What are Boat Shoes?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Boat shoes, also known as deck shoes or top siders, have been popular casual footwear for men for decades. The original design inspiration for these shoes is believed to have been the American Indian moccasin, with its water-resistant hide, low profile and side lacing. Originally, boat shoes were meant to be worn while walking on the slippery deck of a boat. The leather uppers are treated with a water-repellent oil, and special non-skid rubber soles give the shoes adequate traction. The low profile, similar to that of a slipper or loafer, makes it easier to get in and out of the shoes quickly.

Boat shoes are designed after American Indian moccasins with a low profile and side lacing.
Boat shoes are designed after American Indian moccasins with a low profile and side lacing.

Fashionable Footwear

These shoes have become fashionable footwear and are considered to be less formal than dress shoes but more formal than loafers. Boat shoes suggest a casual athleticism and an eye toward style. This style of shoes can be worn with or without socks, although many traditionalists prefer a sockless appearance, perhaps stemming from the likelihood that the wearer might want to take off the shoes and go barefoot while on a boat or on the beach. Manufacturers often include removable sock pads for additional cushioning.

Also known as top siders, boat shoes are available in a variety of styles and may be worn with or without socks.
Also known as top siders, boat shoes are available in a variety of styles and may be worn with or without socks.

Matching Clothing

Some men find it difficult to decide between boat shoes and loafers for casual wear. Style experts suggest that loafers should be worn with "office casual" attire such as jeans and button-down shirts, and boat shoes should be worn with sportier ensembles that might include clothing such as khaki shorts and golf shirts or polo shirts. These shoes are considered to be a three-season item, so they should not be worn during the winter except in tropical areas that are warm even in the winter months.

Khaki pants, which are often worn with boat shoes.
Khaki pants, which are often worn with boat shoes.

Care and Cleaning

Although boat shoes are designed to withstand the rough conditions aboard a boat, they still require maintenance between wearings. A quality oil for leather should be applied regularly to the uppers to maintain their water resistance and suppleness. The insoles should be removed, sprayed with an approved shoe cleaner and allowed to air dry to prevent bacterial and fungal growth. Rubber soles that have begun to become worn away should be repaired or replaced to prevent slips on a wet deck.

Shopping Tips

Quality boat shoes are not going to be cheap, but they should last for several seasons without deterioration. Many shoe manufacturers and retailers use the terms "boat shoes" and "top siders" interchangeably, so someone who is looking to purchase a pair of these shoes should look for either description while shopping.

Boat shoes are usually worn with business casual attire.
Boat shoes are usually worn with business casual attire.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments

anon341206

Boat shoes are really stylish and always worn without socks. They are highly comfortable shoes.

anon230079

@anon12696: In winter, with everything, in summer, with shorts, t-shirts, and ankle socks black or of many colors of a darker hue, or simply sockless.

anon217863

Yikes, were some of you folks just born yesterday?

Boat shoes (a.k.a. "Top Siders", which is a brand name of the Sperry company) are just a camp style moccasin made of water resistant brown leather with, traditionally, a white rubber sole and leather laces to snug the shoe to your bare feet. The sole has fine sipes cut into it, providing traction on otherwise slippery boat decks. In short, it's a a simple, low key purpose-built moccasin. Top Siders were the more popular and famous but Sebago also made boat shoes. Both Sperry and Sebago were headquartered in Maine and that's where they used to make their shoes. Then the "Preppy" look took off and all of a sudden Top Siders were a fashion statement. They were a unique shoe.

Now, these days, you can find them in all manner of styles and there are a lot more wannabe makers. But the classics still exist. Unfortunately they are much more cheaply made than I remember them to be -- more of that good Chinese manufacturing for your hard earned American dollar.

Top Siders are "hottest for young guys"? Give me a break dude. And what do you wear with them? You gotta be kidding: jeans, khakis, shorts. Hell, up in New England you could wear them with slacks and sport jacket -- navy with brass buttons and no socks. Sheesh!

anon211356

Top-siders were very popular with young men and women who wore the 'preppy look' in the early 1980s, and I've noticed that top-siders have come back into style for both sexes.

anon206861

Boat shoes just should not be worn.

anon87387

I would say with shorts boat shoes should be sockless, or best with no show socks. But for long pants, just match the color of the socks to the pants.

I like boat shoes for any casual dress, (own at least six pair of different styles and colors) as long as I'm not wearing a suit I feel comfortable in them.

anon46189

Boat shoes are best worn without socks because a guy can slip the shoes off now and then and let his feet breathe; the look is hottest for younger guys with attractive, well-maintained feet to show off.

anon23851

Shoes like the Sperry Top-Sider are called deck shoes, but I hear that name in reference to the canvas double-gored slip-on sneaker, especially the Vans popularized by Sean Penn in "Fast Times."

anon12696

With what clothes would you wear a boat shoe? Not just for men, but for women also?

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