Ode to Nettleton Shoes, Golden Age of Haberdashery
Reprinted from the June issue of PineStraw magazine.
Not long ago, my friend Ron Crow dropped into the PineStraw world headquarters with something in a bag.
“I have something special to show you,” he said. “You may have never seen anything quite like them.”
With this, he opened the bag and withdrew a pair of two-toned, black and white Nettleton tassel loafers. They were in mint condition, containing their original shoe trees, no less. In a word, I was speechless.
Growing up in Greensboro, where Nettleton tassel loafers enjoyed iconic status among men of style and ambition, it was impossible not to know of — and dream of someday owning — a pair of real Nettleton loafers. My first pair came when I was 15. But more on that in a Broad Street minute.
As I admitted to Ron, who now calls the Sandhills home, I knew Nettletons came in an array of famous colors — black, brown, British tan and Cordovan. But I had no clue they came in two-toned black and white as well.
He smiled. “They even came in alligator.”
“Did you have those, too?”
“Nope. I had black and the British tan and these. These were very special, maybe a one-time deal, I don’t quite recall. I bought them around 1966 or so. Funny story about them, though. Tells you about the appeal of Nettletons.”
Crow was a rising young executive for J.P. Stevens in those days. Not long after he bought his two-tone Nettletons he wore them at a business convention at the posh Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla.
“I was walking beside the pool when a well-dressed fellow said to me, ‘I know this may sound strange but I want to buy your shoes.’ I thought he was kidding but he was dead serious. ‘In fact,’ he said, ‘I’ll give you $500 for those shoes right now.’ I laughed and told him I’d have to think about it. Ironically, the next day, I saw the guy again and he made the same offer.”
“He really wanted those shoes,” I said, marveling at his resolve. I’m not sure I’d have been so resolute. Five hundred dollars was five hundred dollars in 1966.
“He did. But these were my Nettletons and I couldn’t let them go.” He held them up for me to examine, almost 40 years after that encounter.
“Beautiful, aren’t they?” he mused. “Such workmanship. And almost like the day I bought them.”
Ron’s Nettleton reverie took me back to the early summer of 1968 when I was cutting grass along Dogwood Drive and about to start the 10th grade. All my neighborhood pals owned Nettleton tassel loafers, and I decided I needed my own pair.
The ones I wanted at Younts-DeBoe Clothiers on North Elm Street in Greensboro cost $33.50, a small fortune to me. But it was money I was ready to invest. One Saturday afternoon in June, I rode my bike all the way downtown and went to see “Planet of the Apes” at the Center Theater. Afterward, I went up to Younts-DeBoe to see if the store had my size in British tan Nettletons.
Stepping into Younts-DeBoe was like entering another world, a world of well-dressed men of distinction. Fine handmade shirts and neckties were displayed under glass and stocked in elegantly crafted wooden drawers. Suits and sports jackets hung in alcoves of finely crafted wood. Sporting attire, custom fitting and tuxedos were on the second floor, as I recall, and fine footwear shoes had a separate alcove of their own.
An elegant fellow in a tailored suit measured my feet and accepted my hard-earned $33.50 lawn mowing funds, writing down my custom-fitted order for one pair of size 10 medium-width Nettleton tassel loafers in British tan.
“How long will they take to get here?” I asked, vaguely disappointed not to be able to wear them that very day.
“No more than a few weeks,” he replied. “Are you in a rush for an event?”
“Not really,” I was forced to admit, thinking “Planet of the Apes” probably didn’t count. “Just high school at the end of summer.”
In those days, Greensboro was a city full of fine men’s clothing shops.
“It was a golden age of men’s and women’s fine clothing,” insists Gordon Turner, who arrived from Chapel Hill to work for The Hub on Jefferson Square not long before Ron Crow found his sweet Nettleton two-tones. “This was the crossroads of the South, teeming with lawyers and doctors and businessmen, and there were great clothing shops on just about every corner of downtown.”
Turner, 68, who runs Gordon’s Menswear Ltd., remains one of the Gate City’s last independently owned and operated full-service men’s clothiers along with The Hub and Lindsay Odum, both on Battleground Avenue. He’s something of a menswear historian and ticks off a list of Greensboro’s venerable men’s shops.
“Several were real institutions, almost legendary. Johnson and Albert, Hall-Putnam, Vanstory’s, and of course Younts-DeBoe. You also had Gene Lashley and Wright’s Menswear and The Hub. There was also the National Shirt and Hat Shop and eventually out in Friendly Center you had Bernard Shepherd, Joel Fleishman’s and Guy Hill.
“The department stores along Elm Street were booming, too — Meyers, Ellis-Stone, and Thalheimers. They all had great men’s departments. Greensboro was where everyone for 50 miles or more came to buy their clothes.”
There was great pride in the classic clothing these shops sold, he notes, and the competition served everyone well. “Most of it was well-made American clothing and shoes that were made to last — Nettletons being the shoe here in Greensboro,” he said. I asked him why this was the case.
“To begin with, they were beautifully made and excellent leather, hand-stitched, with a last [the form each shoe is made around] that was outstanding. The signature toe seam and tassel were almost unique in the shoe industry. A.E. Nettleton was a fine old company that dated back to the days of the Civil War. Teddy Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh and the Wright brothers wore their shoes. A.E. Nettleton was actually the first [in 1937] to patent the word ‘loafer,’ which they aggressively defended. I know this from direct experience.”
When Hall-Putnam and Younts-DeBoe closed its doors in the late 1970s, victims of a rapidly changing menswear marketplace, the Hub where Turner worked was able to briefly pick up the Nettleton loafer line. “I made a trip up to the plant to see how they were made,” he remembers, “and was very impressed by the quality of their shoes.
“The only thing that surprised me was that the tassel so loved by men in this town — the Greensboro Shoe, as they even called it up there — was well-named. Greensboro was really the only place the shoe was a best-seller — and here, of course, it was an icon.”
The beginning of the end for this golden era of haberdashery, he thinks, really began when Belk bolted for the new Carolina Circle Mall in the early 1970s, causing the other anchor stores downtown to follow suit. The Hub and Vanstory’s eventually moved to Four Seasons mall and elegant Younts-DeBoe closed its doors downtown.
Over the next two decades, imported cheaper clothing and outlet retail stores finished off the classic men’s (and women’s) clothing stores just about everywhere. A changing American work force and more relaxed styles also played a major role in their demise.
“The relaxed cultures of Silicon Valley and casual Friday were bad for our business,” Turner said. “Suddenly folks were going to work in blue jeans and polo shirts, dressing down, as they liked to say, and well-made high quality clothing — which used to go hand in hand with a man’s working life — weren’t of such importance.
“In 1982,” Turner adds, “roughly 75 percent of the stock of a quality men’s store was American made. Today it’s probably 10 percent, if that.” He notes that even premium quality giants like Brooks Brothers and Polo do their largest business in outlet shops these days — selling products made to sell at a lower cost to bargain-minded consumers.
Lindsay Odum quite agrees. “You really saw a cheapening of consumer clothing by the 1990s with the arrival of outlet malls and discount stores, most of which relied on clothes made inexpensively overseas. Suddenly cost rather than quality became a determining factor in many consumer minds — and the fine men’s shops (women’s too) paid a price for that.”
No Way to Replicate
Ironically, about this same time, the famous A.E. Nettleton’s factory closed its operation on East Willow Street in Syracuse, New York, a decade or so before I began courting my wife, Wendy, in the nearby village of Fayetteville. After learning that the company’s logo was still visible on an old building in North Syracuse, I set off on a lark to see if I could find the factory that once made the loafer I wore for all of my high school and half my college days. That original tan tassel loafer I wore got resoled at least twice and probably wore out three different sets of leather heels.
It was a nice surprise to find not only the factory building still intact and bearing a ghost sign of Nettleton Shoes, but also an independent shop in part of the building run by a former employee of the company who still had dozens of leftover used and new Nettletons for sale. These included several pairs of the beloved shoe of my youth, but sadly none in my popular 11-medium size.
According to Gordon Turner and other Nettleton addicts, there have been several attempts to replicate the beloved tassel loafer — including by Turner himself. “None have been very successful, I’m afraid. The problem is the workmanship. The company destroyed its original molds and nobody has been able to perfectly copy the toe seam and last, including the fine Italian shoemaker I contracted with to try and make the shoe.”
“In other words,” I told him, thinking of a far-off summer night when I took Ginny Sikworth to the Cinema Theater to see “Romeo and Juliet” and had them on sans socks — my first official date, happening just weeks after I acquired them — or when I cruised the Boar and Castle with friends on our way to the late-great Piedmont Drive-in, “I guess the Greensboro Shoe belongs only to the ages now.”
“Yes,” he agreed solemnly. But then he gave a sly smile.
“But I’ll bet if you could see into the men’s closets of Greensboro and other places in North Carolina, you’d find at least a hundred pairs of genuine Nettleton loafers, some with several pairs, probably most of them in great condition — ready to put on and wear just like the golden age was still here.”
Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
More like this story