Disrupting the Narrative: The Original Penny Loafer by G.H.Bass & Co
Alex Wilson gives us a history lesson in the widely-celebrated, oft-imitated ‘Weejun’ penny loafer from G.H.Bass & Co
Words by Alex Wilson
My first point of reference for G.H.Bass & Co comes around 2002. At the time, I’m 12 years old and the thought of white socks and black shoes only presents itself when there are no black socks left and I’m late for school. But then one weekend I stumble upon this archive shot from a 60s Ivy League campus of an unnamed student, books enveloped in the fold of his arm, button-down shirt neatly worn under a varsity sweater with white chinos, white socks, and black penny loafers glistening under the summer sun. It’s the first time anything outside of a sneaker or football shirt has plucked my style lobe since, well, ever.
That image then lays dormant in my brain for over a decade, whilst polyester and ill-fitting denim take centre stage until the ripe age of 26 when that very same image reappears whilst I’m thumbing through a copy of Take Ivy by Teruyoshi Hayashida. It’s then I find out that they are known as penny loafers and the originals I’m after are the playfully named ‘Weejuns’ from G.H.Bass & Co. The origin for the style’s namesake comes from the campuses in which they were so popular. The very students that wore them kept a quarter in the shoe’s saddle so they could always make a phone call, long before the age of WhatsApp and FaceTime – thus, the moniker ‘penny’ was coined.
The G.H.Bass & Co loafer has been a footwear choice for many a subculture, from the aforementioned collegiate stylings of the ’60s campus catwalks to silver screen matinee idols like Paul Newman, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Cary Grant, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and the original preppy icon, JFK. Though it doesn’t end with undergraduates and public figures. Mods adopted them to accompany their button-down shirts and fishtail parkas.
They’ve even bled more broadly into the skater scene and first movers who know how to mix their metals – those who refuse to abide by the unwritten rules of tribal fashion and become ‘this guy’ or ‘that guy’. Nope, not for them. If it works, it works and nothing offsets sweats and a baggy hoodie like a pair of Weejuns. In the same breath, nothing picks up the stiffer, more classic suit silhouette than a pair, either. Subcultures are meeting in the middle today and in my opinion, right now is one of the most exciting times for style. It doesn’t have to be so regimented. The original penny loafer from G.H.Bass & Co is one of the most enjoyable shoes to test this theory with. A classic icon, disrupting the narrative.
Established in 1876 by George Henry Bass, G.H.Bass & Co believed in a simple principle – ‘To make the best possible shoe for the purpose for which it was intended.’ The iconic penny loafer was created by G.H.Bass & Co in 1936, in response to a request from the US editor of Esquire. Putting heads together, they adapted a Norwegian farm shoe intended for ‘loafing in the field’ and as such, the ‘Bass Weejun’ was born. The world’s very first penny loafer.
Handmade ethically in their factory in El Salvador, Weejuns still use the same techniques pioneered in 1936. Moreover, there are now some contemporary takes on the iconic shape available alongside the original, bringing an intriguing alternative to the time-honoured classic. Take the latest collaboration with Fred Perry, for instance. G.H. Bass & Co’s iconic Weejuns are given the Fred Perry treatment with tough, heavy-duty styling and an all-over texture which references the piqué of Fred Perry’s signature cotton tennis shirts. Designed with a thick, ridged commando out-sole in lightweight but durable EVA rubber, the leather in-sock is finished with a tartan trim taken from the brand’s Harrington jacket.
Shop the full G.H. Bass & Co collection here