This one’s a reader request, and one I’ve felt a little impostor-syndrome about! Everyone wants to find comfortable heels, and I hate heels. However, I am a good researcher, I appreciate how heels look on other people, and I am all about harm mitigation, so I decided to find out:
- What shoe brands promise reasonably comfortable, yet attractive, heels?
- Do any of them actually have data, rather than anecdotes, to prove their points?
I know that a lot of recommendations I make are not cheap, but there’s no area of fashion I’ve explored that can command prices as absurd as “comfortable, pretty high heels”– especially shoes with any kind of data to back up their promises of comfort. That said, here’s what I’ve found on brands that make nice-looking high heels that are designed to hurt minimally.
About The ‘Data’
There’s very little actual data available to consumers on specific shoe brands’ impact on people’s health. It makes sense: scientific studies (and even scans) are more expensive than marketing, and most people are perfectly fine letting a company like the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA) evalute data for them. Which is a shame, because when you trust experts unquestioningly, you get shoe brands designed by podiatrists who are “trained in foot lasers, acupressure, reiki, reflexology, essential oils, nutritional counseling, and Ayurvedic medicine.”
I deliberately ignored that shoe brand for this post. Also, my friend says, “I know that “foot lasers” probably refers to laser therapy but all I can think is that it would be a very inconvenient superpower.”
All of the ‘data’ I’ve got for this post is… limited, to say the least. We’re either taking experts’ word that the data supports their statements, or looking at a single piece of data and presuming it applies across the board and hasn’t been manipulated in any way. This makes me sad as a certified data-lover.
The Data-Driven Shoes:
|Vionic Shoes||$159.95||Certified by APMA||APMA assures us their process is science-driven||A single bootie||Appropriate for all venues|
|Joan Oloff||$340-$515||Podiatrist designer||A single CT scan, several compelling anecdotes||Pumps, flats, booties, heeled sandals||Dressy; a few designs are work-appropriate|
|Thesis Couture||$350-$950||Orthopedist, astronaut, and actual rocket scientist on team||None yet, but compelling numbers||Lookbook contains various heeled sandals||Very fancy|
|Marion Parke||$495-$695||Surgical podiatrist designer||None||Strappy heels, heeled sandals||Very fancy|
Joan Oloff is a shoe brand created by podiatrist Joan Oloff. Her ‘data’ is a single CT scan of a foot in a normal high heel vs. a foot in her high heel, and the difference in weight distribution:
Nonetheless, she has compelling anecdotes about her shoes. A ballet-dancer-turned-shoe-model loved her shoes’ style and comfort so much she asked for shoes in lieu of overtime pay; Becky Worley of ABC News said that the Joan Oloff shoes offered “more softness… less [toe] pinching… a more stable feeling base” than comparable 4-inch heels; and she has some really happy reviews (“still can’t believe that I’m not having low back pain, my toes are not numb, no blisters anywhere, no cramping!”).
Moreover, she’s clearly put a lot of ongoing thought into the design of her shoes. Design features I’d like to specifically point out are her custom lasts, which are essentially combination lasts (wider in the forefoot, narrower in the heel) and to her new custom heel shape (pentagonal, so that it provides stability while giving the illusion of being slimmer than it is). Also, I think her shoes are trendy-looking?
Thesis Couture has ridiculous buzz for shoes that are not even on the market yet. Honestly, I understand why: getting actual rocket scientists to work on your shoes is a good story. The founder of Thesis Couture used to work as a recruiter for SpaceX, and she’s brought a number of SpaceX consultants to Thesis Couture to work on the problem of engineering attractive high heels that are less damaging.
Her lookbook is currently just sketches named after famous women, but I will be sincerely impressed if they manage to make this into a shoe, let alone a walkable one:
What she says about the data: her shoes “[reduce] pressure placed on the ball of the foot by 30 percent, [feel] like a wedge, [fit] securely to reduce friction and [absorb] shock.” Her first line will cost $925, and she hopes eventually to make $350 models.
Marion Parke is a new name to me.
It’s a podiatric-surgeon-designed line of classic-but-unusual fancy, strappy shoes you’d wear to dressy events. Marion Parke (also the podiatric surgeon’s name) makes no specific data-driven claims, which I also appreciate: in fact, she insists on not doing so. Here’s a succinct summary of the philosophy behind her shoes, from a Refinery29 article:
“Though she swears they’re not “doctor-approved,” they are designed with a better understanding of how feet operate. Broken down into four basic parts — padded arch support, an insole that better holds the heel, medical-grade foam (she tells us that it’s like adding another layer of soft tissue to the bottom of your foot), and more material near outside of the shoe — Parke’s pieces focus on wearability. “
For more detail about what she considers in terms of foot-friendlier heel design, check out this interview at the Fashion Times.
Vionic by Orthaheel mostly doesn’t make expert-approved heels, but their Upton Ankle Bootie is a low-heeled boot that’s been approved by the APMA, which promises that “The overall evaluation includes a review of all application materials to ensure that all claims made about the product are supported by documentary evidence.” The bootie comes in medium and wide widths.
Generally, the internets think Vionic’s shoes have amazing footbeds and are way less clunky than most comfort shoes, but that the uppers are cheap and not very comfortable.
Runners-Up: No Data Found
Here are some runners-up I think are lovely, but which don’t have any data or notable expertise to back them up.
|Casa Couture||$129.99||Arch supportive, 2-directional stretch||Pumps, flats||Slightly dressy to dressy|
|Anyi Lu||$395-445||Arch supportive, poron memory foam||Pumps, sandals, wedges, flats||Any level of formality, from delicate lace heels to sandals that look weirdly blood-soaked|
|Dana Davis||$17.50-$199.99 (on eBay)||Supportive and cushioned||Pumps, clogs, sandals, if you can find your size for sale anywhere||Casual to dressy|
Casa Couture won awards for making beautiful, stylish shoes that responded to pregnancy-related shoe size and width changes (from foot swelling). I’ve personally owned a pair of their flats, but in the wrong size, so I can tell you: the shoes are actually stunningly beautiful, they’d be supportive if you got the right size, and also, their website hasn’t updated for years, so what you see is basically what you get. Casa Couture’s original page says that they “consulted with leading footwear experts, podiatrist and pedorthists.”
Anyi Lu was designed by an engineer and former competitive ballroom dancer who wanted stylish heels she could dance in and wear to work. Anyi Lu shoes are built on a medium last, not a combination last, so only their sandals should work for you if you have wider toeboxes. I tried on the Linda wedge, and it was ridiculously supportive and comfy; the Emily heel was, unsurprisingly, way too narrow for my D-width foot.
The titular Anyi Lu is taking a break from designing right now for health reasons, so snap up what you can on eBay (or at Nordstrom).
Dana Davis was a celebrity favorite shoe brand designed by a woman with real foot problems: interviews indicate her Type 1 diabetes-related foot problems are so severe that she’s had 8 corrective surgeries and cannot feel anything from the knees down. So she started figuring out dress shoes that were truly both comfortable and supportive. She’s taken on more responsibilities at the Children’s Diabetes Foundations, so there have been no new shoe designs for years: if you can find some in your size on eBay, you’re lucky.
Unusual Sizes have fewer options, even among non-data-driven shoes. If you have wide feet like me, good luck. Clarks has some acceptable shoes that come in wide and narrow widths. Their Artisan branded shoes are comfier and more supportive than their others. The Rosalyn Belle is a shoe I wore to an interview recently and didn’t have much trouble with.
Runners-Down: Shoes I Deliberately Excluded
Ukies: A few months ago, I might have recommended Ukies on sale to people with less wide feet than I have, but they appear to have both dramatically raised their prices, eliminated all the styles I’ve tried, and hideous-ified many of their shoes.
Taryn Rose: A podiatrist-designed brand, but I have tried 3 pairs and been disappointed in all of them. Disrecommended.