white shoe

The adjective white shoe is used in the United States to denote the establishment, the privileged, moneyed, and usually conservative, elites who traditionally run American businesses. But why white shoes?

The term dates to the 1940s when it was fashionable at Ivy League schools to wear shoes made of white leather, so-called white bucks. There is this from the Princeton Alumni Weekly of 21 November 1947:

The white-shoe boys will get their course selections in on time from now on or else, according to a recent ruling by the Board of Trustees.

And this from Esquire magazine in September 1953 more fully explains the fashion:

America’s premier student of snobs and brows peers through the ivied windows at hallowed precincts and their new social hierarchy of White Shoe, Brown Shoe, Black Shoe [...] The term derives, as you probably know, from the dirty white bucks which are the standard collegiate footwear (you can buy new ones already dirty in downtown New York to save you the embarrassment of looking as though you hadn’t had them all your life), but the system of pigeonholing by footwear does not stop there. It encompasses the entire community under the terms White Shoe, Brown Shoe, and Black Shoe.

It’s good to know that the market for pre-made, distressed clothing didn’t start in the 1990s with jeans.

Within a decade or so, white shoe was being applied to those businesses traditionally owned and managed by those Ivy League elites, especially banks and law firms. In so doing, the term took on racial implications. There is this from the American Sociological Review in 1960:

Even “white shoe” firms are now recruiting Jewish lawyers.

And this from the 2 December 1983 New York Times associates the color of the shoes with race:

Morgan Stanley & Company, the whitest of the white-shoe investment banking firms.


Source:

Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, March 2015, s. v. white-shoe, adj.

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