When you scroll through the shoe or handbag section of luxury online shops, surely you see what I see—a whole category of items with the label “hobo.”
Some say the term is misplaced in today’s society, but I’m not necessarily here to say one way or another. Rather, I’m here to explain what it means to accessory designers and why.
To start, “hobo” was first used to dub traveling workers in the United States at the end of the 19th century. These people were nomads who rode freight trains in search of work and carried their personal belongings, which were bundled in a sack, over their shoulder. It’s essentially this image that evoked the term for a slouchy shoulder bag. Or perhaps it went the opposite way—the answer would require some more digging. Either way, the term has taken on new meaning, with fashion editors using “hobo style” to describe polished pieces like Gucci’s Jackie 1961.
And the same is true for hobo shoes. At its core, the style is something John Steinbeck’s characters would have worn, and the people they were inspired by actually wore through the Great Depression. Sometimes the term is used loosely to describe trending pieces; other times, designers honor the integrity of the aesthetic. You have to admit that there’s something sweet about the intersection of history and fashion. There’s also something so curious about symbolism.
I make hobo shoes that are reminiscent of this aesthetic, but also, as I once told Christina Binkley for The Wall Street Journal, Esquivel shoes are suntanned, as in, they lie in the Los Angeles sun to achieve the desired finish. “The method suntans the leather, just like the sun tans you and me,” she explained. And just like the migrant workers of the 1930s, who spent hours and days under the scorching California sun. Their skin became so tan it resembled a shriveled piece of leather.
When you search for a pair of hobo shoes on the Internet, the first thing you’ll find is images of shoes that are falling apart. But in fashion, they’re mainly characterized by big rounded (or an otherwise wide) toe area and worn finishes. Roomy toe areas make for more comfortable walking shoes—another nod to the historical travelers. More than the construction, the look of these shoes or boots makes a hobo shoe today. These aesthetic elements include distressed or antique leather and personal patina, which comes with wear over time, are more prominent features of hobo shoes today. Because they’re meant to resemble work shoes, imperfection is basically key.
Durability is also key to quintessential hobo shoes, so look for supple yet strong leather, well-made laces and sturdy soles when browsing for your perfect pair of hobo shoes or boots.
None of this is to say that the plight of the impoverished is irrelevant to the fashion industry. There are so many of us in fashion who came from humble beginnings—who are familiar with the underbelly of the American Dream—and are seeking ways to be less wasteful and more charitable.
Hobo styles are not making homelessness glamorous, just as channeling Bohemian style, colloquially known as “boho chic,” isn’t quite an appropriation of French counterculture in another era. It’s taking moments of history, culture, and society and keeping them relevant, perhaps even as reminders to those who take time to learn the history.
Ready to purchase a pair of hobo shoes?
As always, these are just guidelines for purchasing footwear. With over 20 years in the fashion industry, Esquivel takes pride in being a valuable resource for shoppers. To learn more about our shoe collection or any other products we offer, send us a message through this link. We’re here to give you peace of mind and help you find the best fashion items for you.
George is a Southern California-based designer and craftsman who designed his first pair of shoes in 1994 and began honing his craft thereafter. For over 20 years, he’s operated his namesake brand, Esquivel, which specializes in handmade shoes and accessories. In the last decade, George served as Creative Director of renowned luxury bag and luggage brand Tumi Inc. and as Creative Consultant for Italian heritage brand Fratelli Rossetti, and has collaborated with many others for his own brand. George was a 2009 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalist, and has been a CFDA member since 2010. When he’s not working alongside his team of artisans at his atelier, Esquivel House, in Downtown Los Angeles, George is enjoying time with his wife and high school sweetheart, Shelley, and their three grown children. He also loves mountain biking and hosting good friends for dinners and fêtes.