Swing Shoes 101

What IS the difference between:

--a Captoe and a Wingtip?
--a Medallion and a Perforation?
--a Blucher and a Balmoral?
--a Mary Jane and a Pump?

Everybody asks us about these terms...
So we made a page to explain a whole bunch of stuff you'll want to know if you're a shoe lover. Most of these terms are those that would come up in conversation with a swing dancer, therefore you won't find anything about flip-flops or cross-trainers here.

On this page:
- Basic Swing Shoe Anatomy
- Swing Shoe Styles and Styling
- Common Swing Shoe Detailing and Materials
- Swing Shoe Parts and Other Terms


Shoe Glossary Shoe Diagram Parts

A simplified explanation of footwear construction:

  • After the upper has been sewn (it often looks like a hat worn by poker dealers - with a bill & a strap in the back) the shoe is finished by placing the upper around the last, pulling it with pliers until it's tight, hammering tacks into the last to hold it in place (that's why lasts are wood) and then hammering the upper until it conforms to the shape of the last.
  • The bottom edges of the shoe are then trimmed (and for welted footwear, the welt is sewn on) and the sole is glued and sewn to the upper.
  • After the glue dries, the last is then pulled out so the footbed (or insole) can be inserted.
  • No matter what fancy designs you make on the upper, the last determines how good or bad a shoe will look, much the same way clothes fit... if they are shaped strangely, it doesn't matter what color or material your shirt or pants are, they will still just look terrible. And if you have an ugly last, the shoe can be made of the finest materials and fanciest design and still be ugly!

Did you know?

About re-dyeing shoes
Your local cobbler can dye existing shoes any color you wish. The process that's used when done properly is to strip the existing color off with acid - right down to the grey leather, then apply the color you want. After it's shined up, it is virtually impossible to tell that the new color wasn't the original. We have seen this done to a black pair of captoes that the owner wanted to change to white. If you'd like to waste an afternoon and ruin your shoes just buy a bottle of shoe dye and apply it to your shoes so the color can crack off when you walk in them.

About stretching shoes
Shoes can be stretched by a cobbler who inserts a shoe stretcher into the shoe, moistens the upper, and turns a screw which opens the stretcher to widen the shoe. It is stretched for a period between a few minutes to overnight. Back in the day it was expected that one would have to "wear in" their brand new shoes. Modern shoes have almost no break-in period, but, it could be argued, a shorter expected lifespan because of this.

About Shoe Sizing
Why doesn't everybody know their exact shoe size?
First, because there is no standard global system - you can wear one "size" in Europe, a different one in Australia, in Asia, the U.S. and England. Second, because of a practice as old as the village shoemaker and his own personal size numbering system, big companies today (mostly athletic footwear manufacturers) will inspire customer loyalty by making sure their sizing system doesn't exactly match anyone else's sizing ("Wow - I never fit Nikes! But I always fit Adiddas. I wonder why?"). Aris Allen is not so proprietary! They strive to make sure their sizing matches closely to the sizing system employed by the big dress shoe manufacturers who make sure you fit the same size in any style in their line as well as when you cross over to a different brand. To test this theory: go into a Nordstroms or Saks and try on 5 different brands of dress Oxfords all in the same size. Then try the same thing at an athletic footwear shop. You'll be surprised.

Straight-Soled Shoes
Before the Middle Ages, shoemakers made individual lasts for the left and right foot. During the Middle Ages, this practice was lost and most shoes weren't even made on a last. If a last was used it was usually the same one for both the left and right shoes. In the middle of the 1800's the asymmetrical last regained favor and shoes fit much better than before. Much like many advances that are made in medicine, the asymmetrical shape coming back into vogue had to do with war. Apparently there was so much marching during the American Civil War (1861-1865) that straight soles were abandoned because breaking them in was uncomfortable and could cause blisters. Not such a problem when you're living at home and can change in to your slippers - but when out in the elements, fighting a war, marching to either evade or keep up with your adversaries; blisters and marching slower due to pain could be a life-threatening problem.

About the difference between Shoemakers & Cobblers
Shoemakers make shoes, Cobblers fix them.

About "Chrome Leather" - Chromium vs. Vegetable Tanned Leather

Vegetable Tanning - used for jackets, pants, and the uppers of shoes:
Leather can be preserved by tanning using tannins found in oak, spruce, mimosa, mangrove or acorns which makes it yellowish or beige in color.

Chromium Tanning - used for the soles of dance shoes, leather car seats, furniture:
Leather can also be tanned with Chromium Salts, hence the term for suede adhered to the bottom of dance shoes: "Chrome Leather" or "Chromed" shoes. This gives the leather a distinctive greyish-blue look. Another term for this is "Wet-Blue".

The soles and lining of most leather shoes are made with Vegetable Tanned Leather, but the bottoms of most dance shoes are covered with Chrome Leather Suede. This makes the suede bottoms more durable and allows them to be brushed clean so they grip the floor better (but don't do this for swing dancing!!). Aris Allens are made for the rigors and zippy moves of swing dancing so they are either soled with hard leather or Chrome Leather Suede. The latter functions similar to hard leather because it holds a shine beautifully which makes it easier to spin on and protects your knees in the process. For swing dancing they are not supposed to be brushed (like ballroom dancers do) and should be allowed to build up a mirror-like finish on the bottom.

Shoes that barely grip the floor are part of why the good dancers you watch have that "how do they do that - it looks like they're dancing on clouds" look that we all strive for. You will never get that wearing cross-trainers.



Shoe Glossary Captoe

A Captoe is a shoe that has a cap at the toe that looks like the letter D. See [D] in the photo to the left. Converse All Star (or "Chucks") are also Captoes.


Shoe Glossary Wingtip

A Wingtip is a shoe with a toe cap that resembles the letter "W". See [C] in the photo on the left. It is known as a "Flying Wing", hence: "Wing" Tip.

Balmorals and Oxfords

Shoe Glossary Balmoral

BalmoralA Balmoral (or "Bal") refers to the way an Oxford style shoe ties up. See the little upside-down T pic? The horizontal line on the T is a good representation of the way a Balmoral is sewn at the bottom of the lace-up area. See [A] in the photo to the right. A Bal is far less adjustable than a Blucher because the bottom of the lace-up part of the shoe is sewn down, so the part of the shoe around the ball of the foot can only be one circumference and cannot be adjusted smaller or larger. Because of the lesser adjustability of a Bal, it is not as easy to fit people with narrow or wide feet. When properly tied, only the tip of the shoe's tongue can be seen. "Balmoral" refers to the castle in England of the same name and comes from Prince Albert taking an extended holiday at the castle in the mid 1800's while wearing a pair of boots made for him that had this type of construction for the lacing.

Bluchers and Derbys

Shoe Glossary Blucher

A Blucher, also known as a Derby, refers to a shoe with "open lacing". See the little brackets pic? That is a good representation of the way Blucher acts. It is far more adjustable than a Balmoral because the bottom of the fly (where the eyelets are) is not sewn down, so it can be pulled tight or allowed to be more open in the area around the ball of the foot. See [B] in the photo. Because of the greater adjustability of a Blucher, it is much easier to fit people with narrow or wide feet than a Balmoral will be. The tongue on a Blucher is usually just an extension of the vamp of the shoe. The vamp is the part of the shoe directly over the ball of the foot. (see Derby below). Named after Prussian field marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, Duke of Wahlstadt (1742-1819) who ordered these for his soldiers (he fought against Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo).
Saddle Shoes A Saddle Shoe is constructed with a piece of leather sewn across the middle top of the shoe down to the sole that is reminiscent of the saddle on a horse. The "Saddle" part is often darker than the rest of the shoe (black, brown or red).

Loafers and Moccasins

Loafers and Moccasins are slip-on shoes usually with rounded fronts that are built more for comfort than style. Often the entire shoe is constructed from just 2 pieces of leather which form a bag-like shoe that consists of a bowl shaped piece of leather that has an "apron" of leather sewn to the top front.

Moc Toe

Shoe Glossary Moc-Toe Oxford

Pictured here is a "Moc-Toe" Oxford. This term refers to a walled toe and vamp on any style shoe that is sewn like the front of most Moccasins and Loafers. Casual shoes and work boots often have this construction.

Mary Janes

Women's shoes that have a strap across the middle to hold the shoe on the foot. A "Three-Bar" Mary Jane means it has 3 straps.
Flats A Flat is a women's shoe with very little or no heel.

Wedges or Wedgies

 Shoe Glossary Wedge Shoe

Popular in the 1940s and 1950s and revived in the 1970s these are women's shoes, often open toed and open backed, that have a one-piece sole that is shaped like a wedge. They can be slip on, lace up or buckled. Click here to see how to properly size your heel on a Wedge.
Peep-toes Peep-toe refers to a shoe with an open toe, usually cut out rounded or V-shaped.
Platforms A Platform is a shoe with a thickened sole that is literally a platform under the shoe.
Pumps Women's shoes that slip on. Normally they are dress shoes and have a closed toe and sides.
Mules A Mule is a slip-on women's shoe with no back.
Slides A Slide is a Mule that is constructed with just one piece of fabric going over the foot - open toed.
Slingbacks A Slingback is a women's shoe with a strap going around the heel.



Shoe Glossary Medallion

A Medallion is that little doohickey on the toe of many fancy dress shoes and is almost always symmetrical. It is made by punching small holes in the shoe. Usually Medallions are purely ornamental, but they are sometimes will be used to cool the foot by allowing air to flow through the holes that make up the design.


Shoe Glossary Brogueing

Brogueing or "Perforations" refers to the holes in shoes that make an ordinary shoe look snazzy. Legend holds that holes in shoes were put there by the Scottish who had to step in and out of bogs all day (back before malls were built) and they needed a shoe that would allow good drainage. This is sometimes dismissed as bunk since holes would also allow water IN. As we're no longer living in bogs, today brogueing is used to emphasize the seams that define the design of a shoe.

Cutouts and Cutwork

Cutouts generally refers to ornamental openings on the uppers of women's shoes. The edges of cutouts are sometimes finished with stitching, binding or a "bead" of material. Cutwork generally refers to stencil-like designs cut into women's footwear, usually on the front or top side of the shoe.
French Binding Describes the finish on the top (topline) of a shoe made by sewing a strip of fabric along it. It is often skipped on modern shoe designs.


The zig-zag crocodile teeth style of cutting on the edge of some shoes is called Gimping. It is machine cut, much like a sewing machine and serves not only as a decoration, but to make weakly cut edges more palatable. Also called pinking or saw-toothed.
Patent Leather Patent Leather is leather that has been coated with a resin varnish and heated to form a shiny mirror-like finish (modern patent is often plastic or plastic-coated leather). Patent is see-your-face-in-it shiny; a process that originally involved applying a linseed oil based dressing (we have also heard of using a resin coating and baking it to a high-gloss finish). Nowadays most patent footwear is actually just shiny plastic.
Nappa Leather Nappa Leather is the smooth, slightly shiny leather found on most dress shoes. Basically it's what one might call "regular" shoe leather. 
Nubuck Nubuck (or Nubuc) refers to leather that has been "bucked" or brushed to a velvety nap. Similar to suede, but much finer and velvety, so that it feels chamois-like on the surface.


 Aglet An Aglet is the protective tip on the end of a shoelace.
 Bespoke Like clothing, many shoes are hand made. Bespoke refers to custom-made one-at-a-time footwear - often the shoe maker will keep the last that was custom made for the customer in their shop, expecting that they will order another pair. The term Bespoke is also used to describe custom made clothing
Fly Just like the "Fly" in your pants: the Fly on a shoe is the part that holds the eyelets. You may wonder why your jeans have a zipper but the lace-up part of your shoe is named the same... Well, before zippers, the fly was buttoned or laced. Yay zippers!
Last A shape or form, usually made of wood (often oak or hornbeam), that represents the space inside a shoe. It is used (upside down - heel up) to construct the shoe and give it shape.
Shank Spring A steel Spring or Shank is inserted between the insole and the sole of the shoe and gives the shoe support and keeps the heel from wobbling. It is not spiral, rather it is flat and has a ridge in it to give it extra stability.
Spectators Spectator refers to two contrasting tones being used in the design of the shoe. Two-tone wingtips and captoes are refered to as being Spectators. Spectator shoes were associated with Jazz musicians during the 1920's and 1930's and are still considered stylish today (as it should be!) for dressy and festive occasions for many styles of dress. They are also favored by dancers and musicians wishing to revive the classic styles of the Jazz and Swing Eras.
Another reason for dancers to sport Spectators: Dancers want to both "see and be seen". That's why most swing dances are held with the lights on. White shoes and Spectators are excellent ways to draw attention to your feet.
Suede Suede is leather that has a rough nap. Nubuc Suede is sanded to a smooth finish.
Welt Construction The Welt is a strip of leather that is sewn to the outside of the bottom part of the uppers and then bent outward and sewn onto the top outside of the sole. If the shoe is sewn directly to the sole, the part of the sole that sticks out around the shoe can be referred to as the Welt. It is very difficult to dance in shoes with a thick or strong welt, as going up on the toes or leaning to either side will cause a "dancing on snow shoes" effect that minimizes your ability to feel the floor. Men's ballroom shoes traditionally are made with no sole sticking out at all and because of this can have a rather feminine look.


The author of this little shoe terms compendium is not an expert in the field and has simplified most of the terms for brevity and simplicity's sake. It is not meant to be the last word on the subject.