The word Balmoral ("Bal"), in shoe terminology, refers the way certain shoes tie up, also known as closed lacing.  Picture a shoe (please note that we are specifically talking about dress shoes here) with the toe up.  Now superimpose a capital "T" on top, with the vertical part of the T at the opening between the eyelets.  In a Balmoral shoe, the horizontal part of the T is where the flaps for the eyelets (the "quarters") would be sewn down, with the vamp on top.  When properly tied, only the tip of the tongue can be seen on a Balmoral.  This is as opposed to a Blucher shoe, which has open lacing, wherein the quarters are not sewn down at the top at all, and can flap open. Because of the way a Bal is sewn, the part of the shoe around the ball of the foot can only be one circumference and is not adjustable; therefore, people with narrow or wide foot can find it more difficult to fit. A good illustration of a Balmoral shoe can be found here, and an example can be found here.

In the world of traditional fashion, only Bals may be worn with a suit; Bluchers are relegated to less formal wear, such as with a blazer or sport coat.  However, this is often disregarded, particularly in the US, where it is not uncommon to find Bluchers and even loafers paired with a suit.  Still, the Balmoral is considered the dressiest kind of shoe. Shoe terminology does tend to differ from country to country, and even shoemaker to shoemaker.  For example, in the UK, the Bal is commonly known as an Oxford and the Blucher as a Derby.  In the US, however, the term Derby is not used, and both Balmoral- and Blucher-style shoes are known as Oxford shoes.  However, in both countries, the words "Balmoral" or"closed lacing" should convey the desired style of shoe.

 

 

Originally the residence of Sir William Drummond in 1390, The Balmoral Estate, located in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, changed ownership several times before the 19th century. Today Balmoral Castle is the private property of the British royal family. It was added by ruling monarchs Prince Albert and Queen Victoria who leased the property in 1848 before purchasing it outright in 1852. Knowledge of current events can be helpful when determining why a style or brand became popular. Certainly clothing or footwear that was endorsed by royalty would attract notice. Wars fought during this century brought different styles of boots into civilian life and the cattle dependent methods of transportation also played a role in determining which footwear was donned by whom.  

During the French Revolution many artisans fled the country. Other disenfranchised peoples from southeastern Europe were drawn to England, specifically to the city of London which was the capital hub of the empire on which the sun never set. Boasting work opportuntities, commerce, finance, industry, and an appreciation of the arts, this metropolitan area included areas to ride and promenade so that one could be seen while seeing social equals, betters, and inferiors. While Paris remained the dictator of women's apparel at the time, London was regarded as the trendsetter for men's styles and fashions, particularly after a gentleman named George Bryan Brummell appeared on the scene.

While Brummell is frequently pictured wearing flawlessly polished full length boots the Balmoral was a mid-calf height boot that gained popularity after Prince Albert was spotted wearing the alleged John Lobb creation at his country home in Scotland during the 1850s. John Lobb, founded in 1849, still produces bespoke goods today. The shop has Queen Victoria's lasts however there does not appear to be a reliable primary source that would definitively answer the question of whose craftsmanship appeared on the Prince's feet. Regardless of who wore or made the boots they became a footwear tradition that has stood the test of time. While Balmoral still refers to the Scottish castle sources indicate that the word balmoral was incorporated into the colloquial speech of the day; the term was used to denote anything 'smart, good' or up and coming.

A sleek, trim, boot that initially featured five or six eyelets; Balmoral footwear is easily identified by a seam that runs parallel to the earth. The Balmoral seam originates at the throatline near the vamp of the shoe where right and left stitchery part to meet at the rear of the shoe. This seam divides the shoe into upper and lower portions with bootmakers naming the portion above the stitching the top. This distinction is important as Balmoral boots can feature contrasting vamps, quarters, and tops. As time progressed the Balmoral boot was shortened, probably during the earlier decades of the 20th century, today Balmoral boots are rare so this footwear term applies almost exclusively to dress shoes for men.

Balmoral as a regional term is somewhat flexible as nyte mentions. Americans in particular may mistakenly refer to any type of closed lace Oxford style shoe as a Balmoral however without the seam a shoe loses the Balmoral distinction. Oxford tie, Blucher, Derby, Gibson, and Balmoral are all terms that can cause confusion even among professionals. Blucher or Derby/Gibson shoes have side pieces that are sewn onto the shoe over the tongue, this increases the throat opening making these shoes a preferred choice for those whose foot girth or height does not permit the wearing of a Balmoral styled shoe or boot. While Wikipedia and other sites state that Balmoral is a lacing system, experts agree that the characteristic seam is what makes a particular shoe or boot a bona fide Balmoral.

While nyte's writeup is informative one distinction ought to be noted. Beribboned opera pumps, typically worn by royalty and statesmen, are the dressiest footwear available for men. A step down from this class would be patent leather dress shoes, these special occasion shoes usually accompany a tuxedo which few routinely wear and even fewer own. Journeying further down the men's dress shoe ladder brings a wearer to the Balmoral shoe which, when paired with appropriate dress attire, is suitable for formal events that do not require a tuxedo.

Other popular men's footwear styles worn during the 1800's were boots including the tassled, v-notched Hessians, forerunner of the similarly notched modern cowboy boot. Blucher was another type of boot that broke the military/civilian barrier when Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher purportedly ordered them for the men who served under him. London residents and visitors may want to stop by John Lobb for a look at a miniature of the boots Napoleon wore onto the battlefield. Reportedly they came to him for inspection first and although he eventually fell to the Duke of Wellington the historical importance of boots worn by soldiers and how they were modified and/or adapted is a topic that deserves mention in any 19th century footwear discussion. For an introduction to the topic please visit Ashley Pomeroy's writeup under combat boots.

True Balmorals are considered the gold standard when it comes to proper dress shoes. Shoe horns and trees will preserve the shape and integrity of footwear, adding longevity to the lifespan. Torque and shock break down shoes however these forces will also help a well made leather shoe conform to an individual foot. Black Balmoral shoes with a plain toe cap or discrete broguing can be worn to board meetings, job interviews, funerals, to court, and should provide their wearer with ultimate comfort regardless of how long an event lasts. Popularized by royalty, named after a castle, denoted by the seam and closed toe lacing system Balmoral style shoes remain a classic wardrobe item more than a hundred and fifty years after their inception.

Sources:

  1. Historical information on London districts
  2. List of wars during the Nineteenth century
  3. 1800-1899 Time Line
  4. Balmoral Castle source
  5. Excerpt from a book with pictures of different boot types
  6. Basic shoe anatomy reference
  7. Blog with closeup of the Balmoral seam
  8. While nyte has linked an image of a proper Balmoral shoe, note that the drawing, labeled as Oxford, is missing the Balmoral seam.

Bal*mor"al (?), n. [From Balmoral Castle, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.]

1.

A long woolen petticoat, worn immediately under the dress.

2.

A kind of stout walking shoe, laced in front.

A man who uses his balmorals to tread on your toes. George Eliot.

 

© Webster 1913.

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