For all of their many virtues, dazzling shoes do come with a downside. Learn what you can do to ease the pain.
While out for cocktails last winter, 24-year-old Sarah Sweigart encountered every woman"s worst fashion nightmare: Her brand-new, pointy-toed stilettos completely failed her. "All night it felt like my heels were somehow sliding underneath my feet," she remembers. "But they were new, so I didn"t worry much." Shortly after, one shoe"s heel snapped in half on an ice patch, sending her flying facedown onto the pavement.
Six months later, Sweigart found the same killer stilettos in an outlet while on vacation. "They were like a lost puppy that had found its way home," she sighs. Chalking up the previous season"s wipeout to freak accident, she slipped them on, paid the bill, and strutted out of the store. "I hadn"t worn them for 20 minutes before the heels began weakening," she laments. "Now they"re just sitting somewhere in my closet. I don"t dare wear them, but I can"t bring myself to throw them out."
Though Sweigart and thousands like her have closets full of fabulous heels that don"t break in half, many women still suffer from a host of other shoe-related problems, including backaches, blisters, and irritation. Is "comfortably chic" a contradiction in footwear terms? Can you have your heels and wear them, too?
According to Dr. Noreen Oswell, past president of the California Podiatric Medical Association and spokesperson for the American Podiatric Medical Association, "You can"t expect to walk a mile in dress shoes." All too familiar with the havoc high heels, especially, can wreak, Oswell says complications can range from hammer toes (where the toes become buckled and contracted) to neurona (the "inflammation of a nerve in the ball of the foot causing pain and numbness"). She also notes that wearing dress shoes incessantly in one"s youth can lead to more serious problems later; women who"ve worn high heels their entire life have a greater chance of eventually needing knee replacement than their more sensibly-shoed counterparts.
The recent craze for ballet flats would seem to offer a healthy alternative to high-heel horrors. But footwear that is completely flat has no support, leading to heel and arch pain. "A flat shoe sometimes puts strain on the back of the legs and lower back," Oswell continues. "I think an ideal heel height is about an inch and a half." Above all else, she recommends wearing athletic shoes for activities that require you to be on your feet for a long time and saving your stilettos for seated activities, such as dining.
Many podiatric problems can also be avoided in the shopping stage, says Meghan Cleary, author of The Perfect Fit: What Your Shoes Say About You (Chronicle) and founder of the shoe-loving website missmeghan.com. She recommends looking for shoes when shipments arrive at the stores in September, March, and early April to increase your chances of finding the best style in the right size. Because feet swell throughout the day, Cleary also suggests shopping in the evening, when they"re at their largest. "Five to seven o"clock p.m. is the magical cocktail hour," she says. "Grab a few of your girlfriends, a glass of champagne, and hit the stores!"
When you"ve found a seemingly perfect pair, be sure to check for support. "The best test for a shoe is to pick it up and gently twist it, grabbing the toe at one end and heel at the other," Cleary says. "If it twists really quickly and easily, there"s no support. If it doesn"t twist at all, it"s not flexible enough." Oswell concurs: "You shouldn"t be able to wring it out or fold it in half"; the key is finding a middle ground.
Once you"ve found a pair of shoes that are both sexy and supportive, you"ll want to keep them in good condition. "Always put the tissue paper that comes in the toe of the shoe back when you aren"t wearing them," Cleary says. "It absorbs moisture and allows them to dry and retain their shape." If you have the room, she also suggests "putting shoes back in the box and stapling a Polaroid on the outside," which will keep them organized and safely stored.
Keep in mind that extra care should be taken in winter. "Salt is the number-one killer of amazing shoes," Cleary explains. "Even the tiniest bit will sink in and damage the leather." To prevent salt damage, she suggests spraying new shoes with a repellent treatment about five or six times, allowing an hour"s drying time between each coat. Also remember to check the condition of your shoes as soon as you get home, and use a stiff brush to remove salt right away. If that"s not enough, "try a good saddle soap, warm water, and a soft rag," Cleary says. And when it comes to the inevitable wear and tear, a good cobbler can keep your shoes looking beautiful for a lifetime.