How did the penny loafer get its name? That's an easy one: People put pennies into the slots on the fronts. But why? Walk back in time a few decades in these comfortable slip-ons: Loafer lore includes 1890s Norwegian cattle farmers and salmon kings, '50s bad boy James Dean, '80s preppies, a Michael Jackson moonwalk or two, a Canadian prime minister's "Gucci gate" -- all the way to 2013, when Fashion Week models slouch or stalk the catwalks in these much-safer-than-stilettos standbys. Pennies, as usual, are optional.
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The loafer came to the U.S. after the post-World War I "Lost Generation" wandered into Norway and brought back comfortable leather shoes like those worn by cattle farmers there, according to an account in "The New York Times." G.H. Bass began making them in 1936 and called them "Weejuns" -- sounding faintly Native American, but in fact a contraction of Norwegians. Meanwhile, Norwegian shoemaker Aurland had made a lace-up predecessor for British salmon lords in Norway and took a prototype to sell at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, according to the company's website. Aurland took inspiration from America -- Native American moccasins -- that evolved into selling its own version of the penny loafer. "Loafer" because they were comfortable shoes for lounging -- their journey, however, would take them from boardrooms to classrooms around the world.
Penny and Change
Putting a penny in each shoe might have become a trend so young teens could call home for a ride back when pay phones were cheaper. This soon became a dime to keep up with pay-phone inflation; by the mid-1970s, phone calls cost 25 cents. Quarters wouldn't fit in the shoes, but by then people were wearing Earth shoes, clogs or platform heels, so it didn't matter. Loafers, however, were just taking a well-deserved break before the next step in fashion history.
Except for that blip in the 1970s, loafers were worn by men, women and schoolchildren: "In the United States, the supremacy of the Bass Weejun was unchallenged — from James Dean to J.F.K., everyone wore them," according to "The New York Times." Dean brought "Rebel Without a Cause" charisma to what otherwise would be just an old shoe. Prep students wore them without socks, sometimes repairing them with duct tape. And in 1980, a book called "The Preppy Handbook" brought back all things pink, green and prep, including the loafer. In the early 1980s, Michael Jackson made black loafers his dancing shoes -- worn with white or sparkling socks -- for "Beat It" and "Billie Jean," creating a cultural icon.
More Loafer Lore
Although the kids made loafers a fashion statement, the suits in business and politics never gave up on them. Gucci had crafted a loafer "with just enough formality to make it acceptable in business settings when worn with a suit," according to "The New York Times." In 1987, Canada's Prime Minister Brian Mulroney became embroiled in "Gucci gate" when it became known that he owned 50 pairs, worth thousands of dollars. And a dressier penny-loafer alternative, the tasseled loafer, became an epithet for attorneys when the first President Bush groused that Bill Clinton was backed by "every lawyer that ever wore a tasseled loafer."
More Fashion Mileage
Whether you like your footwear old-school or fashion-forward, you won't have to walk far to find penny loafers to suit. In addition to traditional black, brown and cordovan, shoemakers offer them in green (Yuketen), blue suede (Rockport) or brown-and-camel leather and suede (Berluti Albert) for men. Women can choose from black and leopard (Ellen Tracy), silver (Cole Haan), red (Tory Burch) and even high-heel pumps (Charles Jourdan), among many others. During fall/winter 2013-14 Milan Fashion Week, No. 21's runway show put the penny loafer through paces -- some worn '80s style with Swarovski sparkling socks.