Kent Wang

Blue suit, brown shoes – a timeless combination or a mistake?

The combination of a crisp blue suit with polished leather brown shoes strikes most people as the epitome of class. When you look deeper, however, the professional world seems to disapprove.

In September 2016, a report by the Social Mobility Commission showed that some candidates were not successful at interview because they wore brown shoes. The report (titled the Socio-Economic Diversity in Life Sciences and Investment Banking – catchy) states “relatively opaque codes of conduct also extend to dress. To provide one example, for men, the wearing of brown shoes with a business suit is generally (though not always) considered unacceptable by and for British bankers within the investment banking (corporate finance) division.”

Of course, what you wear when going for a job matters – we all know the importance of first impressions. According to the report, however, these rigid criteria have “set up barriers for individuals from non-privileged backgrounds”. Certainly, if these unspoken criteria are only passed down through tips from family members who have worked in the city, ensuring equality and access is clearly an issue. Many non-privileged students will not have had the chance to make connections with those in positions to know the rules. One second-year English undergraduate remarked “A blue suit and brown shoes is a vaguely obnoxious combination, perhaps because it is a half-hearted attempt at rebellion, nodding towards individuality without really taking any risks.”

When paired with a blue suit, brown shoes look better, clash less, and are easier to wear in a mixture of settings.

Yet, there is a huge difference even in the shoe styles and the shades of brown: a dark chestnut brown cannot be compared to a light tan, or a lace-up to a slip-on. One St Catherine’s College undergraduate remarked “I don’t mind the blue suit and brown shoes as long as the shoes are dark brown, not tan or light, and there is a matching dark brown belt”. Arguably, brown shoes are much more relaxed than black and a darker brown may give the illusion of the classic black formal shoe we all know. However, when paired with a blue suit, brown shoes look better, clash less, and are easier to wear in a mixture of settings.

Our younger generation seem to enjoy the “stylish twist on a classic idea” (as one Law undergraduate put it) with much less prejudice than our older counterparts in the city. Searches for blue suits for grooms in wedding planning have gone up 90% over the past year according to a report by Pinterest, and another student said “I find black shoes either too corporate or for a funeral”.

Our attitudes are clearly changing on the well-known combination and this is to be welcomed. Brown shoes can be seen as much more versatile – paired with a suit for work, or with a pair of jeans for an evening look. In our fast-paced world we need adaptability. If the goal for our society is choosing the best candidate for the job, the simplicity of the (actually stylish) brown shoes shouldn’t be a hindrance. Hopefully with the progress and open-mindedness our generation provides, we will not be judged solely on our appearance, but on our ability and potential to do the job we have chosen.

If in doubt, stick to the traditional – a smart black or dark grey suit/skirt paired with black, shined shoes and a white shirt would work well for any interview. The irony of an “opaque” code of conduct is not lost upon us and the “no brown in town” rule is still present… for now.