How to Look Professional in Flats — All the Time

how to look professional in flatsHow can you make flats look good with conservative ensembles, without looking frumpy? Reader N is particularly curious because she has MS:

I’m sure you’ve encountered similar questions in the past, but…here goes: I am 31 and work in downtown Manhattan in a technology org for a big bank. Us females are a rarity in a mostly male-dominated environment. I simply must look good. ;) My biggest issue, specifically, is shoes. I have MS – thankfully without me telling you, you wouldn’t notice (until I throw on a pair of heels >2″….then I wobble around like I’m 3 sheets to the wind. Not cute.) I feel like my options are so limited! I can get away with reasonably flat-soled platforms, but otherwise I feel like I get either loafers or ballet flats. Which don’t always work with my conservative work attire. Any tips that won’t demolish my wallet? Thanks!

I think this is relevant for a lot of women (whether they have MS or not) — not everyone wants to or can kill themselves in 3″ heels all the time. We’ve talked about whether you can wear flats for a court appearance, and we’ve addressed other issues (such as how to buy shoes that you can wear socks with), but we haven’t talked about how to make conservative styles look good when you’re wearing flats around the clock.  It can even be a challenge to find classic heels under 2″! (That said, if you can happily live with a 2.5″ heel your options expand dramatically).  Personally, I still love a lot of the strappy, pointed-toe flats we rounded up for a Hunt last June.

In general, you’re in luck in terms of shopping — there are a lot of flat or nearly-flat styles that are trendy. We’ve included the 1.5″ Halogen Bianca Wedge before ($115 at Nordstrom), as well as the wide selection of mini wedges at Madewell right now.  Oxfords are also still in (such as the cute Dolce Vita loafers pictured at top, available at ShopBop for $169.).  Even Victoria Beckham is wearing flats!

A few general tips for you:

how-to-look-professional-in-flats- Own it.  Look at Victoria Beckham, for example — she’s rocking what I’m guessing are Alexander Wang flats with a sheath dress, and she kind of looks fabulous doing it.

- Decide if you want to be “classic” or “fashionable.”  If you’re going for a classic look, the trick for you is to find the very best pair of ballet shoes or low heels that work for you in terms of gait, style, comfort, etc — and then making an investment.  I would almost say that if you find that perfect shoe, buy it in as many colors as you can afford — make it a quintessential part of your look.  I would look at a lot of icons for inspiration here — Audrey Hepburn immediately comes to mind, for example,

- If you want to be on the more fashionable side of flats, I recommend window shopping at some of the trendier, pricier storesShopBop, Barneys New York, La Garçonne, Kirna Zabête — as well as some of the more forward-thinking boutiques like Zoë.  This is an education of sorts — you’re teaching yourself what is new and cutting edge for adults, not teenagers.  Once you get a sense for that, you can start looking for similar shapes and styles in your own price range.  If you’re curious for ideas on how to style something, try doing a Google search for some of those fancier, high-end shoes, because you’ll turn up a lot of pictures of celebrities wearing them.

- Finally: know which conservative work looks do not look good with flats, and just avoid those.  For example, I always feel like a pencil skirt absolutely requires a heel, even if it’s just a tiny one — and I’ve also often thought that flared trousers look a bit better with a pointed, not rounded toe (but any height is fine so long as the pant is hemmed correctly).

Readers, what are your tips — how do you make flats look as professional and conservative as heels?  Do any of you only wear flats or very low heels, all the time?

Comments

  1. hoola hoopa :

    I only wear flats to work. It’s a remnant of a former job where heels were not practical. I’ve never even considered that it could not look professional. I don’t see 3” heels as a necessity to look like a professional. I work in a male-dominated field also. There are a couple of things that I do, now that I think about it:

    Wear professional shoes. I think ‘ballet flats’ can become synonymous with cheap, casual, play shoes and too many flats involve soles curling on to the side. Your office shoes should not involve elastic or rubber. For example, I have a pair in black croc-embossed patent leather that can only read as professional shoe.

    Wear mostly pants. I find them more comfortable at work anyway, as I spend most of my time at a computer, but they do make wearing flats easier. I wear mostly ‘ballet’ flats and loafers.

    Wear skirts with a low wedge. Again, everything else about the show should read as purely professional.

    Wear correct hosiery. Don’t wear weekend socks just because you’re not wearing heels. Buy nice trouser socks, knee-high hose, etc.

    • I too wear mostly flats and I buy good shoes. Stuart Weitzman’s Poco heel is one of the best I have found. I have it in a snake print which are fun and black patent. They make them in many colors each season and you can find them at 6pm.com on sale in last season’s colors. I buy good, classic shoes as I do not like the look of cheap shoes that don’t fit properly.

      Stuart Weitzman also has several pumps like Blog that have a small platform so they actually look higher than they are, and I wear those with a skirt.

      • Gwenn Ellen :

        I have been eying Poco’s for months, do they fit well? I see them for sale on ebay and wonder if its because they are too narrow, etc.

    • I’ve increasingly felt like my ballet flats just don’t look right with office attire (not judging others, this is just my feeling when I wear them). For reasons of comfort, lifestyle and philosophy I very, very rarely wear shoes over 2″. Strangely, this ends up posing the biggest challenge when I’m looking for black flat (or nearly flat) shoes. I’m liking the look of these, can anyone recommend a shoe in this general style (pointier is ok, but I prefer a low-ish vamp) in black? http://shop.emersonfry.com/paulo-loafer-khaki-leather Thanks!

      • I agree. I do NOT look good in flat’s b/c I am not that tall. I am onley 5 foot 4 so when I wear flat’s I can quickly look dumpy next to a taller guy or other women with 4 inch heel’s. Beside’s the manageing partner like’s me to show my leg’s off and when your onley 5 foot 4, you BETTER be weareing high heel’s or their will NOT be to much leg to show! He may be a littel dirty minded, but it work’s b/c the judge is often STAREING at my leg’s or my red lipstick and NOT listening to hard to what I am sayeing b/c he some times akesks me to repeat it for him.

        So I say if your over 5 foot 6 or 7, you can wear flat’s without looking short and dumpy, but the rest of us have to be very CARFUL b/c we are not that tall to begin with. I know Gonzalo and other squat little guy’s dont care, but I do NOT want to go out with a pipsqueak who I am taller than, let ALONE marry a shrimp-o. No, I want a guy at least 5 foot 10 or MORE, b/c I want him to PROTECT and CARE FOR ME, both fineancially and physeically. I want a PRINCE, NOT a PIPSQUEAK! YAY!!!!!!!!!!!!

        • Anonymous :

          I seriously question whether you are a professional given all of the grammatical and spelling errors…

        • I wonder whats your job description… I sit at the receptionists desk and show off my legs because I am “onley” 5 foot 4 and my crap Engrish is only good enough for guys like “Gonzalo”

          I’m 5’4″ and I look good in flats. Why? Because I know how to dress properly to make both flats and heels work in an office environment. You on the hand, go back to school. That strip club job will only pay you for a good few years.

    • hoola hoopa :

      * err, that should say “I wear mostly NON-‘ballet’ flats and loafers.”

    • If you feel good in a fuller skirt, wear it with sleek oxfords, no socks. Fashionable, but might be just classic enough. Dieppa Restrepos look to be glorious.

  2. I’m trying to transition to wearing more flats because I’m starting to have knee problems from wearing literally nothing but heels ever for about 10 years (it was a stubborn teenage rebellion thing).

    Anyway, I think the keys to making flats look formal are: No super rounded tow (looks little girly to me); high quality material; not too shiny, and a very slight but thick and wide 1/2″ heel ( think this is better for your posture anyway than something that is completely flat).

    Here’s a pair that’s not perfect, but close: http://www.zappos.com/ivanka-trump-annuly-light-beige-patent-tejus . Will post some more in a follow up comment (I’m procrastinating at home today :/ )

  3. Diana Barry :

    I only wear flats, all the time. Exception for fancy networking events (rare) and nights out (outside of work) (also rare). I wear:

    - minnetonka mocs in fun colors
    - ballet flats, ditto
    - plain black loafers, can be worn with all pants
    - beige/pink oxfords, in summer
    - fancy flat sandals, ditto
    - knee high boots, riding style, oct-march. I wear all my skirts with these in the winter (yes, pencil skirts).

    • Sydney Bristow :

      I wear flats most of the time, including when I’m wearing a pencil skirt, which happens at least 4 times a week.

  4. I’m 5’2″ and usually wear heels. Thankfully I am physically able to it would be a sad day for me if I had to give up my heels. (Today I have 4″ wedge boots.) That said there are lots of cute flats out there. I personally do not like (at all) the look of the loafers pictured here. Here are a few I like and find work appropriate: http://www.dsw.com/shoe/bandolino+noche+linen+flat?prodId=244535&category=cat20068&activeCats=cat10006,cat20068; http://www.dsw.com/shoe/kelly+.and.+katie+whitney+flat?prodId=202839&activeCats=cat10006,cat20068; http://www.dsw.com/shoe/kenneth+cole+reaction+uptown+girl+flat?prodId=276159&activeCats=cat10006,cat20068

    • a passion for fashion :

      Im with you, and I love wearing heels, but those Kenneth Cole ones are also very cute. I think w/ slacks that fit properly and a pointed toe, its much easier to get away with flats. But for me, except when Im walking long distances (and i keep some comfy flats under my desk for this purpose) I actually think heels are more comfortable.

  5. No shoe recommendations, but I only wear flats, too. It’s a combination of: (1) I’m over 6′ tall (2) comfort (3) personal feminist beliefs. I wish flats weren’t seen as informal.

  6. Team Flats :

    I’m on Team Flats, all the way. Even with pencil skirts! (gasp! the horrors!). I don’t think that a pencil skirt “requires” any particular type of shoe – wear what you like, and what looks good on you.

  7. I almost never wear heels to work – I find them uncomfortable and difficult to walk in – but I also know I don’t wear them as professionally as I could, so I appreciate this post!

    Not to turn this thread inside-out, but how DO people wear heels? Any tips? When I do wear them for a special event, I always have trouble unless they are a very specific style and no more than 2 inches high.

    • King Kong :

      Not to turn this thread inside-out, but how DO people wear heels? Any tips?

      Easy you put them on feet.

    • I’m almost 30 and never wore heels regularly (more than 2-3x/year) until about a year ago. My observations thus far:

      - Wedges are great training wheels for getting used to heels. I started wearing them just to get used to the height and readjust myself to my new surroundings (I’m 6’2″ and um…sometimes doorways are a little awkward). From wedges, you can transition to thicker heels, and then go smaller and smaller if you’d like.
      - Sole and heel material matters. I’ve had these Fryes with a 3″+wooden conical heel for 5 years. They are so beautiful, but the wooden heel made them hurt like the DICKENS after about 10 minutes. I think I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can wear them for an entire day, but it was not a pretty process. I don’t know if I’d do it again.
      - Franco Sarto heels are universally comfortable in my experience. I have several pairs of black pumps (2-3″) with kinda thinner heels and unlike the aforementioned Fryes, I’ve worn them without issue. Same with Sam Edelman, but this is a Know Your Foot Type issue.

    • Anonymous :

      You need to work up to the high ones by starting with lower ones. Put on two-inch heels and try to get through a day; once that’s reasonably easy, try 3 inches, etc.

      Try to walk as normally as possible – i.e. step onto your heel first. Draw in your abs and imagine you’re floating a bit – basically lift yourself up from your waist. This reduces the amount of weight that you put on your knees on every step and makes it much easier. Don’t be afraid to move your hips a little – taller shoes basically require it.
      When standing distribute the weight between heel and toe.

    • Actually I don’t think the height makes much different between 2″-4″ in terms of wearing/comfort. The only thing to look out for with taller heels is to make sure the edge of the shoe doesn’t rub into the top of your foot where the bend is.
      The shoes you couldn’t walk in weren’t necessarily too high just not balanced right for you. A skinny heel is the hardest, but if you get too chunky or a wedge it gets a little harder here too. I have one pair of heels that make my feet [the opposite of pigeon-toed], not sure why but somehow I just don’t balance right on them. You just need to try on several and one will be right for you.

    • a passion for fashion :

      try them on until you find what is comfortable for you. then walk in them.

    • Ignoring King Kong, you have to wear heels often enough to strengthen your calf muscles. I can wear flip flops to work and I go to court maybe once a month. I found that it is better to wear heels at least weekly so that my foot gets used to them.

  8. Check out the 9 to 5 Chic blog. She wears heels sometimes, other times she wear flats and has worn them with pants, skirts and dresses. Although she works in the medical device field, not quite as conservative as many law firms, I think she always looks professional with heels or with flats.

  9. Famouscait :

    Perhaps this past article in the Wall Street Journal will help with ideas:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203846804578103072262066976.html

  10. Who even considers flats to be not professional? Hoola hoopa’s comment above is on point. I’m 5’11″. In heels, I’m anywhere from 6’1″-6’3″. That’s freaking tall. Yeah blah blah I should own it blah blah but 1) my feet KILL. even my podiatrist said the structure of my feet is not conducive to wearing heels 2) I’m a staff in consulting and don’t want to tower over my male senior managers. 3) Also see http://www.aceshowbiz.com/news/view/00023491.html where Blake Lively says she feels like a man when in 6″ heels. It’s the truth. Unless I’m wearing a tight dress out with some friends and heels that make my legs look miles long, I don’t think I benefit from the effect of heels.

    My issue all this time has been the lack of COMFORTABLE and attractive flats. Most of the flats linked to in this pots look horribly uncomfortable. If I have to wear those all day, my feet get an overall achy feeling that runs up my legs and then I’m just flat out unhappy and uncomfortable. Luckily the lack of comfortable flats has changed recently. I’ve tried everything. Cole Haan Nike Air, Rockport Adidas adiprene, Dr Scholls, Naturalizer, Born. Unfortunately none of these are perfect, nor is the look perfect in my eyes, but they’re getting there. My go to basic is the JCrew Cece. The hidden interior wedge is a God-send. They are very plain and apparently not professional enough for this thread, but they look great on with proper length pants.

    I do agree that I don’t like the look of a pencil skirt and ballet flats. Not sure why. But this isn’t really a problem for me because I’m so freaking cold in the office that a skirt is rarely an option.

    • long time lurker :

      I hear you! We are about the same height. All my height is in my legs and pants are too short always. I usually wear low-ish heels. Stuart Weitzman makes some non-frumpy ones. I’ve found walking in low heels better in terms of arch support/knees/back than flats which can have zero arch support. I have a couple pairs of tall heels but almost never wear them.

    • I’m 6’2″ and usually wear flats to work. Sam Edelman, Vince Camuto, and Caslon/other Nordstrom house brands are the most reliably comfortable and cute flats that cater to my paddleboat feet. Sadly my tootsies are a little wide for J. Crew flats, because I’ve heard nothing but rave reviews about them. I wear flats with skirts all the time (but I don’t really wear pants).

      I wear heels more than you and the other tall ladies in this thread, but not so much to work because they can magically transform a work-appropriate skirt or dress into something decidedly not so.

    • Divaliscious11 :

      Hmmm. I’m 5’10 and wear heels and flats. My favorite pair is 4″, but they have a platform so are very comfortable. Any man that can’t deal with me being taller than him has issues that are not my problem. I don’t understand how being tall, or wearing heels while tall can make you feel like a man?

      • Well they don’t make me feel like a man but they make me feel huge. I’m most definitely not huge.. I’m pretty slim. It’s just sort of hard to explain which is why I freaked when I saw Blake shares my sentiments. It’s relative though because I felt like a giant in college when everyone was somehow very short.

    • I had a similar problem, but I found perfect professional flat shoe, which fits my wide feet and looks flattering! At Russel & Bromley, and I paid I think 165 pounds ($265). This brand has a lot of other shoes like this, but I haven’t seen them in the US.

      http://i.ebayimg.com/t/Russell-And-Bromley-Ladies-Black-Shoes-Size-4-4-5-/00/s/OTk5WDk5Nw==/$T2eC16VHJI!E9qSO8)dkBQ6ucmGqWg~~60_35.JPG

  11. A Nonny Moose :

    A good rule of thumb with many flats is to look for a pair that looks just like super-professional heels, minus the heel. CHS did a post that had this tip in it and it really stuck with me. Let’s see if I can drudge it up.

  12. Christina :

    I live in dresses (pencil, sheath, a-line, skater, etc) all the time, summer with bare legs or nude hose and winter with tights. I think the key here is that the tighter the bottom of the skirt (pencil vs circle skirt), the sleeker the shoes should be. Pencil = pointy shoes. Straight skirt (not pencil but not a-line) = almond. Round toes look almost unforgivingly casual to me, and square toes fit better with pants, flared, ankle, etc.
    I tend to look for:
    - leather (fake leather doesn’t have the same give), no patent and as soft as can be
    - a proper heel. None of this rubber bottom idea. It doesn’t have to be a leather bottom, but it can’t be virtually flat to the ground. No one’s feet benefits from that. Flat feet need some sort of cushioning.
    - proper fit. I need the shoe to either encompass my foot enough that it stays on narrow heels, or fit perfectly with or without insoles and a slippery pair of tights.

    I think the key thing with flats is finding a cushioned pair with a proper heel of 1/2 in, at least. Otherwise, it throws your body posture off, and you’re worse off over a long period of time trying to balance yourself on perfectly flat shoes.

    Also another consideration is thicker tights require a 1/2 size up in shoes. Trust. If you love a pair of shoes enough to leave a pair at the office in the winter, buy 2 sizes. One for bare feet and thin hose, and one to fit with your winter tights (even if they’re the sleek opaque kind!).

  13. As long as you find appropriate shoes for your professional wardrobe, I don’t think that flats look unprofessional. And I wear them in pencil skirts all the time (and not even pointy flats!).

    I’ve had the best luck with:
    -Geox
    -Cole Haan
    -jcrew
    -BR

    BUT, if you’re in a splurgy mood, Ferragamos’ Vera is so classic and comes in both the flats and the 3/4″ heel.

    • a passion for fashion :

      I have the wedge vera and its super comfortable. i highly recommend it. and its good for those who are not so sure about a higher heel

    • DC Lawyer :

      Try Beautifeel low heels. These shoes are very structured, conservative in style and incredibly long-wearing. I have a bad knee, and with Beautifeel, I can wear a nearly 2″ heel with no problem at all. It’s all in the support the shoe provides.

  14. I actually have a much harder time finding comfortable flats than comfortable heels since the backs of flats rub my heel in an uncomfortable way. For some reason the tilt of heels takes that pressure off the backs of my Achilles heel and I find that I wind up giving away a lot more uncomfortable flats than heels. Does anyone have any recommendations for this or styles of flats that work better for this problem?

    • springtime :

      This is my exact problem- well, I describe it more like my heel bone is oddly shaped so it rubs on flats easily.

      Flats with a flexible back are good- Cole Haan Air Bacara, I just bought a pair of Frye flats (waiting for them to ship), driving moccasins, anything that doesn’t have a heel cup on the back, essentially.

      Kitten heels are perfect for this issue too.

    • Aria, you may need to wear a bigger size plus a mary jane strap. You should go to a store that specializes in comfort shoes and see if they can figure out what works for you. You don’t necessarily have to buy the comfort shoes if you find them ugly.
      (And by comfort shoe store, I don’t mean Aerosoles or Easy Spirit. I mean Walking Company or other local store that sells more than one brand of shoes)

  15. I’m on my 2nd pair of these and find them to very comfortable: http://www.dsw.com/shoe/naturalizer+hasten+glossy+flat?prodId=dsw12prod3100123&activeCats=cat10006,cat20068

    I agree with those above that a flat is not inherently less professional than a heeled shoe – it all comes down to the design of the particular shoe.

  16. Also, does anyone have recommendations for good trouser socks? The ones I buy at Target seem to get holes in the toes and/or don’t stay nice after washing.

  17. cartofsunshine :

    Would these work for an NYC finance office? With pants? I’m struggling to find not-too expensive black flats to wear with pants.

    http://www.dsw.com/shoe/abella+wendy+slip-on?prodId=272235&category=cat20068&activeCats=cat10006,cat20068

  18. Not all flats are ballet flats. I agree that ballet flats are a more casual look and don’t look professional enough for a formal dress office. But ballet flats are crap for your feet anyway.

    Cole Haan and Ecco make flats that are good for your feet and look better than ballet flats. Hopefully you can wear a 1″ or so heel, which is better for your foot anyway.

    Fidji makes some amazingly cute and stylish flats that anyone could get away with wearing as a unique and stylish office look.

    You can try the high-end “comfort” brands like Rieker and Pikkolino, as they occasionally produce an interesting Euro-looking lower heeled shoe. They also often produce ugly styles, but I’m sure you can wade through those.

    Lisa at http://amidprivilege.com/ recommends Beautifeel shoes. I don’t think they look super interesting, but much more work appropriate than ballet flats.

    Personally, I think a woman who is wearing a really fierce and interesting low-heeled shoe looks far more stylish and sophisticated than any of the ubiquitous 20-somethings hobbling around on the sort of platform-in-the-front stiletto-in-the-back pumps they seem to think are required office wear. Or maybe I have been working next door to Gap HQ for too long.

  19. I have terrible feet from doing a competitive sport as a child so heels are immensely painful for me. I pretty much always wear (round toe) ballet flats unless I’m wearing a suit (for a court apperance, etc). I think they look good with straight-ish leg pants. Less so with skirts and dresses, but I’m not going to rule out an entire category of clothes (that I really like wearing) because I can’t wear the “appropriate” shoe. My office is pretty casual dress for Biglaw though.

  20. Whee, my specialty! I’ve basically been hunting attractive and comfortable flats for the last several months, and they’re awfully hard to come by.

    The best professional flats I’ve found are the Carolyn from a pretty new startup, Casa Couture: http://boutique.casacouture.com/pages/ballerina-flats . (Don’t let ‘Ballerina Flats’ fool you. These are a lot more almond-toed than the typical ballet flat: see http://boutique.casacouture.com/pages/look-book to see how they look on, about halfway down the page).

    I own the black pair without studs (http://casacouture.myshopify.com/products/the-carolyn-3) and they’re even nicer than they look there: handmade in Italy, a stunningly beautiful soft buttery leather, simple and clean design, and incredibly comfortable: they’re a rare flat that includes really good arch support. That’s actually how I found them– in a fit of desperation looked up ‘ballet flats with arch support’ on Amazon. But beyond the beautiful design and the comfort, they’re *clever.* The shoe line was designed largely for women who were pregnant but didn’t want to stop being stylish, and it allows for a four-way stretch, so they expand and shrink with your changing shoe size during pregnancy. (Disclaimer on that point: I’ve got I think D-width feet, and they pinched me a bit in the toes, but not much. They’re designed for B-C width feet.) They’re usually $295 but currently on end-of-season sale for $119.

    Also, the company owner’s customer service is phenomenal– she actively solicited feedback, so I told her about the toe-pinching and she not only offered to let me return them if I wanted (I couldn’t bear to, they were too beautiful, and they fit pretty well!) but she wrote me about half a page of advice about how to find shoes that would fit my kind of odd feet.

    • onehsancare :

      They are gorgeous! My name is Carolyn, and I thought it was a sign that I would finally find cute wide shoes, but I should know better–I measure a 4.5W, and get by wearing size 5W; 36 is just not going to work. Darn it.

      • Carolyn– I’d honestly recommend you contact them! They’ve been incredibly responsive to me– I told them how the shoes had pinched my toes a little and they just told me they modified future toe boxes in response to my feedback. It’s worth a try!

        (And my sympathies. One of my good friends has a size 5 foot, and it’s nearly impossible to find *any* shoes in a size 5 anymore. I don’t understand that!)

  21. I have the opposite problem – sweaty, stanky feet. The solution is the same though. Socks soak up the sweat and protect my shoes from being completely disgusting. I wear the heck out of those “not socks” that are supposed to not show in dress shoes. Not sure if it would help with cold feet, but it’s a thought.

  22. Try http://www.shoesofprey.com for custom made shoes – chose heel type/height for comfort (1.5″ and up) and chose fabric/colour/style to suit work environment. Not super cheap, but not too expensive especially for the quality.

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