Myth: For most situations, real shoes are the only way to go.
Truth: There are notable exceptions. Many times, when I write about how to dress for certain situations, I stress that “real shoes are a must.” In most situations, that’s true and I stand by it. But there are exceptions to that.
From me, you get the truth.
Before I go into the exceptions, you need to know the difference between real versus non-real shoes.
Real shoes are stiff-soled shoes with a streamlined design that comes off anywhere from simple and refined to full-on dressy. Most pumps, slingbacks, dressy sandals, and simple flats are real shoes. They flatter most feet and legs and they’re appropriate in most situations.
Non-real shoes tend to have thicker soles and designs that come off much more casual and sometimes even “rough-and-tumble.” Most sneakers and flip-flops are non-real shoes. They’re not necessarily flattering on most feet and legs, but they’re generally designed for practicality and comfort and not for flattery. They’re appropriate in most casual situations and not much else.
Now that we know the difference, what are the exceptions?
The first is the most obvious: Health issues. If you have a serious foot problem that requires the care of a podiatrist, then chances are you’ll have to wear very specific shoes to help with this issue. If you have a health issue that makes it difficult for you walk, such as a heart/lung issue, you might need to limit yourself to sturdy shoes like sneakers that will give you cushioning and support and prevent slipping. I will never tell anyone to risk their health or safety for fashion.
I do recommend two things on this one. First, you do need to make sure those support shoes are clean and neat. The easiest way to do that is to go with basic black shoes because they don’t show dirt or wear and tear as easily. However, if you can find support shoes in fun colors that you love, those are good options. It’s a way of “thumbing your nose” at the health issue and saying to the world that you’re enjoying your life no matter what. Second, you need to be extra careful with your base outfit. If you’re wearing non-real shoes in a context that calls for real shoes, it can come off sloppy and careless. But if you’re wearing a very refined and flattering base outfit, it comes off more as if you’re wearing the shoes for a specific reason and that’s good.
Another exception is if you’re doing something that specifically requires sturdy shoes. There are several situations in which sturdy shoes, like sneakers, are necessary.
The best example is planned exercise. If you’re going for a brisk walk or jog or if you’re playing basketball or doing Zumba or kickboxing, you need sturdy sneakers with good cushioning and support. While there are slip-on shoes out there with thicker soles and good cushioning, it’s best to stick with shoes that are secured to your feet so that you don’t accidentally slip out of them. I still remember the aerobics instructor in my high school who was so sweet and encouraging but who also told me that I needed better sneakers. Once I got better sneakers, she assured me that I would do well with these things, and she was right.
Another example is anything that involves a lot of walking or heavy aerobic activity, whether it’s planned exercise or not. Every spring, we have the Celebrate Israel parade, and while that’s a cultural and social event, it still involves a lot of walking - whether you’re actually marching or not - and so you need good sneakers. Every autumn, we have Simchas Torah, and in my shul, I lead women’s dancing. For that, I prefer to wear sneakers. I’ve also advised ruach leaders in other shuls to wear sneakers for this, because when you can dance comfortably, your enthusiasm will encourage others.
What if you’re doing a lot of walking but it’s for your commute to work or for an event that otherwise requires a dressier look? In most cases, you have the option of wearing sneakers for walking and carrying the more refined shoes with you. There are some fashion gurus who don’t like this and who just recommend flats or lower heels, but I say that if you have to do a lot walking, you need not kill your feet. But what if carrying extra shoes isn’t a good option? For political meetings, it most definitely is not a good option. This is where those slip-on shoes with thicker soles work best. Those slip-on shoes tend to have a somewhat more refined look than regular sneakers and so they look better, but they’ll still allow you to walk in comfort.
No matter what, you must be extra careful with your base outfit. As I said above, if you’re wearing non-real shoes in a context that calls for real shoes, it will look careless. You still need to show respect for the situation and dress appropriately, and if you’re careful to wear a refined, flattering, and appropriate base outfit, you’ll look just fine.