Novelist and playwright John R. Powers published a rather funny book in 1975 entitled Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? The book was the second in a series of four novels that took a humorous look at what it was like to grow up Catholic in 1950s Chicago. Back in the day, those black patent leather shoes would have been genuine leather. Today, not so much.
Modern patent leather shoes may or may not be real leather. More often than not, they are either faux leather or some other synthetic material with an equally synthetic finish. But they sure do look good, nonetheless. In fact, there is nothing quite like the look of a pair of black shoes shined to a high-gloss finish.
Patent Leather Is Treated Leather
Patent leather is leather treated to make it either waterproof or highly water resistant. It takes its name from the fact that its original iteration earned a patent for its inventor back in the late 18th century. Known as Hand’s Patent Leather, the material appeared to be coated with some sort of oil or varnish. It was said to be completely waterproof and could be restored to its original luster just by wiping it clean.
The patent does not describe exactly what its inventor used to treat the leather. Whatever the substance was, it kept water out and could be buffed to an exceptional shine. Right away, it became a material for the wealthy. Only those with means could afford the materials and labor necessary to make their patent leather shoes.
A Long Tradition Changed
The original patent leather did not change much between the late 18th century and the 1970s. It enjoyed a long tradition of combining genuine leather with various oils to create the characteristics the material was known for. That long tradition began to change with the introduction of faux leather and polymer resins.
The earliest faux leather, also known as artificial leather, was a paper-based product invented in the early 1900s. It was made by layering multiple layers of wood pulp and compressing it to hold it together. Germany used quite a bit of it during both world wars. However, it was eventually replaced by synthetic products that were little more than plastic.
Today’s faux leather is actually a synthetic fabric covered with a layer of PVC. Some less expensive faux leathers are PVC entirely. If you are not familiar with PVC, it is a type of vinyl. In fact, its formal name is polyvinyl chloride. Needless to say, PVC has nearly succeeded in bringing an end to the long tradition of creating genuine patent leather.
Patent Leather Still Needs Care
One of the biggest misconceptions of patent leather is that it doesn’t require a lot of care. The folks behind Salt Lake City’s GC Tech say otherwise. Patent leather shoes may be highly weather resistant, but they are rarely 100% waterproof. And even if they were, a driving rain or heavy snowstorm can still work precipitation into the wearer’s shoes, damaging them from the inside out.
A good pair of waterproof shoe covers does the trick. Shoe covers keep the weather out and maintain that high-gloss sheen. As for whether they will guarantee that black patent shoes reflect up, that is a matter of opinion.
John R. Powers’ reference to black leather patent shoes is also a reference to a piece of footwear history. Since the earliest days of patent leather, it has been a favorite for producing high quality leather shoes with an incredible shine. There is nothing quite like it, even when it isn’t real.