Unlike most other shoes and items of menswear, the Oxford shoe has one principal defining characteristic: the lacing system. Sometimes people use the term Oxford to denote any smart lace up shoe, even those with open lacing, but that’s not how we will use the term in this guide.
First of all, it may seem obvious but an Oxford is a shoe with laces, and not a slip-on, monk strap shoe or Chelsea boot. Second, an Oxford shoe has a closed lace system vs. the open lace system of a Derby shoe. But what exactly does that mean? Let’s start with the basics. The uppers of an Oxford usually consist of the quarters and the vamp.
The vamp is that part of the shoe uppers the covers the toes and instep, i.e. the front of the shoe.
The quarters are that part of the shoe uppers that wrap around the heel and meet the vamp in the middle of the foot i.e. the back of the shoe.
The eyelets for the shoe laces are generally located on the quarters (with the exception of a wholecut and seamless shoe). For a closed lace system, the vamp is sewn on top of the quarters and the shoelace eyelets facings are stitched underneath the vamp. The shoelaces are used to tie the two quarters together thus fastening the shoe onto your foot. When a shoe is new, the quarters should form a narrow V-shape and once they are worn in, the V should disappear so the quarters touch each other, and you can only see the tongue at the top end. Most British Oxford shoes today, mostly have 5 eyelet holes on each side, whereas American Oxfords often have 6. In the past 4 or even 3 eyelets per side were not uncommon, and so it boils down to personal taste.