress Boots
As you shop around, be mindful of the following characteristics:
– Prioritize leather, as this generally reflects higher-quality construction. By contrast, most synthetic materials delaminate with time and won’t deliver the longevity you seek.
– Limit experimental colours, unless you’re deliberately maintaining a dandy character. Select black or brown or a lighter variation, like grey or tan. Bolder colours and two-tone combinations feel too experimental for more formal expectations.
– Think about where you’ll be wearing the boots. If it’s for a smart-casual workplace and the occasional wedding, you can get away with a pair of Chelsea boots. If, however, you’re expected to dress up in a two-piece, double-notch-collar navy suit for work or another equally elevated affair, stick with a pair of brown oxfords. Never appear as if you matched hiking or combat boots to a traditional suit.
– Avoid a wider-cut fit, as this attribute, too, harkens back to work boot design. Instead, explore each brand’s lasting and look for something aligning with the curves and shape of your feet. We also recommend trying on each boot with socks on, so you know how it will look and feel.
– Evaluate your wardrobe: Avoid black shoes with a navy suit, but have them on hand for charcoal. Brown ends up being a less jarring contrast.
– Allen Edmonds
Types of Dress Boots
What constitutes a dress boot? Although some try to push chukkas and even Dr. Martens into this category, the basic types include:
– Oxfords: The OG dress boot got its name from what Oxford University students used to sport back in the 19th century. Today, both boot and low-height versions have a closed lacing system for a closer fit. You’ll also come across one-piece leather – no seams except for where the upper meets the outsole – and more traditional construction.
– Balmoral: Balmorals often get grouped in with oxfords due to sharing similar characteristics – for instance, a sleeker profile and closed lacing system. However, balmorals are strictly boots and often distinguish themselves with a capped toe and a seam that goes from the vamp along the back of the boot.
– Derby: Derbies used to be the defining line in the dress boot discussion, often marking the start of more casual footwear. Historically, the style launched in the 1850s as a hunting boot and later transformed into a going-out shoe. Also in low and taller styles, derbies stand apart from oxfords with an open lacing system – visible, often metal eyelets – and a round toe.
– Chelsea Boots: You’ll see Chelsea boots made with one or two pieces of fabric stitched to the outsole. Initially a casual, somewhat mod-leaning style, the Chelsea boot is characterized by a mid-height body that you pull on with a loop at the back and a round toe. Today, you’ll spot them in a wider range of materials, including textile, and with a thicker outsole.
– Monk Strap: Monk strap boots take the oxford’s template and add a double-buckle closure over the front.
– Jodhpurs: Similarly, jodhpurs allude to an equestrian past while ultimately appearing as a Chelsea boot with a buckle strap around the ankle.
– Brogues: While not a distinct shoe type, brogue details – or broguing, as it’s often called – add an ornamental element to most of the proper dress boot styles listed above. You’ll typically spot the perforations around the tip and along the sides of a boot. Like derbies, broguing started with more outdoor origins, added to hunting boots to divert water.
Top Affordable Dress Boot Brands
Going past the glut of fast fashion, get something that lasts with the following:
Thursday’s one of those American-based dress boot brands that yearns for the heritage of work boots but acknowledges that Timberlands and Red Wings aren’t always the most appropriate for the office. At the same time, the company utilizes an increasingly popular direct-to-consumer model that trims down costs.
Based out of New York City, Thursday exemplifies the hybrid dress boot – rugged and substantial but standing upon a more refined presentation. Here, you won’t find significant variety, but that’s the point: Get Goodyear welting, sturdy leather, and a lugged outsole, all capped off with some broguing and even moccasin elements, for your default go-anywhere pair.
Johnston & Murphy
Originating as the William J. Dudley Shoe Company, Johnston & Murphy mimics what Cole Haan has done for dress shoes: classic on top and flexible and athletic underneath. Here, that means leather lined with sheepskin for breathability and supported by XC Flex® construction and a dual-density footbed for a more responsive, adaptable fit.
Myrqvist reflects one ongoing trend in the dress boot market: Newer brands, frequently Scandinavian based, introduce a more affordable boot built around traditional construction. No, you won’t find outsoles glued to the upper here – Goodyear welting, considered the baseline standard for flexibility and reliability, is used – but more predictable design in a direct-to-consumer format.
In the case of Myrqvist, design occurs in Stockholm, fabrics are sourced from France and England, and manufacturing is done by hand in Portugal. What results feels premium, has some details, and fits the bill of many formal dress codes while stay closer to a mid-level professional’s budget. While these attributes result in a more elevated dress sneaker, they also produce sturdy pairs of oxfords and derbies for enhancing your capsule wardrobe.
– John Lobb
A Certified B Corporation, Beckett Simonon stands out in an increasingly saturated direct-to-consumer dress boot market. Launched back in 2011, the company has aimed to make an all-around better boot – higher-quality materials, a safe environment for workers, lower impact on the planet, and traditional craftsmanship – without obscenely driving up costs.
They’ve achieved a more economical equilibrium in terms of these elements, resulting in a more durable, classic dress boot based around their own sourced materials from Argentinian and Italian tanneries and lasting constantly retooled based on customer feedback. Products settle around the less-formal end – think derbies, Chelsea boots, and jodhpurs in smooth or textured leather.
Shoe the Bear
This Scandinavian brand reflects a mix of comfort and innovation, creating a dress boot that suits its legacy while also appealing more toward a younger consumer with a wider range of colours, fabrics, and textures. Yet, with classic forms and defined lines, these aren’t fast fashion, and Shoe the Bear designs its offerings to be worn across seasons, trends, and situations.
Today, the company manufactures its offerings by hand in Portugal and is a member of the Leather Working Group – often a sign of more responsible tanning practices.
Allen Edmonds marks one of the rare American brands that does a straight dress shoe – no hybrid construction, no athletic features, no work boot yearnings. Originating in the Midwest, the company still operates out of Wisconsin, crafting its mid-height boots using a 212-step process and vegetable-tanned leather sourced from Portugal. Toward sustainability objectives, the company has started incorporating both cork insoles and plant-based latex.
Top Higher-End Dress Boot Brands
Excluding luxury brands built on apparel, Northampton continues to rule and establish the standard for dress boots, standing on a couple centuries of history.
Considered one of the original Northampton brands, Grenson goes back over 150 years and, through hand-making boots, started deploying the Goodyear welting method before many competitors. Today, that eye toward advancement remains: While still standing upon traditional construction, Grenson added a vegan collection in 2020, uses olive tanning, considered a more sustainable method compared to chromium, and repairs and rebuilds customers’ shoes to extend their lifespan.
As far as style goes, traditional is the name of the game, with subtle changes – a thicker or heeled outsole, more prominent broguing – giving them a more modern feel.
Another Northampton brand, Tricker’s is Britain’s oldest shoemaker, performing its craft for close to a century.
The process behind each boot involves 265 steps, with all manufacturing done by skilled shoemakers in the company’s Northampton factory. What results reflects the reason we love dress boots in the first place – classic, with a hint of ruggedness alluding to the company’s hunting origins, and accented with subtle brogue details.
Yet, while Tricker’s strives to preserve the region’s craft, its methods evolve. Through a partnership with Weinheimer, the company has started using Olivvia leather, tanned with Olivenleder liquor, itself made from olive leaves and designed to be used as fertilizer following tanning.
Still a family-run shoemaking business, this British brand started over 150 years ago: Breaking out the Northampton factory narrative, founder John Lobb worked as an apprentice in London during the 1850s but also spent some time in Australia during its Gold Rush period, getting inspired to create a hollow-heeled boot. Lobb launched his first bespoke store in 1866 and expanded to Paris by the end of the century. While the intensive and customized process of bespoke shoemaking remains its core draw, the brand added a ready-to-wear line in the 1980s, with manufacturing done through a 190-step process in Northampton. Whatever suits you, each style maintains a balance between top-tier traditional quality and experimentation – see the incorporation of technical fabrics and a lighter sole unit, plus wider range of colour possibilities.
Looking for that aspirational pair of dress boots? John Lobb bases its bespoke services on many of its archival styles while broadening the range of colours and materials.
Crocket & Jones
While British heritage often gets talked about in the context of textiles, footwear stands on equally solid ground. Added to the list, Crockett & Jones not adds to Northampton’s legacy, but its designs have been featured in some of the more recent James Bond films.
While providing ready-to-wear offerings, Crocket & Jones takes roughly eight weeks to make a pair, sourcing its materials from Europe’s top tanneries, using a 200-step process, and adding a willow-grain finish for a more refined appearance. Beyond just the shoes, the brand continues to refine its lasts, resulting in one of the widest spectrums around and therefore suiting more foot widths and shapes.
Here, what you expect is what you get: elegantly smooth, both in texture and appearance, with thicker outsoles on its derbies in a nod to the shoe’s hunting origins.
Purists will tell you dress boots need to be in black or brown – or grey or tan for warmer weather or burgundy or navy if you have the social freedom. But, what if you’ve got absolutely no social expectations to adhere to and style feels like a world of boundless possibilities? Taft is your answer: No colourway or pattern is off limits, delivering modern-day dandy style in the process.
Taft got its start a decade ago and has since carved out a niche in the menswear market. Today, the brand manufactures its shoes and boots in Portugal, utilizing a mix of jacquard fabrics and full-grain Spanish leather and a grippier outsole, with the intent of creating a style that adds personality to formalwear and doesn’t feel out of place with more casual pieces.
With leather being the default material, finding a pair of vegan dress boots that won’t fall apart after a year proves to be a challenge.
Brave GentleMan launched with this mission back in 2010, and has since become a favourite of celebrities looking to avoid leather and wool. Today, the company’s line delivers classic style while still dabbling in more experimental areas – see the juxtaposition of derbies, oxfords, balmorals, and Chelsea boots in black and brown against less-conventional styles, thicker outsoles, and more casual sneaker boots.
Adding to the durability, most boots use Italian-made Oeko-Tex Standard 100 class I certified polyurethane microfiber that meets REACH Regulation 1907:2006 requirements – a material built to break down in a landfill environment and providing a longer lifespan than traditional PU. As well, with the options for vegan leather proliferating, they’ve since expanded into MIRUM®, a plant-based leather, and Appleskin, a partially bio-based material.
– Crockett & Jones
Joseph Cheaney & Sons
Joseph Cheaney & Sons launched in England toward the end of the 19th century and continues to embody British heritage, albeit with minor adjustments for a more style-minded consumer. Today, the company, now owned by Church’s, focus on a mix of elegance, precise fit, and details. Embodying that approach are balmorals with minimal seaming, derbies alluding to their heritage, and Chelseas with outsoles in various thicknesses. Within these templates, black and brown leather delivers as expected with a smooth appearance, while burgundy red and navy venture in the same direction as men’s suiting – still traditional, just reworked for someone not interested in playing by the rules.
Dress shoemaking in the U.S. reflects a bygone industry that’s essentially a memory. Alden continues to carry that legacy, both in where they’re located – still south of Boston, in Middleborough – and in the quality of the craftsmanship. Trailblazing the industry in the 19th century and preserving it in the 21st, Alden represents aspirational quality and design through its derby boots: Whether smooth or with broguing, they continue to use vegetable- or oak-tanned cordovan today, a steel shank for stability, and hand-finished construction that, similar to a leather jacket, adapts to the shape of your foot with time.