Poll: How High is Too High?

Naturalizer Marleigh ShoeOur readers are thinking along similar lines, because a second reader wrote in to wonder if there is a limit on how high a shoe can be before it’s unacceptable for work.

I recently bought some shoes, including these (pictured) (3″ black patent with tweed edging–for $30, I figured why not). When I tried them on, my husband remarked that they were “awfully tall,” and after initially thinking they would be a nice edition to my shoe collection, I began to wonder if they were not appropriate. So I guess my question is: is there a heel height cutoff, past which one should not go? I’m of average height (5’6″), and dress pretty conservatively at work (suits, pearls, the whole thing). I was planning on wearing these heels with pantsuits primarily to minimize the shiny tall heels aspect, but my husband’s comment has me wondering if they are too much for even the plainest black suit. Is there consensus on this? Does it matter on other factors (such as how tall you are to begin with)?

Above: Naturalizer Marleigh Shoe, now on sale for $30 at Naturalizer.com.

On this question, we really have no idea, so we thought we’d do a poll. For our $.02: anything over 3″ or 3.5″ seems a bit gauche to us — a bit along the lines of “are you practicing law or dancing on a table?” The big platforms that are frequently used to balance a 5″ or 6″ heel just seem unprofessional and almost teenagelike. We might make an exception if you’re either very short (under 5’2″ or so) and need higher heels to seem like you’re “sitting at the big kids table,” or if you’re very tall and want to totally own your height — that’s a power move, one meant to intimate the men and women around you (in a great passive aggressive way — we might save that kind of move for when you’re actually making a power play, though: supervising a new group of people, for example).

We have two big caveats for heels of ANY height, though:

  • you MUST be able to walk in them. If you can’t stride gracefully, it doesn’t matter if you’re wearing 1″ or 5″, people are going to judge you poorly.
  • if you’re wearing them with pants you must wear your hem at an appropriate length — in most cases it should brush the top part of your foot and almost entirely cover your shoe’s heel, with only about an inch or so of space between the bottom of your pants and the top of the floor.

But enough of our $.02 — what do readers think? Please weigh in with more thoughts in comments. Does it matter if you wear high heels with pants or a skirt? Where does a 5’6″ woman stand on the high heel continuum (if anyone beyond us acknowledges that)…

when are heels too high for work

Further reading: How to Walk in High Heels [SheFinds]


  1. 5’6″ is not “average” height…that’s tall!! I would love to be 5’6″. I think 4 or 4.5″ is the cutoff, and the graceful walking is definitely the most important factor. And I would much rather wear cute flats than kitten heels. I think kitten heels are even more unprofessional than high high heels.

  2. I wear heels because I like them. At 5’6″ no one will crack a joke about my seat at the kids’ table. When I wear heels, I have an elegant presence. Keep your heel height and hemline balanced (higher heel? longer hemline) and never, EVER wear clear heels to work.


  3. I think it depends on the shoe and the outfit. I tend to wear taller heels with pants so it’s not quite as in your face and I tend to keep my taller heels on the more conservative side.

  4. Oh and also, personally I don’t think platforms or wedges belong at work.

  5. Anonymous :

    I think 5’5′ is actually average for an American woman. I think your height is probably a big factor. I’m 5’8 and won’t wear over a 3 inch heel because I wouldn’t be able to find pants that would work!

    • The average height of an American woman is just under 5’4″. Generally, women taller than that who are insecure about it** will claim the average is anywhere from 5-5 to 5-8 because they don’t want to be seen as tall. I am dead average height and wear a common size, and those taller women who are insecure about their height try to play it off as if I am a child-sized person who should be talked down to. I generally combat that by telling them to grow up and stop transferring their body image issues onto others.

      **Again, not ALL women over 5-4 or even most. Just those insecure about their height.

      • It’s only just under 5’4″ because of the relatively recent inclusion of the 80+ age group. However, considering this, it still boggles me why 5’7″ guys who say that they’re short get scolded at (despite being 2.5 inches below male average), while 5’6″ girls who call themselves ‘average height’ get called out for not realizing their tall instead (being only 2 inches above the woman average). These are using American stats by the way.

  6. I’m 4’11” and if I don’t wear a minimum 3.5″ heel, I look like I’m 13. Like someone posted above, I usually wear my 4″ stilettos with pants, however.

  7. Thanks for the update on that sale, also! I just bought those same shoes, and also a pair of Oxfords. If anyone else is thinking of doing the same, there’s a promo code that works: PSB29 for 20% off your whole order.

  8. My favorite, and possibly most comfortable pair of shoes (really) are 3.5″ plain black heels.

    I am 5’4″, and I would not any higher than 3.5″… but that is mostly for comfort reasons. Honestly, I’ve never found a pair of heels higher than 3.5″ that looked both work appropriate (ie not platforms) and I was capable of walking in.

    Color and quality are probably also an issue, here. If your 4″ heels are classic black Manolos, you’re probably okay. If they are Steve Madden leopord print… well, you see what I’m saying. (I would absolutely wear leopard print shoes at the office, with a very conservative outfit… just not 4″ leopard print shoes). A little risk is okay. A lot of risk all at once is not.

    You can get away with almost anything — color or heel height — when you wear pants, though, assuming that your pants are properly hemmed — no one can even see your heel height. I try to pair my “crazy” shoes (colorwise, and higher heels, etc) with boring pants, and otherwise conservative outfits.

    There are a couple of women (senior associates) at my law firm that wear slightly more daring footware (including wedges in the summer) with skirts, but with 2 caveats: (1) they are extremely upscale designer shoes, intended to make a statement and (2) one woman is extremely short (less than 5″) while the other is extremely tall (taller than 5’10”), and both are extremely slender. It works for them, but I think that they are the exception. I also am not so sure they were quite as daring in their more junior associate years.

  9. I tend not to wear ultra high heals – as a NYCer, I walk to work and there is no way I can afford to commute in my most comfortable (read: expensive) work pumps. They just get utterly destroyed. I already cut it close by hemming my pants to a 1.5 inch heal and wearing 2.5 inches at work.

  10. Walking and posture are the clinchers for me.

    I once observed an associate (its etched in my memory) walking as gracefully as a ballerina in her 4 inch neutral colored Louboutins. I was in awe.

    The commute is a big factor when wearing pants, as Allison mentioned.

  11. I’m 6’2″, and most my heels are around the 3″ range. I don’t wear heels as a power move, I wear them because most cute but professional shoes have 3″ heels.

  12. I am 5’6” and wear anything from a 3″ to 4″ to work. As some mentioned, 4″ can be pushing the professionalism line if the shoes are a bold color or print. Also, another important factor in evaluating professionalism that no one has mentioned is the style of the heel. A 4″ more substantial heel (not to be confused with a clunky, teen-ish heel), like the style shown in the post, will look more professional than a 4″ pencil thin stiletto.

  13. Being fairly short, I am all about high heels. However, some things work better for the office, and I’m in complete agreement with the “you must be able to walk in them” caveat. Stumbling around like the Frankenstein monster is unattractive no matter how lovely your shoes!

    In my experience, the “professionalism” has more to do with how the shoes are styled than with the shoes themselves. A severe pantsuit may call for a high strappy heel for contrast, while a more “exposed” look works best with an ankle boot or full coverage heel. Like so many other things, it’s about balance.

    I would not, however, advise wearing footwear purchased from the Hustler store to the office, no matter how casual!

  14. If you think anything over 3-3.5 inches is “gauche” and reserved for women who “dance on tables” then I seriously suggest you shelter yourself from any magazines with a target audience of 20-65 and any other form of contemporary pop culture. Also, as a 5’8 attorney who frequently wears heels, I guess I should apologize to any male co-workers who are shorter than me, lest they believe my choice of footwear to be some sort of passive-aggressive powerplay directed at them. There’s no way I could simply (gasp!) select shoes on the based on their style.

  15. I’m an early 20s college graduate, but as someone in the engineering profession, deciding what to wear, especially shoes, is difficult. Most people don’t expect to see stylish female engineers (hello, stereotypes), and we can sometimes be judged negatively if we’re too attractive. I am, however, a self-professed shoe addict, and despite being 5’10”, I don’t wear anything in the 1″-3″ range. 3″ heels are my bare minimum (and relatively uncommon in my wardrobe), though I top out at 4″ for heels without a platform under the toe (and I think platforms probably aren’t appropriate for work). At my height, I wear a size 10 shoe, and my feet look big if I wear short heels. I tend to avoid pantsuits at all costs, because finding something that fits a 36″ inseam is hard. I adore pencil skirts (below the knee, long legs + above the knee skirts always look shorter than they really are). I keep my work heels very plain (black leather, almond toe, thin – stiletto heel) and always wear nylons, but I’ve gotten comments before (usually from family) on looking too good to be an engineer. Really?

    On a side note, has anyone tried the Kenneth Cole Silver 925 heels? I’m dying to know if they’re actually comfortable before I shell out $160.

  16. I work in an office where it is very important to look professional. The shoe of choice for the most successful women is a plain black court shoe with a 3 or 4″ heel, no platform, straps or fancy details. Platforms, straps, colours and flats appear to only be worn by those with no career aspirations. (I could write a book on the politics of office dress!)

    Whilst I love wild sexy heels and extreme platforms, as an ambitious gal I’ve always stuck to the classic black 4″ heel at work. Earlier this year whilst shopping for some new work shoes, I fell in love with these http://www.schuh.co.uk/womens-black-schuh-lois-point-court-patent/1119087040/ 5 inch heels. I was concerned that they might be too high for the office (comfort as well as suitability) and even put off buying them at first. But I’ve been wearing them to work for three months now and I’ve had nothing but complements from those that matter (my work role models and even one of the female partners). The boost they give me (height and confidence) can’t be bad for my career either. (I will admit that I don’t find it easy wearing a heel this high day after day but the rewards make them worth it.)

    Things may be different in the US, but certainly here in the UK, a 3 or 4 inch heel is considered more professional than lower heels, and as I’ve found even higher heels work, provided they are otherwise conservative.

    Certainly the shoes you picture would be fine for even the most conservative. Go for it and enjoy your heels.

  17. bumblebeee :

    you guys are self-sexist weirdos. who cares about heel height???? are you kidding me??? its 2011, almost 2012!!!

    if you work in the type of place that would judge you based on a heel height, thats ridiculous. you need to find a new job or speak to HR about your work environment.

    as long as you follow office dress rules (no open toe, plain colors, no branding or logos, etc), your heel height isn’t a problem. in fact, the higher you go, the more respect you tend to get.

    put me next to frumpy mcfrump wearing effing loafers and a pantsuit, and its just laughable.

    professional. CLASSY. stylish. edgy. draw attention to yourself in a GOOD way.

    I wear 5″ heels, and I’m 5’3. I work in marketing.

  18. I wear 4 inch pumps to work. I try to look professional in how I dress. We have a pretty open dress code so I like to wear my skirts on the short side, as long as I make it a skirt suit . In the warmer months I wear open toed slides and mule type heels usally with trouser suits but also with dresses

  19. Ok, I am TALL, 6′ barefoot. I was looking to see if plain black heels, like a basic pump, was unprofessional with a skirt-suit, and ran across this site. I hate that people think tall people shouldn’t wear heels. Sorry, I love heels, and i don’t care if I was 6′ or 5′, I would wear them. I get comments about it all the time and my response is “If I am too tall to wear heels then anyone under 5’4″ should be REQUIRED to wear heels.” What does height have to do with it!!! UGH! ANYWAY, I think those shoes are perfectly fine for the workplace. They are sleek and professional, and I think pants dragging on the ground if heels aren’t worn is more unprofessional then heels! Very nice shoes! :)

  20. Im 5’8″ women,so not short. I have and wear 4″ heels quite often.Thats about my limit for heel height. I bought pair of 5″ slides because I thought they looked good but they where impossable to walk in. I like to wear skirts and dresses to work and love slides or mules about 3″.Could walk in them all day. I have to say that pants dragging on the ground looks terrible

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