White Shoe Firm

Like powdered wigs for feet.

Dear Word Detective:  What is the origin of “white shoe” when referring to a highly regarded, conservative law firm? — Robert Daroff.

That’s an interesting question, and this is an interesting time to be asking it.  Strictly speaking, the term “white shoe” is applied today not only to large law firms such as Cravath, Swain & Moore, but also to large investment banks and securities firms (e.g., Goldman Sachs), and even management consulting companies such as McKinsey & Co.  The term dates to the 1950s in the US, and originally denoted large, well-established New York City firms generally considered to be the province of the “WASP” (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) elite of the day.

In the 1970s the category of “white shoe” expanded in practice to include firms that decidedly did not fit the “old money WASP” mold, and today the term is more a measure of solidity and success than social pedigree.  Then again, with both investment banks and high-flying law firms now shedding jobs like a sheepdog in August, “white shoe” may soon join such terms as “unsinkable” and “safe as houses” in history’s attic trove of defunct linguistic antiquities.

The question, of course, is what “white shoes” could possibly have to do with membership in America’s corporate aristocracy.  For most of us, the phrase “white shoes” induces a flashback to the dorky fashions of the 1970s, when pastel leisure suits were, in certain demographics, frequently accented with white footwear.  (With the addition of a matching white belt, the resulting ensemble was known sardonically as “the full Cleveland”).

In the 1950s and early 1960s, however, there was another sort of “white shoe,” a type of suede oxford that was also known as the “white buck.”  I actually owned a pair of white bucks when I was in junior high, and before every wearing you had to clean them up with a special white powder applied, I kid you not, with a large powder puff.  I think I wore mine a total of three times.

But these shoes were considered cool at the time among Ivy League college students, especially at Yale, and especially among the “in” crowd at Yale.  As a matter of fact, the color of one’s shoes, actual or perceived, was a serious marker of social status at Yale in this period.  A few years ago, etymologist Barry Popik uncovered an Esquire magazine article from 1953 in which the reporter explained the symbolic hierarchy of footwear:

“At Yale there is a system for pigeonholing the members of the college community which is based on the word ‘shoe.”  ‘Shoe’ bears some relation to the word ‘chic,’ and when you say that a fellow is ‘terribly shoe’ you mean that he is a crumb in the upper social crust of the college…. The term derives, as you probably know, from the dirty white bucks which are the standard collegiate footwear. … It encompasses the entire community under the terms White Shoe, Brown Shoe, and Black Shoe.”

So the “White Shoes” were the upper crust at Yale (and probably other Ivy League schools), the WASP elite that later landed on autopilot at Daddy’s Wall Street firm.  One suspects that the term “white shoe firm” might have been coined by a resentful Brown or Black Shoe, but it’s equally possible that some cocky Yalie White Shoes popularized the term.  Theirs is not, after all, a social group prone to humility.

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