TL;DR - My take from life in uniform and in suits is that shoes make or break the rest of the outfit and the outfit is the external representation of your professionalism. Taking care of a pair of shoes is a low cost, high value proposition that will help you look like the part you want to play in your professional life.
Shining shoes. It is something that I never thought much about prior to joining the Army. I doubt I would have ever gave it much consideration anyways as an 18 year old and shoe shining wouldn't didn't even have much value for me until entering the professional world after college.
I have spent a lot of time in airports and a lot of time in various organizations over my 7+ years in the private sector. I can say that I've seen a lot of business people on the move and in their various environments and one thing I always notice are shoes.
Shoes make the outfit and the outfit is the external projection of your professionalism. You can have a $2,000 suit with $600 shoes but you will still look like a hot mess if those shoes are scuffed up and poorly maintained. Similarly, you can have a cheap suit with cheap but well-polished shoes and look like a million bucks. It only takes a few minutes to polish your shoes and that makes the world of difference to your professional appearance as well as keep those shoes in good condition for a longer period of time.
I first learned how to shine boots in the Army. I heard about a million reasons why this was a time honored practice, or at least time honored until uniform design changes seemed to become an annual thing for the military.
Some of the explanations I heard with no idea what is actually true or not:
- Shoe polish helps keep boots more water repellent
- Polishing keeps boots more pliable and the leather softer so it doesn't tear apart your feet
- None of the above. It was also said that there was no value to polishing boots except that it is a great time killer and perfect way to keep E-nothings (phrase referring to the very junior enlisted in basic training) busy in basic training and beyond with a reduced opportunity to get in trouble. A bonus is that it also offered another way to get E-Nothings in trouble when their boots weren't polished to a standard even if you didn't care whether or not they were polished.
- Shining boots was analogous to your attention to detail. If you took good care of your boots, the story goes, you would take good care of your rifle, your soldier skills, and your battle buddies. This would mean that you were a good soldier if you took good care of your boots.
In the professional world, I do see some relevance to the last point. Just as I would suggest to anyone to not show up to work with wrinkly shirts, I would also suggest not showing up with scuffed shoes. Right, wrong, or indifferent, I do think there is something to the "attention to detail" argument about shoes/boots and I would notice if someone is wearing a pair of scuffed up shoes on the job. Would I immediately jump to conclusions about their professionalism and attention to detail? I may not jump to a conclusion but they would not be making a good impression.
Interestingly enough, the military has mostly done away with boots and shoes that require polishing. In the Army at least, they moved to a brown boot that does not require polish and while they still use a black dress shoe, that shoe has a "fake shine" ever since I enlisted in the Army in 2001. In fact, one of my dad's first comments to me when he saw me at Basic Training Graduation was that I was fortunate I didn't have to shine my "low-quarters" (the Army dress shoe slang) like he had to do during the Vietnam era.
Maybe that means that shining your shoes or boots doesn't serve any real purpose at all or maybe the military just didn't want to deal with polish and upkeep on black boots that weren't going to function well in Iraq and Afghanistan anyways; black is a terrible color for concealment. Comments are always welcome on this point and the others for discussion.
Stay tuned for another post with tips and tricks on polishing.