Within the realm of classic menswear, there’s no denying that a mirror shine on a pair of dress shoes is regarded as the “ultimate shoe treatment,” as well as the mark of a fine footwear fan. Across many articles and videos on the internet, there’s a ton of information, tips, tricks, and hacks available about mirror shining your shoes, but the question that’s rarely asked is: Should you mirror shine them in the first place?
In order to explore the conundrum fully, we’re going to define what a mirror shine is, discuss its pros and cons, and take a look at all of the tools and techniques necessary to buff your bluchers, apply a luster to your loafers, and see whether it’s worth mirror shining those monk straps.
What is a Mirror Shine?
What is a Mirror Shine?
In simplest terms, a mirror shine is the result of extensive polishing to a shoe. The surface is rendered to a smooth, flat, and reflective shine. The shine itself comes from multiple layers of wax polishes that fill in the pore structure of the leather. This creates a sleek and glossy surface that reflects a high quantity of light, giving the shoe a glass-like appearance.
Image Credit: Thomas George Collection
Indeed, this is where we can introduce another term related to mirror shining: “glassage,” which refers to the reflective glass-like quality of glazes applied to certain French confections. Although the entirety of a shoe could be subjected to the mirror shine treatment, this is usually advised against.
After all, leather is a skin that needs to flex with the movement of your foot, and, because the leather needs to move, there are surfaces that will be pinched or pulled unevenly, which will mean that the flat reflective surface will be disrupted in some parts of the shoe. So, a mirror shine is best left localized to the hard areas of the shoe, like the toe or the heel, that are reinforced with structural elements and aren’t going to flex while you are moving around in your shoes.
There are certain types of shoes that do have a consistent glossy finish over their whole surface, but this is achieved before they’re crafted rather than afterward with polish. The leather in question here is called patent leather. Normally reserved for Black Tie and White Tie footwear, patent leather is treated during the manufacturing process to achieve that glossy shine and is then cut and constructed into shoes.
Historically, patent leather was made by building up layers of oils in the pore structure of the leather, but today, it’s almost always accomplished with synthetic materials to achieve that high shine. So, while a pair of evening shoes is going to reflect light in a unique way uniformly, mirror shining is designed to highlight the best parts of a day wear shoe, and, of course, it also highlights the skill of whoever applied that mirror shine.
What Do I Need to Achieve a Mirror Shine?
The Right Tools
There are many specialist tools and gadgets on the market designed for the shoe polishing enthusiast, but the reality is that you’re going to need only a few simple tools to accomplish most shining needs, including a mirror shine.
1. Hard Wax Polish
The first and most important thing you’ll need is hard wax shoe polish, preferably some that are high in solvents as this will help to melt the wax into the pore structure of the leather. Some people intentionally leave their container of wax open to dry out as they can more quickly achieve a mirror shine when the wax is dry.
Of course, cream shoe polishes do exist as well, but these are typically higher in pigment, and they’re better for restoring the color to your dress shoes, before applying a wax to get that mirror shine.
Saphir is generally considered to be the brand of the highest quality, but there are men out there who prefer other brands like Cherry Blossom or Kiwi – and, of course, it all comes down to technique and personal preference. Luckily, most brands of shoe polish are just a few dollars per tin, so you can experiment with different brands to see what you like best.
2. Cotton Cloth
Some men advocate for applying the polish to the shoe directly from the fingertips, but most will use a clean cotton cloth as their applicator of choice. There are guides out there that suggest you use a specialist cloth designed for mirror shining but, again, this is something you probably won’t need in most cases. Any cotton cloth should do the job nicely – even something like an old T-shirt – provided that it’s clean or, at least, that you’re using a clean area of it. And, of course, make sure that the fabric isn’t shedding fibers, which are going to get in the way of the finished mirror shine.
Once you have your wax and your cloth, the next item on the list is water, which may seem unusual given how much effort is usually put into waterproofing shoes, but applying the occasional drop of water can actually be helpful as it allows you to work more comfortably, aids in emulsification, and prevents friction between the cloth and the shoe, which can mar the shine.
You can buy special water dispensers for this task, but, again, they’re largely unnecessary. You can use anything that will hold a small amount of water, and many men often use the lid of their polishing tin. Just remember to tip out any excess water when you are finished with your shine and dry the lid out before putting your tin back together.
The fourth thing required for mirror shining is trickier than the three that came before it – it’s the technique of mirror shining itself.
The method is easy enough to describe; you simply wrap your cotton cloth around the index and middle finger of your dominant hand, dab a little polish from the tin, apply a drop or two of water to the area you’re polishing, work the polish into the leather in small circles, and repeat until you have a mirror shine. Sounds simple, right?
The skill of Mirror Shining
Achieving this glossy finish really is an art, and it requires practice in order to do it well.
The difficulty then comes from judging a lot of nuanced factors that will come down to you and the specific shoe that you are working on. These include: how much pressure you’re applying, how tight or loose the cloth should be on your fingers, the correct ratio of polish to water, how many layers of polish are needed, and so on. You’ll develop your own mirror shine routine, but it won’t be an overnight thing. And that, then, brings us to the next requirement to develop a good mirror shine.
Overall, mirror shining is about investing time in results. Whether that time is spent learning how to mirror shine or that time is spent on the mirror shine itself. The shine, by the way, could take anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours to a few days to let the wax settle properly on the surface of the leather. Remember, you’re literally filling the pores of the leather and building layers, so with mirror shining, there are no shortcuts.
Why Should You Mirror Shine Your Shoes?
We here at GG put our heads and toes together and came up with four good reasons to do a mirror shine.
1. A properly mirror-shined shoe can look fantastic.
First, and perhaps least surprisingly, the simple fact of the matter is that mirror-shine shoe looks fantastic. Many people say that footwear is one of the first and last things that other people notice about you, so a good shoe will make a good first impression, especially if that shoe is well mirror shined.
Not only that, but a mirror shine can help to provide a more vibrant look to a pair of shoes, bringing out the natural range of colors that are in the leather. Plus, a mirror shine reflects the shape of the shoe’s last, whether that’s accenting a chisel toe or the sweeping lines of a classic almond toe.
2. It shows you care.
If our first reason is about gaining attention, our second reason for mirror shining is that it shows that you care. Putting time and effort into something can clearly be seen in the results of a mirror shine, and this reflects positively on you, too.
Those who notice your mirror shine will probably appreciate the fact that you take pride in your appearance, and it should have positive associations with your other personality traits as well. After all, taking the time to learn this skill shows that you’re someone who cares about doing a job well and to a high standard. And this could, for instance, go down well if you’re asking for a raise at work.
3. It elevates formality.
Mirror shining is that it elevates the formality of both the shoes themselves and your overall ensemble, which makes mirror shining perfect for more formal occasions. A great example of this would be the alternative evening shoe. We’ve already mentioned that patent leather is the usual choice for evening shoes for Black Tie and White Tie, but not every man is going to want to invest in this specialist footwear. So, instead, you could take a regular black day Oxford and polish it to a mirror shine.
4. It provides a little weather protection.
Naturally, all those layers of wax polish are going to resist a bit of precipitation, making a mirror shine not only stylish, but also practical. With that being said, though, you shouldn’t count on a mirror shine to do all of the weatherproofing for your shoes. In other words, while a mirror shine will leave your shoes with a bit more protection than if they didn’t have any polish on them, do remember that no leather is a hundred percent waterproof.
Why Shouldn’t You Mirror Shine Your Shoes?
In the same way that we devised four reasons why you should consider mirror shining your shoes, we also have four reasons why you might not want to.
1. It looks fussy.
First, in direct contrast to our point about a mirror shine looking good, it also has the potential to look fussy. We’ve spoken many times on the channel about how things have gotten increasingly casual as the 20th century and 21st century have gone on, and today, a mirror shine will look especially flashy in many circumstances.
So, while many of those who notice your mirror shine are going to think it looks good, some might think that you have too much time on your hands or that you take your appearance too seriously. This might lead to negative connotations about being superior or snobby. This is unfortunately true in many associations that have to do with classic menswear but, if you would like to learn more about these stereotypes surrounding classic style, you can consult our guide on that topic.
What is Classic Style For Men…and What Isn’t?
2. It can throw off the balance of your outfit.
A pair of mirror-shined shoes can also throw off the balance of your outfit. Wearing a pair of glossy shoes with a tired, ill-fitting, or well-worn suit creates a juxtaposition that suggests that you both do and don’t care about your appearance, which is a strange spot to be in. As with any aspect of classic menswear, harmony across your outfit is one of the most important elements to consider. So, if you want to wear mirror-shine shoes, the rest of your outfit should be similarly formal with something like a dark, double-breasted business suit.
If you’ve gone for a more casual ensemble like the one I’m wearing here, then just going with a standard shine on your shoes is probably the better choice.
3. It takes up too much time.
Perhaps the most important reason not to mirror shine your shoes is that – simply put – it takes a ton of time. While it can be fulfilling to set aside a few hours to accomplish an analog task like mirror shining, you have to consider whether you can actually afford to set aside that much time in the first place.
Of course, we’re not suggesting here that you shouldn’t care for your footwear. But, just remember that in most cases, a simple buff is going to look good enough, and you won’t have to spend hours on a mirror shine.
4. The effect is ruined once you stuff them.
Rounding out this list is a reminder that it isn’t even going to matter how much time you’ve put into a mirror shine when it’s going to be ruined at the first scuff. Shoes are, first and foremost, practical garments that are close to the ground, and they will get scuffed in regular wear. And a mirror shine with a scratch or a scuff through it just a little looks bad, and it means that you’ll have to start the whole process all over again. Yes, even after all that time, effort, and skill needed to achieve a mirror shine.
It’s important to remember that famous French saying, “‘Tis the fate of glass to break.” And to use myself as a personal example here, because of my physical disability, it’s simply the fate of my shoes to constantly bump into stairs, table legs, and such throughout the day. Therefore, I personally can’t justify mirror shining my shoes as I know the shine is going to be ruined essentially from the time I put the shoes on. Such is life.
So, it’s safe to say then that there are many considerations that go into whether or not you should mirror shine your shoes. The finished results often make a pair of dress shoes look exquisite, and the technique necessary can be seen as one of the skills of a gentleman. But, it’s also worth noting that for all of the hours and effort that go into a perfect mirror shine, they can be scuffed at a moment’s notice, shattering that mirror finish.
Shoes Should You Mirror Shine
- Pretty much the best leather choice for mirror shines, as it is smooth and has a good pore structure to accept polish well
- This is the most natural pairing, as an Oxford is the most formal type of day shoe
Shoes and boots with a cap toe
- The cap toe can help keep you on track with where you should end the mirror shine
- Once you’ve mastered the cap toe, move onto the wholecut for an elegant shoe style to mirror shine
Other “simple” shoe styles
- For example, a two-eyelet Derby or a single monk strap without any detailing
- Anything plain looks great with a mirror shine
Shoes Shouldn’t You Mirror Shine
- Without a doubt, don’t use polish on suede leather. There are some guides floating around, but suede should be brushed, not polished
- Leathers that have been treated with oils and waxes to achieve a rugged, casual look
Pebble/Hatch Grain Leather
- There are increasing images of people mirror shining pebble or hatch grain leathers out there
- You’ll lose the character of the leather, as a mirror shine makes a flat surface
- Unlike broguing, perforated leather has smaller holes that will become filled with polish quickly.
- Similar to pebble/hatch-grained leather, this will spoil the look of the leather
- This requires different maintenance
Should You Mirror Shine Your Shoes?
When it comes right down to it, we’ve got two answers that we think should help you out. If you’ve got the time to spend, you like the look of a mirror shine, and you think it complements the rest of your wardrobe, then a mirror shine might be for you, but if you feel it’s too much hassle, you typically wear less formal combinations, or if you’re a bit of a klutz like me, then you might want to forgo the mirror shine.
In this second case, a gentle, regular shine should be good enough for you. After all, most people aren’t going to care so much whether your shoes are mirror shined, but they will be happy to see that they’re clean.
If you are sold on the mirror shine, and you want to learn all of the techniques that go into it, then check out the channel of our friend Preston Soto, The Elegant Oxford. His shoes shine so brightly you can see your future in them.
What are your thoughts on mirror shining? Share them in the comments section below.
Burgundy Two Tone Solid Oxford Socks Fil d’Ecosse Cotton
Today, I’m wearing a more casual outfit, and thus, I haven’t mirror-shined my shoes. The shoes in question are actually cordovan leather sneakers from Crown Northampton, and cordovan leather has a natural shine of its own. I’ve just brought it back to full luster by using a lambswool polish brush and a bit of cream polish.
To go with the cordovan color of the shoes and the tan color of their natural gum soles, I’ve chosen to incorporate red and brown in the rest of my outfit as well. I’m wearing khaki-colored corduroy trousers from Cording’s, a wine-colored cardigan sweater from Charles Tyrwhitt, and a glen-checked terracotta shirt from Proper Cloth. The shirt has French cuffs, but I’ve got them configured in a barrel style with simple black links so that they fit more easily under the sweater sleeves. To reinforce the casual feel of the outfit, I’ve also left product out of my hair and let my beard grow a bit.
Rounding out today’s outfit are my two-tone solid socks from Fort Belvedere in burgundy and white. You can find the socks I’m wearing and a wide variety of other classic men’s accessories by looking at the Fort Belvedere shop.