Monthly Archives: September 2012

High Heels: Part 5 of 8: How High is Too High?

High heels and comfort are often seen as being at odds, with most women resigned to suffering for the sake of aesthetics. But it is possible to have both. It’s a matter of knowing how to choose a well-engineered shoe (i.e. one made of quality material, with ample support across the upper/vamp, and a correctly-positioned heel. You did read the previous posts in this series, right?). But there’s one other critical factor: the angle between your heel and the ball of your foot, when in the shoe, and this is largely dependent on heel height.

Purple stiletto heels

Strictly for photo shoots and dinners at home: 5 inch “spikes” with a recessed (displaced) heel. Ouch.


According to Wikipedia, the word “stiletto” is an “Italian knife or dagger with a long slender blade and needle-like point, primarily intended as a stabbing weapon.” And if you’ve ever worn a pair, you know how apt that name is. The original stilettos in the ’50’s were leather pumps (enclosed heel, sides and toe) with a slender, curved 3 – 4 inch heel. Back then 4 inches was considered the absolute limit.

Modern stilettos, sometimes referred to as “spikes,” are more likely to range from 4 to 6 inches. Spikes may look fabulous on models in magazines and movie stars on the red carpet, but there is nothing comfortable about these shoes: from the needle-like heel to the sheer vertical drop of the foot, they are excruciatingly painful to walk in for more than about 10 minutes. You can thank Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin for this trend. (Manolo Blahnik too, although his shoes are purported to be more comfortable than the others.) The pressure on the knee, ankle and ball of the foot are guaranteed to give you serious health problems. Worse, they have a tendency to cheapen your look (unless you’re wearing a ball gown or a demure black dress), resulting in a look that is more street-walker than red carpet.

Heel Heights for Professional Dancers

Contrary to current fashion trends, the technical heel height limit for professional dance shoes is 3 inches: Flamenco: 1.5″ – 3″, Ballroom: 1″ – 3′. This is not a random number: any higher and they cannot execute their steps properly.

Dancers’ heels are often chunky (aka a Cuban heel) and wide, to allow them to successfully execute turns. To make them look less clunky and more feminine, many of them feature cutwork (peekaboo sections of skin), multiple thin straps (versus one wide band) or transparent mesh across the vamp. Anytime you can reveal skin on the upper/vamp area without sacrificing support, you will have a shoe that is both flattering and a delight to wear.

Black flamenco dance shoes

Flamenco shoes: soft leather, two straps across the upper, and a wide 2 inch cuban heel built to take a lot of stomping

The Upper Limit

So here’s the bottom line: if you want to be able to walk and stand comfortably, do not wear any shoe that raises your heel higher than 3 inches from the ball of your foot. This will ensure that the angle of your foot (heel to toe) is less than 30 degrees, which is the functional range. Obviously, if the shoe has a platform beneath the toe box, you can go higher. Just as long as that 3 inch rule still applies to your foot’s heel and toe.

ComfyChic Alternatives

In addition to the 3 inch limit, look for:

    • a chunkier heel with a platform under the toe box, preferably tilted up in front to prevent undue forward sliding and strain on the smaller toes.
    • a kitten heel: 1.5″ to 1.75″ heel. The lower height allows for a skinnier heel resulting in an elegant feminine look. The heel placement also contributes to foot comfort. Very Audrey Hepburn.
    • a wedge heel: look for cork in summer (very light in weight and shock absorbent), rubber in winter (waterproof, won’t scratch, rinses clean, more durable than leather).
Black leather wedges with a 4 inch heel and 1 inch toe platform.

Black leather wedges with a 4 inch heel and 1 inch toe platform.

What’s so great about a wedge?

A wedge heel (invented by Salvatore Ferragamo) is the ideal ComfyChic heel. It’s easier to stand in and easier to walk in as the weight is distributed over a greater surface area. This means if you normally can’t tolerate more than a 2 inch heel, you’ll probably feel fine in a 3 inch wedge. If you must wear super high heels, make them a wedge whenever possible.

High Heels: Part 6 of 8 : Maximizing Comfort and Fit  >>

Sign up for blog posts via email and receive a free downloadable PDF of the ComfyChic Guide to Buying High Heels. Don’t go shoe shopping without it.

High Heels: Part 4 of 8: Materials and Construction

Before you buy a great looking pair of heels, check the fine print on the inside, either on the insole or on the inside of the heel. Ideally, you want to see “all natural upper” and “all natural insole”; bonus if it says “all leather.” If instead you see “all man-made upper” put that shoe right back on the shelf, sweetpea. Why? Man-made means it’s synthetic which means:

  • you will sweat no matter what season it is
  • it will never stretch or mold to your foot*
  • it will not soften with age
  • if it tears or scuffs there’s no fixing it
  • basically, it’s disposable plastic held together with glue
  • it may fall apart if exposed to water (rain, puddles, snow)
Cork is lightweight and a natural shock (and sound) absorber. Wedge heel and platform toe increases foot comfort.

Cork is lightweight and a natural shock (and sound) absorber. Wedge heel and platform toe increases foot comfort.

*Exception: casual heels (e.g. summer sandals) that have an upper made of stretchy elastic or neoprene-like material may feel more comfortable than new leather, and may be fine for wearing in an air-conditioned office. Just be aware that once outside, your skin (the part that is wrapped in synthetic material) will not be able to breathe, so sweat will build up inside or under the straps causing your foot to slide in the shoe which will create friction, rubbing and irritation. So make sure there’s plenty of your skin showing, and look for a peep toe for better air circulation.

Why are synthetics so popular?

Synthetic (man-made) materials are concocted in a factory setting from chemicals (eww!) so they’re cheaper to produce than natural materials, as there’s no farming involved. This also guarantees year-round uniformity of materials. Manufacturers love this. But wait, there’s more. To lower costs further, they’re usually held together with glue. Not a stitch anywhere to be seen. Same with sneakers. (Logically, sneakers should be dirt cheap. But someone has to pay for all the marketing.) If the parts can be extruded in one or two plastic molds, there’s less labor involved. Never mind that your shoe needs to bend and flex with your foot to avoid injuries like a sprained ankle and other orthopedic issues: they’re cheap. And they’re flying off the shelves.

A Good Sole

The sole (the part that touches the pavement, not your foot) is often man-made these days. This makes for a tougher, longer-wearing sole, which is why you rarely see holes in shoes any more. Often it is super-thin, compared to the old leather soles. However, it also means a thinner layer of shock-absorbing material between you and the pavement. To compensate, look for heels with a layer of natural cork or rubber in the heel.

Extra built-in padding

More and more shoe manufacturers are adding thick built-in padding in the mid-sole (sandwiched between the insole and sole). The cushier and longer-wearing this is, the better. The midsole is one area that benefits from being man-made as it will not wear out as quickly. It should spring back when you press on it. (Press as hard as you can with your thumbs.) Ideally you want a lot of cushioning under the ball of the foot and the heel. (Yes, you can buy separate padded inserts at the drugstore and glue them in but these should be a last resort. Full rundown on inserts in my next post.) For a full list of resources for comfychic heels, sign up for my mailing list (click the red button in the sidebar).

Custom Made Heels

If you’ve tried the local dance supply stores and you still haven’t found a style you like, or you have orthotics, you might try a custom-made shoe. These used to be astronomical in price, but can now be had for $50 – $500. Ask a local shoe repair shop for a recommendation on where to find them in your area, or try one of the popular online services like Milk & Honey or Shoes USA. Both are located in Los Angeles and ship worldwide. You can return them but there’s a 30% restocking charge if they don’t fit, so be sure to follow the size guidelines.

Also, Shoes of Prey (Sydney, Australia) sells custom-made shoes online and via their Surry Hills showroom. 100% refund and they ship worldwide for $25. Prices: $150 for sandals; $185 for ballet flats; $240 for 1½ to 3½ inch heels, $290 for 4 to 6 inch heels and $335 for ankle boots.

High Heels: Part 5 of 8: How High is Too High? >>

Sign up for blog posts via email and receive a free downloadable PDF of the ComfyChic Guide to Buying High Heels. Don’t go shoe shopping without it.