The Case for Wearing High Heels

The Impact of Fashion Footwear On Professional Image and Performance

Lady Jane Deborah Pump

Professional women typically cringe when they realize they are being assessed for appearance as well as performance. You may think that fashion should be a low priority concern, easily dismissed by both men and women; but in the business and legal world that is not the case.


Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Christina Binkly noted: “Women in positions of authority, from Washington to Wall Street, face fashion scrutiny that’s so intense it can border on comical – though it’s serious business to the women, their organizations and, it turns out, lots of working women. . . . According to unwritten rules, their appearance at work should be attractive but not alluring, feminine but not girly, strong but not severe . . . .”   It requires some thought to organize a wardrobe that will meet style standards that are so subjective yet so minutely (and perhaps unfairly) judged.  “Women don’t understand that the things that shouldn’t matter count as much as they do,” says Dee Soder, a psychologist and founder of the New York based executive-coaching firm CEO Perspective Group.

In her memoir “Tough Choices” Carly Fiorina tells of being interviewed by a Business Week editor during her first week as Hewlett-Packard’s CEO. The interviewer’s very first question was: “Is that an Armani suit you are wearing?”

During one session at the ABA’s Women in Law Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, esteemed female judges admitted that while they never recalled a man’s outfit, they did remember what a female lawyer wore–and usually for the wrong reasons. (“Above the Law”, Legal Blog). 

It Starts With Your Shoes

A compelling case can be made for professional women to wear high-heeled dress shoes in the workplace.  Heels are recognized worldwide as iconic symbols of femininity and power. Women wear high heels today for the same reasons that Italian artisans first created them more than 500 years ago. Catherine de Medici wore the first pair of high-heeled shoes for her introduction to the French Court. Her elevated heels were designed to give her greater height, and therefore, greater presence. Even better, her shoes’ precarious silhouette forced her to adopt a stance and gait that suggested enhanced sensuality for the petite fifteen year-old. The ladies of the court went crazy for shoes that could do all that. And the rest is history.

Women wear heels today for reasons that extend beyond enhanced femininity and presence. In the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Young Lawyer Division’s blog post entitled “Looking Like A Lawyer,” Maria Harris wrote: “The consensus is that heels are preferred with professional attire … because, as women, the truth is that many of us are shorter than men and the obvious reason for wearing them is to bring us to a ‘leveled’ and ‘finished’ appearance.”

Professional women no longer try to dress like men (pant suit with big shoulders and a white shirt). They are confident looking feminine, but they do want to match the stature, authority, and formality of a man dressed in a business suit and wingtips. This presence especially is important in the legal profession wherein it is indispensible to look competent and credible. Flats look too casual and girlish. Lisa McLeod noted in Pink magazine: “I’ve been doing seminars and keynotes for more than ten years, and I can assure you that people pay more attention to a woman in heels.”

The Tipping Point

There is an easily defined point at which high-heeled shoes stop working to enhance a woman’s image and performance and begin to undermine them. Women move into dangerous territory when their heels’ design and construction actually pose a threat to their mobility and physical well-being. In other words, their shoes begin to make the wrong statement.

In the years that I have been consulting with pedorthists, podiatrists, and designers, I have come to agree with the consensus opinion that a 3” heel elevation is the maximum height that can be tolerated by women wearing dress shoes. At that height, pressure on the forefoot increases about 76% according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Add the pressure of forcing toes into often too small, unnaturally- shaped toe boxes, and we have a recipe for acute pain, awkward movement, and long-term cumulative foot damage. Superior padding and accommodating toe boxes can greatly reduce risk; yet designers for the mass market ignore these features. In fact, for the past several decades, styles have been trending toward higher heels (4” and higher) and even more treacherous shapes. Women spend around $35 billion on shoes in the US every year. Lately, more than half of these sales were for heels over 3” high (WSJ). Some interesting developments in the fashion world may help explain this paradox.

The feminist movement sparked many articles and public comments about the damage inflicted by high heels worn largely to please men. They also complained that women couldn’t run from predators if they were wearing heels. In an effort to silence such criticism, the fashion industry fought back. Elizabeth Sammelback, Senior Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum writes: “In the late 1980’s high fashion transformed the high heel into a controversial signifier of professional success.”  Sky-high stilettos were termed “power pumps” and were shown with power suits for the executive woman. Exaggerated shapes and features became “statement” shoes that supposedly signified status and accomplishment. Lisa McLeod noted that “high heels are the new corsets…why is it that when the Chinese bound young girls’ feet to keep them small, it was considered inhumane; yet when a six-figure-earning female exec forces her tootsies into bone-crushing satin, it’s high fashion?” Nevertheless, the concept of the “statement shoe” has not died out as a fad; instead it has infiltrated the worlds of business, politics, and law.

The Chic Entrepreneur, a recent business book written for women, has as its tag line “Put Your Business in Higher Heels.” Capital Hill Style, a Washington, D.C. fashion blog, displays three similar versions of the same pumps: One is for elected officials, one for Hill Staffers, and the last is for paid Interns. The shoes chosen for the elected official have the highest heels, highest price tag, and lowest level of foot support of the three models. Anna Akbari a New York University professor and founder of an image consulting company (also famous as “the thinking person’s stylist”) counsels female law associates to “avoid flats, except in emergencies.  They do nothing for your stature or outfit, and they are some of the least powerful footwear you can wear.” The idea that footwear projects an image of power is embedded firmly within our current culture. It constantly is reinforced in the media, so it doesn’t require a huge leap from “heels are powerful” to “extreme heels are the most powerful.”

The idea that footwear projects an image of power is embedded firmly within our current culture. It constantly is reinforced in the media, so it doesn’t require a huge leap from “heels are powerful” to “extreme heels are the most powerful.”

The very shoes that supposedly are emblematic of the empowered woman, in reality hurt and handicap her. Women continue to ignore the obvious physical risks when trying to navigate the real world in ridiculously elevated shoes. Very few women gracefully can overcome the obstacles such shoes pose. Those who try cannot do so for very long; and this will shorten the span of years when they can tolerate wearing dress shoes of any type. Still, extreme heels persist ubiquitously in the marketplace, as symbols of beauty and power. In her scholarly work, Survival of the Prettiest, Nancy Etcoff says: “All cultures are beauty cultures, and everywhere beauty has been a powerful and subversive force, provoking emotion, riveting attention, and directing action.  Every civilization revers it, pursues it at enormous costs, and endures the tragic and comic consequences of this pursuit.”

“Power pumps” can –no doubt–tell many tales, both tragic and comic. A very serious consideration for the professional woman should be that such shoes really DO talk. They do make “statements.” Shoes worn for their power message also invite speculation regarding one’s age, income level, and sexual availability, even IQ.  Jorge Cortell, a CEO attending a venture capital event in NYC recently snapped a photo of a woman in “power heels” posting it with a tweet that criticized the shoes and insinuated that the IQ of the woman wearing them was inversely proportional to the height of her heels. The resulting avalanche of criticism calling him a sexist for commenting on a woman’s fashion choice missed the more important point: that the shoes inspired his idea in the first place!  I am sure that the woman participating in the business event thought her shoes were sending the very opposite message.

Finding stylish shoes that do not exceed the “tipping point” is a challenge; but it is not impossible. In my view, an “ideal” pair of heels looks like this:

The Heels:
  • Heel elevation above toe level is no more than three inches;
  • The heel of the shoe extends from the center of the heel of the foot. “Creatively-shaped” fashion shoes and those that set the heel in line with the back of the foot make it harder for the foot naturally to absorb the impact of a heel-strike;
  • The heel of the shoe is gracefully shaped. Visually, the thinner the heel is, the higher it seems. Three-inch stilettos and softly curved thicker heels are visually pleasing and well tolerated by most women. Avoid large block heels that feel heavy. They not only look unbalanced with the rest of the shoe; their weight causes added foot stress and fatigue.
The Toes:
  • Toe boxes have “wiggle room.” They should accommodate toes without squeezing them together;
  • The metatarsal bones (i.e., in the ball of the foot) are protected. High quality, shock-absorbing materials are essential both to support and to cushion the ball of the foot. Avoid thin-soled shoes having little or no cushioning;
 The Fit:
  • The shoes feel secure on the foot.

Every person’s feet are slightly different from every other person’s feet, and accommodating individual toe lengths, foot widths, arches, medical conditions (e.g. bunions and corns), etc. poses real challenges. Shoes having adjustable features (functional buckles, straps, ties and elastic) help to secure the fit. Some women fear that straps make their ankles appear thick; this rarely is true; but choosing leather colors that are closer to one’s own skin tone can eliminate the concern.

The Materials:
  • The material composition of the shoe allows feet to breathe.

Some man-made materials trap heat and moisture in the shoe, causing discomfort and encouraging the growth of fungus and bacteria. For example, patent leather (due to its coating) would not be a good combination with rubber soles. Natural leather uppers and leather soles with breathable insoles minimize heat build-up in the shoe.


A great pair of heels can be an important tool for women who need to project an image of authority and confidence. Style is our visual voice. Our style will be noticed even before we speak any of our words. Fashion’s best use is as an over-all seamless enhancement of a woman’s authentic personality and voice.

It is possible to find high-heeled shoes that convey our style without passing the tipping point; but if we allow any single element of an outfit to distract or to become a detriment to comfort and mobility, we lose control of our intended message. As Margaret Thatcher once remarked,

“Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.”

Mary Jane interviewed on High Velocity Business Radio Lady Jane Shoes in the Spotlight
Mary Jane interviewed on High Velocity Business Radio
Lady Jane Shoes in the Spotlight

The author

About Mary Jane Caldwell: Mary Jane Caldwell is the President and Designer of Lady Jane Custom Footwear, LLC. Before starting Lady Jane, Mary Jane was a sociologist and psychiatric social worker. “Intelligent Glamour”™ is the trademark and the guiding principle for her line of pain-free career and special occasion dress shoes for women. She observes, “’shoe therapy’ has an astounding success rate, especially when compared to conventional therapies.” Mary Jane is married to an Atlanta law firm partner and the mother of an orthopedic surgeon. Her website is She can be reached at 770-393-3564, or at