The Cobbler, the Archer, and Cordovan Leather

“Smear a little oxblood on that horse rump leather and you just might have something.”

Cordovan leather is highly esteemed for its:

  • Durability
  • Protective qualities
  • Supreme Suppleness
  • Innate ability to Self-maintain

Cordovan the leather is exceedingly non-porous and is used to make the uppers of premium quality shoes as well as being the leather of choice for finger protection tabs for archers. (There, now the title makes sense.) If you thought that cordovan was a color, be assured that cordovan is a certain kind of leather.

Cordovan also refers to a color (at least since 1925), which is occasionally the cause of some confusion. The production of cordovan leather can be traced as far back as the 7th Century and the oh-so neighborly Visigoths. I’m guessing that they used it mostly to protect their feet, maybe for shields, but also for whips and other methods of torturing those they sought to conquer.

If a customer tells me “I could use a new pair of those cordovan loafers,” my first question is: does he mean the color or the specific leather, or both? Today a customer asked me if burgundy (also understood as cordovan, Bordeaux, or possibly Brandy) is coming back…into fashion? My answer: Yes, it would seem that way, albeit very slowly. Brown tones still dominate for shoe and belt options other than black, but a slightly reddish tone shoe is versatile and very appealing, especially with blue toned clothing.

Whey wearing khakis, some version of a cordovan penny loafer (the color for sure and why not the leather as long as well) is standard issue. The cordovan wingtip pictured below could easily be worn with jeans, but is an ideal complement to a traditional gray suit, be it flannel or a harder finished worsted. Styled correctly the suit would be a soft roll three button with a center vent, flat front pants with a cuff of 1 ½” to 1 ¾” wide.

And think about it: if the color is one of the distinctive qualities of the most sought after grape varietal/cellar worthy wine on the planet, shouldn’t it be equally as appealing to the eye in the context of a well-coordinated clothing ensemble? And when you consider the price of a case of fine Bordeaux, the cost of a pair of these beauties should be of little concern.

Cordovan the leather, commonly referred to as shell cordovan, is a type of leather used mostly for making shoes. Cordovan is equine leather made from the fibrous flat muscle (or shell) beneath the rump of a horse….thus the equine reference. The leather derives its name from the city of Cordoba, Spain where it was originally developed by the Moors.

After removal from the animal, the hide is measured from the root of the tail up the backbone about 18 inches. The hide is cut at right angles to the backbone and the resulting pieces termed a “front” (the forward part) and the “butt”. The term cordovan leather applies to the product of both the tanned fronts and tanned butts, but is especially used in connection with the shell of the butt.

After being tanned, leather from the “front” is typically used in the fabrication of gloves or blackened to be used for shoe uppers. The “butt,” after tanning, is passed through a splitting machine which removes the grain, or hair side, revealing what is termed the “shell”. The close fibers of the shell exhibit a smooth and pliable leather used almost exclusively in the manufacture of shoes and, as previously mentioned, the manufacture of finger protection tabs for recreational archery, where it is prized for its toughness, longevity, and protective qualities. Each shell, and there are two per horse, is enough leather to make one shoe. So if you notice that the price of a quality pair of cordovan leather shoes is a bit more than calfskin, consider the relative scarcity and exclusivity as well as the prized qualities inherent in the leather.

Whether in the color known as cordovan, or in black or brown, if you have yet to indulge in some fine “shell” cordovan (the leather) shoes, you owe it to yourself to get a pair. May I suggest that you choose a relatively classic style because they will outlast anything else you will invest in for your wardrobe.

Sartorial Regards,

P.S. Allen Edmonds offers several styles in shell cordovan. (See page 19 and 20 of AE catalog) Allen Edmonds purchases cordovan that is tanned at the Horween tannery in Chicago, the only remaining tannery in the U.S.A. that works with cordovan and one of the finest in the world.

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