What Are Leather Uppers in Boots?

Model wearing the Men's Chukka Boot in Peanut Brown.

When you’re looking to buy a new pair of boots, genuine leather is a great option for both style and durability. As you start looking at different options of leather shoes, you might come across a term that you’re not familiar with—“leather uppers, “suede uppers,” “textile mix uppers.”

Huh? What even is an upper?

Put simply, it’s the upper part of the footwear that covers the foot and attaches to the sole. This guide will explain exactly what genuine leather uppers are, some of the benefits of leather uppers, and why it makes sense to build sneakers for men using one material for uppers and a different one for the soles. Basically, it will “up” your knowledge about uppers.

What Is An Upper?

To answer the question, what are leather uppers? we need to start by answering the question, what are uppers, plain and simple?

There are many different parts of a shoe, but let’s think of it as three basic sections:

  • The part under your foot – This consists of the insole, which is the part of the shoe that makes contact with your foot, and the outsole, which makes contact with the ground. Cushioning and support in the insole will affect your comfort while the traction of the outsole will affect your stability and movement.
  • The part between your foot and the outsole – this is the midsole. This is a great component to the cushioning, support and comfort of the shoe. 
  • The part that surrounds and covers your foot – This is the upper. It covers your toes, the side of your foot, and the top of your foot in most closed-toe, sneaker-like shoes. It protects your foot from elements like weather and spills and also provides warmth and comfort for your foot. There are many different components that can be part of a shoe’s upper, including:
  • The quarter, which covers the back and sides of the foot and is often reinforced in the heel to maintain its stiff shape
  • The vamp, which covers the top of the foot, just before the toes, and is made of breathable fabric in a supportive construction
  • Eyelets, which are small holes for shoelaces, usually set in either the vamp or quarter, as dictated by the shape and style of the shoe
  • The tongue, which is another feature of lace-up shoes and covers the space between the two sides of the quarter, pulled together as you tighten your laces
  • The toe cap, which covers the toes and is usually separated from the vamp by a line of stitching, though not all uppers have toe caps

As you can see, the upper is really a collection of different materials and shapes that create one very important component of boots and dress shoes. These sections are usually segmented with stitching and other detailing and sometimes feature brogue designs along the seams.

Shop Men's Collection

What Are the Benefits of Leather Uppers?

Now that you know what uppers are, you may be asking, why use premium leather and how to care for leather boots? After all, uppers can be made using just about any material, including synthetics. Depending on what type of shoe you’re looking for, you may want different materials for your upper. However, leather is almost always a solid choice for a number of reasons:

  • Style – Leather is a high-quality, natural material—and it shows. Synthetic materials often look it, appearing fake or cheap and betraying your signature style. Leather, on the other hand, has a sleek aesthetic and visible shine that is more pleasing to the eye.
  • Comfort – It’s not about style over substance—it’s about balancing both. Leather is a soft, breathable material that can adapt to the shape of your foot, offering you a highly comfortable shoe (after the initial break-in period, anyway).
  • Breathability – This goes hand-in-hand with comfort. Put simply, leather breathes. That means your feet maintain a cooler, more balanced temperature. But don’t worry, they still provide plenty of warmth in the winter months.
  • Durability – Your first instinct may be that man-made synthetic material will be stronger and last longer than leather. That simply isn’t the case. Leather is a strong and durable material that will outlast most synthetics. This means that even if you pay a little more upfront for leather, you’ll likely save money in the long run as you get more miles out of every pair.
  • Protection – One of the main functions of any boot upper is to protect your feet. Leather, as a top choice, can keep you dry during light rain and safeguard your feet better than soft, fabric shoes like sneakers.
  • Water resistance – Leather isn’t necessarily waterproof, and some leather will stain easily during even the lightest of sprinkles, but most boot manufacturers use leather that has been waxed or otherwise treated to make them more water-resistant. They may not stand up against a torrential downpour, but they will keep your feet relatively dry and warm.
  • Easy cleaning – Knowing how to clean leather boots is important. Most leather can be cleaned without too much difficulty or pre-treated at home with sprays and waxes to avoid unsightly damage. Also, the breathability of leather means that it will dry more quickly than some other materials.

What Are the Different Types of Leather for Uppers?

Leather is a natural material made from animal skins, which undergoes a process called tanning to create a strong, durable, and flexible material that is then used to make many products including clothing, furniture, and handbags.

There are a few common types of leather you’ll see used for uppers:

  • Smooth leather – This is one of the most common forms with a relatively basic tanning process. You’ll see it used to make both sneakers and boots, especially dress shoes like Oxfords and others.
  • Patent leather – A more unique style with a glossy, varnished surface, this leather seems to almost shine. You’ll often see it used for formal dress shoes.
  • Nubuck – This is a type of leather that has been sanded or buffed on the outside to give it a velvet-like appearance. 
  • Suede – This type of leather is often made using lambskin. It has a soft, almost fuzzy feel that can be quite comfortable, though less water-resistant and durable. Suede makes for a uniquely rich and flexible boot upper and can be found in other shoe styles as well, such as the Majorca cutout sandals and closed toe sandals.

The biggest difference across these four leather types is the look, though durability, breathability, and water resistance all factor into the overall value of each variety.

Cropped feet view of model wearing the Men's Navi Boot in Black Leather.

Why Use Different Materials for the Soles & Uppers?

After hearing so much about the benefits of leather, you may be wondering why it isn’t used to make the entire shoe—why limit it to just the top? Well, leather can be used to make outsoles as well and, as is the case with many dress shoes, it is. 

However, there are good reasons to use a different material, such as rubber, for the soles, especially when shopping for boots:

  • Durability – Leather soles give a classy, sleek look to a shoe, but those boots aren’t exactly made for walking. Leather tends to scuff and break down under the pressure of everyday use, whereas a material like rubber is much more durable and can stand up to heavy use, day in and day out.
  • Stability – Leather soles, especially when they’re brand new, can make normal surfaces feel like a sheet of ice on a frozen-over winter morning. This may not be an issue for formal dress shoes worn exclusively to indoor events, but it quickly becomes a problem with boots, especially as winter approaches. The added traction from a different sole becomes increasingly important.
  • Water resistance – We’ve already touched on leather’s moderate water-resistance ranking, which performs well as an upper in most climates. This becomes a problem, however, with leather soles since they’re always in direct contact with the potentially wet ground and pooling rain puddles.
  • Comfort – Leather soles can be very comfortable, but again, this depends on how you use your shoes. They often lack cushioning and can erode the more you move in them. Leather soles are a better option for dress shoes but, even still, you should expect more from your shoes and definitely from everyday boots.

At TOMS, You’ll Find Only the Best Leather Uppers

We want to make it easy for you to find the shoe you’re looking for. We know that the best boots promise style, comfort, durability, and ease of movement. This is why our boots combine the best materials to bring you all the benefits of leather uppers—style, breathability, comfort—plus the advantages of rubber outsoles—stability, durability, and water resistance.

Even still, we provide a variety of options depending on what you need. Our Ashland boots utilize a waterproof leather upper, a strong, highly durable lug outsole, and a comfortable OrthoLite® insole to create a stylish, functional work boot. Our Tetons feature a suede upper and a crepe-wrapped midsole for a more flexible, comfortable option for everyday use.

With options like these and high-quality construction across the board, you’ll always be able to find a pair of TOMS that works for you—leather uppers or otherwise.

Sources: 

Reviewed By Dan Caves

Dan Caves is the Senior Manager of Digital Marketing at TOMS and has been operating in the digital space for 6 years, writing about the latest trends or styles and helping brands make bold statements with innovative tactics and creative concepts. He's determined to go all the places, see all the things, and pet all the dogs.