You can tell how comfortable a pair of heels will be just by looking at them with an analytical eye. This is a critical skill when you’re window shopping or browsing online. The shape and placement of the heel, the amount of surface space of the toe box, and any extra support will all contribute to the level of comfort.
The Shape of the Heel
As you may have already discovered, a super-skinny heel is not a good idea. Essentially, you are stepping on a nail. A chunkier heel, or better yet, a wedge heel, gives you more surface area over which to spread the weight of your body. This is why elephants need large feet, while gazelles do not. (Ever tried walking across a lawn in a really skinny high heel? Fun, right?) If you prefer a slim heel, look for one where the inside top of the shoe’s heel curves towards the insole creating a mini-wedge, versus a straight heel, as it provides additional support for the insole, which means less pressure on the ball of your foot.
The Position of the Heel
Beware of heels placed too far back on the shoe. They may look sleek and cool, but avoid them because:
- they make it very difficult to walk with a natural rolling motion so you end up clomping about, upper body hunched forward and knees bent at all times which looks terrible and also exhausts the quad muscles in your thighs.
- they will force even more weight forward onto the ball of the foot, with no chance of resting on your heels when standing.
For optimal support and comfort, the heel should sit directly under the middle of the ankle. This is where the heel has been placed for the last 500 years. Ignoring this basic rule invites pain and foot problems.
Take a good long look at professional dance shoes (tango, flamenco, swing, etc) next time you’re near a dance supply store. They’ll give you a clear understanding of the ideal heel shape and placement for hard-working feet. Consider buying a pair, as the leather will be much better quality than at your average shoe store. Dancers do not settle for ugly, poorly made or uncomfortable heels—why on earth should you? Note the double strap for extra support on these tango shoes.
The Toe Box
The same surface area rule applies to the toe box. The more of the sole that touches the ground, the more comfortable you’ll be. A lower heel = a longer toe box. The more wiggle room inside the toe box, the better. If you love a pointy-toed shoe, make sure it’s long enough to allow for a wide toe box so that your toes aren’t cramped. Allow for an extra toe’s width of room. As you push off from each step, your toes naturally want to spread; let them do their job and they won’t complain. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ll wearing them in; this is an invitation to bunions: extra bone growth that results in foot pain and widens the foot which makes finding elegant shoes next to impossible.
Any extra element that helps to keep your foot firmly attached to the shoe is a bonus in terms of comfort. And by ‘firmly attached,’ I mean the entire sole, from heel to toe and along both sides, should feel glued to the shoe: no slipping, no sliding, no heel popping up and out with each step.
Extra help can come in the form of an ankle strap, a sling back ankle strap or, ideally, an extra band(s) across the vamp. (What’s a vamp? See Anatomy of a Shoe for a brief overview of shoe parts). For shoes with no heel or heel strap (e.g. slide-on mules), look for a vamp that extends higher up the foot from the toe box. Why? A mule with a short vamp that ends where the toes begin will a) rub like hell and b) produce that awful slapping action when the toe pushes off and the insole, momentarily left behind, suddenly catches up with your heel mid-air. Sort of like walking through mud. There’s nothing more unrefined than a sound that reminds everyone of a flip-flop. Don’t get me started on flip-flops. If I had my way they’d be outlawed. And not just for aesthetic reasons.
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