The common notion is that black goes with everything, but that isn’t entirely true. It’s fair to say that black can go with nearly any color, but as with any other hue in the spectrum, there’s a few items that will not mix with classic black. Brown shoes put against a set of black pants are the biggest offender, but that’s typically because the people trying to pull it off aren’t following a few basic rules. They end up making the whole style look like the sartorial equivalent of a mullet: business on most of it with an awkward inclusion of casualness that ruins the entire look.
Know Your History
Brown shoes with black slacks or jeans is a classic look that harkens back to a time when shoe leather was commonly brown, with only upper-crust dandies able to spring for the rarer black leather choices. Brown served to look good even when dirty, matched with nearly as many colors as black, and allowed shoes to serve dual purposes as work boots and dress shoes for more formal occasions, such as going to church.
This is important because you need to know the style you’re trying to attain. The black trousers with black shoes look is more recent, and far more formal. It follows the more modern trend of sleekness and slickness, which hasn’t always been in style. A few hundred years ago, a man wearing black from chin to toe was either lazy, a priest, or an undertaker. Sometimes all three. Before that plague doctors were one of the few who would dress entirely in black, which wasn’t a look that anyone would want.
Thus, you should recognize that when putting brown shoes with black, you should be thinking in terms of James Dean, English businessmen, and icons from the early 20th century.
Formal, Business, Casual, or Business Casual
In knowing the look you’re trying to achieve, you should also be thinking about where you’re going to be wearing this black pant/brown shoe combo. The simple rule here is that the lighter the shade of brown the shoe, the more casual it’s going to appear.
The reason for this is that a natty black over a beige or a tan shoe makes the appearance top-heavy. It also creates a lot of contrast between your shoes and your pants, which is always a sign of casualness. Consider how quickly an Armani suit will look like a mistake when paired with a set of sterling white tennis shoes. It’s impossible to take a person in that attire seriously, and the same is true – to a lesser degree – if you opt for a sandy brown set of loafers or boat shoes with a nice pair of tuxedo pants.
The lesson here is the more formal the gathering, the darker you want the brown of your shoes to be. While that rule isn’t hard and fast, it’s a simple first step to avoid making a faux pas.
Finish and Shape
These are the other aspects to consider when you’re reaching for your shoe tree. While darker browns are generally more formal, showing up in a pair of dark chocolate slippers to a wedding is going to garner more rolled eyes than were you to pick a tasteful Oxford, even if they were done in a walnut tint.
Shape should be your paramount concern, since the cut of your shoes is going to set the tone. More formal shoes are generally more pointed, tapering at the end. They also bear less tread than motorcycle or work boots, since they’re intended to be worn only in offices and on paved streets.
More formal shoes are also generally cut lower, since they don’t need to support your ankle during rigorous activity, like hiking or days on the job site.
The more formal the event you’re going to, the more the cut of your shoe should reflect a formal style, even if the color is a bit brighter. The more casual or relaxed, the more you can wear both whatever color shoe you wish, in any cut you like.
The watchword here is Shine. Shiny shoes look like they’re more dressed up because they have extra sparkle. The more matte a shoes appearance, the more casual it is considered. Any old set of cowboy boots can look fairly dressy if they’re paired with the right pants and clearly shined to the nines. Conversely, the nicest monk straps will make you a laughingstock if that have been left to flounder in disrepair.
This facet applies both ways, as shiny, dressed-up shoes with worn black jeans can throw your entire look off. Typically if you’re going to be in a formal or business environment, choose shoes that you can shine. If you have a set of suede shoes or boots that don’t need to have grease applied, they’re better on either casual or business casual days. The softer the lines of a shoe, the more relaxed it appears, while the harder the exterior look, the more it belongs at a jacket-and-tie excursion.
Something to consider when picking an outfit is what kind of polish you put on your shoes, since a different sheen can completely change how your shoes look. If you’re trying to tone down a set of a tawny shoes, or trying to give spunk to a set of deep brown, going with a reddish polish can make a world of difference, as the red will more effectively set off the black of your pants, and help make other reds in your outfit pop.
There’s no hard and fast way to make a determination of what polish will work, but it’s best to think of the polish as you would a pocket square. It’s there to set off other parts of the outfit. We suggest looking at what shirt, jacket, or tie you intend on wearing with the shoes and trying to incorporate a color or colors from that. That way your shoes look like they’re in league with other aspects of your outfit, which shows intention to your garb.
Black Suit with Brown Shoes
If you’re not just wearing a pair of black pants, but a whole black suit, focus much more on the cut of the shoe and trying to match it to your other accessories. That is, assuming you’re going somewhere that requires a suit. If you like to relax your suit to show you don’t take yourself too seriously, anything can work, but be careful. A set of brown slip-ons that you think make you look relaxed could actually make you seem sloppy.