I love my moccasins and own quite a few pairs. Now it is important to distinguish between true moccasins, moccasin-styled shoes, and loafers.
True moccasin construction
A true moccasin is one where the leather is wrapped/shaped from the ground up around the last, then another piece of leather to sewn on top to form the vamp (the top part of the shoe over your toes). This means the sides and bottom of the shoe are all one piece of leather. A sole is usually sewn to the leather under where your foot goes, and there is usually an insole attached inside the shoe. Here is a handy diagram courtesy of Russell Moccasin Co. The sewing is usually done by hand and there are a number of companies in the New England region of America that specialise in hand-sewn moccasins.
By comparison, some shoes have the look/style of a moccasin in that the vamp is made from a separate piece of leather but the construction is actually welted. This means that the uppers are attached to the sole by stitching and/or gluing, and thus the sides and bottom of the shoe are not a single piece of leather. These are moccasin-styled shoes which are not made by true moccasin construction.
Loafers are simply shoes without laces and can be either true moccasin construction or goodyear welted, or blake stitched, or cemented, or some other construction. Moccasins can also have laces, so loafers can be moccasins and moccasins can be loafers, but loafers don’t have to be moccasins and moccasins don’t have to be loafers. Got it?
Why is this important? It all relates to style, fit, and comfort.
Moccasins generally have a more casual vibe. Penny loafers are probably the most formal style of moccasins and even they are pretty casual. Here is a post explaining the difference between 3 common moccasin styles, the boat shoe, camp moc, and blucher moc. Moccasins are my go-to for summer/spring as they pair well with lighter coloured clothing, lighter cotton or linen pants, and lightweight shirts or polos. I don’t like the preppy connotations associated with boat shoes, so I have a pair of camp mocs (which can also be worn in cooler months with some thick marled socks) from LL Bean, and a pair of beefroll penny loafers from Rancourt (so called because…well look at the picture).
More recently I am also discovering the joys of heavier moccasin styles. See moccasins were originally made by Native Americans and Canadians, and later adopted by European settlers. These were usually in the form of boots and you can buy moc toe boots today from companies like Russells, Quoddy, and (my favourite) Yuketen. Many of their boots also employ designs like double or triple vamps (refer back to the diagram from Russells) to make the boots more waterproof. These boots tend to have heavier rubber soles and pair well with workwear, denim, and military-wear. Most moccasin makers tend to be associated with the New England region and these companies tend to be pretty “trad”, but Oak Street Bootmakers have some fashion forward examples and Yuketen has many. I have a pair of Yuketen maine guide Ox moccasins in flesh-out and they basically wear like sneakers. The Vibram sole is made of a lightweight compound and makes you feel like you are walking on clouds.
Fit and Comfort
Because of the way moccasins are constructed, they are much more flexible than goodyear welted shoes. The down-side is that the soles tend to be thinner (unless its one of the heavier styles mentioned above) and don’t have the foot-conforming layer of cork that is in the middle part of a goodyear welted sole. So if the moccasin is paired with a leather sole, the flexibility and comfort makes it feel like you are wearing house slippers, but there is lack of impact resistance and cushioning. Camp mocs tend to be paired with soft rubber soles so this is alleviated somewhat. Moccasins also tend to hug your foot better and you are less likely to get heel slip than on a welted pair of loafers.
Some brands I like: