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? >>

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High Heels: Part 3 of 8: Analyzing a Heel from a Distance

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.

Classic pink pumps.

Classic rose pink pumps, 2.5 inch heel.


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.

Tango shoes, curved heel, cross-strap support.

Tango shoes, curved heel, cross-strap support.

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.

Sole Adhesion

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.

Purple T-strap platform heels.

Purple T-strap platform heels.

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.

High Heels Part 4 of 8: Materials and Construction >>

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High Heels: Part 2 of 8: How To Avoid Twisting an Ankle

Your ankle is most vulnerable to twisting in strappy open-heeled stilettos: it’s the equivalent of choosing to walk across a deep chasm on a rope bridge, versus one made of steel. Why?

Black strappy Pradas

No heel cup or sides = a recipe for a sprained ankle.


If your foot’s heel is not firmly anchored to the shoe’s heel, it can move independently of the rest of the sole and twist, also known as torquing. This is bad enough in shoes with no sides and just a heel cup where the foot can move up and down (especially as your toes are pushed further forward into the toebox); it’s worse when there’s no heel cup and just a thin strap around the ankle. Then your heel can move up and down and side to side, and that is when you are most likely to fall sideways out of your shoe, my darling. (Don’t fret. I will show you how you can still have strappy, fabulous looking heels that are safe in a later post.)

Alexander Tomlinson at Chanel.

Alexander Tomlinson at Chanel.

Models falling

“Oh, that’ll never happen to me.” Oh really? Are you aware that many a professional model, whose job it is to walk in heels all the time and who likely wears heels more often than you do, has recently fallen while wearing heels on catwalks. There are entire blogs dedicated to pictures of models falling, it’s that common. This was not a problem until the last couple of years, and for the most part, the changes in modern shoe design are to blame. The slick catwalks don’t help either. And wearing socks (!) or stockings with strappy open heels is just asking for an accident. If you don’t want to suffer the same problems, you need to grasp the importance of sole adhesion, and heel position (covered in detail in the next post).

Halle Berry with sprained ankle.

Halle Berry with sprained ankle.

If your body is in motion when your foot torques in a strappy heel, you will likely fall sideways, and your full body weight will land right on the bent ankle just before your hips and elbows hit the pavement. If you’re lucky, you can catch yourself mid-fall and avoid serious injury.

If not, you will likely sprain your ankle, which means that you’re in for a lovely 6 – 12 week recuperation period complete with crutches and a devastatingly unsexy boot. (If Halle Berry can’t make it look cool, what chance do you have?) Good luck finding boots that will fit that godzilla foot if it happens to be Winter. If it’s summer, forget swimming or a sandy beach. Oh, and there’s the physical therapy visits 3 times a week plus daily exercises. Yay…

Why does this happen so often in heels?

It’s not just the added height. When you’re standing on flat feet, the work of supporting the body is shared by both your bones and your muscles. But when you’re standing on your toes, the muscles, particularly those in the lower leg, are doing most of the work.

Monica J skids at Hervé Leger

Monica J skids at Hervé Leger

There’s also a lot more space between the bones in the ankle area when you’re on your toes, with naught but flexible tendons and muscles to hold you up. This is what makes it possible for you to hop and run, and puts the spring in your step. If those muscles haven’t been used in awhile (I’m talking to you, weekend fashionista) or you’re wearing a higher heel than normal, your leg muscles may be too weak.

How To Avoid an Injury in High Heels

1) Be proactive: do strength exercises that tone the lower leg muscles and keep your legs long and strong. In yoga, any of the tree poses (balancing on one leg) or lunges (warrior) are great for this. Before and after a day in heels, be sure to do a couple of Down(ward) Dogs to stretch the achilles tendon. Or stand barefoot on a step with your heels hanging off the edge and a hand on a railing and gently raise and lower yourself. Or jump (gently!) on a mini-trampoline for 5 mins each morning.

2) Pay more attention to the way you walk:

  • slow down
  • shorten your stride (close your eyes and take a few steps to get a better feel)
  • avoid slick, hard surfaces or cobble-stones
  • link arms with a friend when walking in a street or across uneven terrain so you can easily catch yourself
  • take a break and sit down before you need to so that your muscles aren’t exhausted and weak

Avoiding a Skid

These heels are guaranteed to skid on a smooth floor.

These heels are guaranteed to skid on a smooth floor.

Have you ever skidded in a high heel at the point when your heel makes contact? Why does this happen?

1) your stride is too long for the heel height (take smaller steps, sweetpea)
2) the heel tip material is too hard and slick (have a cobbler replace that plastic crap with a leather or rubber sole that will grip better on polished surfaces)
3) the heel is too narrow for your weight

Narrow heels are pretty much guaranteed to cause a skid on anything but carpet. And the heel is poorly positioned, which I’ll explain in the next post.

High Heels: Part 3 of 8: Analyzing a Heel from a Distance >>

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.