Consider the timing: At this point last year you might have just landed a holiday deal on a pair of beautiful heels you’d been eyeing, only to then spend the better part of the last 10 months in comfortable flat shoes — sneakers and slippers included. Though a missed opportunity to dress up in something special ranks very low on the list of disappointments in 2020, it’s still worth acknowledging that times have really changed.
According to analytics company NPD Group, dress shoe purchases dropped 70% between March and May this year. Meanwhile footwear brands have seen a shift in their customers' purchasing habits where heels take a backseat to comfortable styles. Heel devotees at home may have also made the shift to comfortable flats, thus inspiring a closer look at how beneficial it is to do a 180 from stiletto pumps to flimsy slippers. Spoiler alert: Not very.
While many brands are reconsidering their design ethos, designer and former podiatrist Marion Parke has been putting her medical knowledge to use in her eponymous line since its launch in 2016. Be it strappy flats or stilettos, her collection is known for its signature footbed offering comfort and support. Parke says there’s no explicit danger in giving up a heels habit, but “it's important to know that shifting from wearing heels regularly to wearing flats can lead to such problems as Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis,” she explains. “Wearing heels for an extended period of time can lead to a tightening of the calf muscles, which causes something called ‘equinus.’" As the name suggests, the foot's position becomes like a horse's, where the top has difficulty bending, Parke explains. Additionally, aches, pains, and other challenges can persist when the body compensates for the calf tightness.
These risks don't necessarily make a case for wearing heels at home (unless that’s your thing) but there are some considerations to think about if your footwear habits have become much more relaxed this year. The highlights are below.
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Ditching Heels 101: Don’t Forgo Shoes All Together
Perhaps you take a less-is-more approach to work-from-home style and, in that case, days may pass by where you don’t wear shoes at all. This is how nature intended it, no? Parke warns that there can be issues in an extended hiatus from footwear altogether. “Walking barefoot can lead to excess motion in the arch of the foot and cause such problems as Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis, as well as a generalized pain under the forefoot called ‘metatarsalgia,’” the designer and podiatrist says. She also states that the most active homebodies — those who go up and down stairs, or walk on hard wood or stone floors — need the extra support. “Going barefoot also means you don't have the benefit of additional shock absorption that a shoe can provide."
The answer can be a supportive house slipper or a pair of sleek, yet comfortable, flats that feel more occasion-appropriate for a day of Zoom calls or local errands. And yes, there are specific suggestions on how to choose each.
Ditching Heels 101: Not All Flats Are Created Equal
Flat shoes are not necessarily a healthier footwear choice simply because they don’t have a spindly heel. There are specific elements to look for when choosing a pair. “We have six millimeters of supportive padding on top of the inner sole,” explains Alexa Buckley of Margaux, a New York-based brand known for its comfortable and high-quality shoes, including the ballet flats she's referring to. “We also have a metal shank inside of the shoe which means that the shoe is also not foldable, which is much better not only for the integrity of the shoes but the support.”
Parke echoes a similar sentiment that the best flats are not the kind you’d fold up and throw into a handbag. “Many flats are built in a way that is too flexible,” she says. “If a shoe bends through the arch then it is not a supportive shoe for walking or standing for an extended period of time. That excessive flexibility in the shoe will lead to soreness and fatigue. A good, supportive shoe only bends at one place: the widest part of the toe box.”
Ditching Heels 101: Be Discerning About Fluffy Slippers
There is something undeniably cozy about slippers that look as plush as a pillow-top mattress. So yes, indulge if you like. However, if you’re looking for slippers with long-term comfort, don’t be swayed only by the fluff. “The best shoe to wear at home, whether you're a heel lover or a flat lover, is one with an arch support and one that isn't too flexible,” says Parke, adding, “The footwear industry hasn't done the best job of educating people on what to look for in shoes given a particular activity.”
Parke says that the cushiness one might find attractive can lead to soreness and fatigue over time. She recommends a more rigid shoe for those who are on their feet, even at home. “Soft, fluffy, and flexible shoes, while they sound nice, are better for people who aren't standing or walking much.”
Ditching Heels 101: Stretch, Stretch, Stretch
As previously mentioned, extended heel wearing can lead to foot pain. While a break from heels may feel right for those who don't have an occasion to wear them currently, Parke says that stretching should always be a regular practice as it can mitigate the issue. “If someone has worn heels or boots regularly, then it's a good idea to do calf stretches in the evenings and each morning to avoid the pain and problems that can be associated with the change," she says.
Parke is a vocal advocate for stretching, especially because repeated practice can prevent plantar fasciitis. She recommends the traditional runner's stretch, "with one leg back and the other leg lunged forward. The key to this stretch is making sure that your toes are pointed straight ahead. If the toes are rotated outward, then the stretch will not be as effective."
While Parke says there's no specific study that proves it, heels lovers may find that their bodies need to reacquaint and adjust to wearing them, after a long absence. "A little bit of a wedge (like half an inch) can be helpful to people who are trying to treat plantar fasciitis and can be more comfortable to people with high arches," she says for those with existing discomfort, "but I wouldn't advise people to 'prophylactically' wear heels. Not at all."
Ditching Heels 101: Rotate Footwear
Whether you currently keep heels in your footwear rotation or not, Buckley advises that you shouldn't wear the same pair of shoes day in and day out, even if your schedule remains the same.
"We’ve heard it so many times from our technicians and in the factories: as much as we love particular shoes in our closet and as tempting as it is to wear the same pair every day, it’s actually really important to give your shoes a break," says Buckley. "Giving them 24 hours to breathe in between wears really helps with the longevity of the shoe, especially when they’re leather and handmade shoes, like ours. Shoes can get sweaty, especially leather, and need a chance to dry, so it’s definitely for the integrity of the shoe and for the comfort level."
Buckley adds that there's one other important reason to change up footwear especially when you might feel like you're in a rut. "It’s a physical cue to our bodies. Putting on and taking off your shoes at the end of the day, even if you haven’t changed your environment, has become impactful in our day and now it’s something we’re thinking about. It’s definitely something that’s affected how we look at design."
Ditching Heels 101: Store Away The Shoes You're Not Wearing
Finally, should you be forgoing heels for the time being, or only wearing them sparing, Buckley suggests storing away any unworn shoes as it helps with the longevity of the design. "We sell shoe shapers and shoe trees and they’re a great way — whether you’re traveling or just storing your clothes in your closet — to maintain the integrity of the shoe and help it keep its shape," she says.
"You run the risk in compromising the shape of the shoe and also sometimes delicate materials," says Buckley. She also shares that, when in doubt, no special equipment is needed to get the job done. "We ship all our shoes with paper in the toe and sometimes I just keep that if I don't have a shoe shaper on hand."