Reader Request: How Do Shoes “Make” an Outfit?

Reader Alyssa and I e-mailed back and forth about her fabulous question before I got a bead on it. She’s got a very small wardrobe of shoes – one pair for each season – and initially it sounded like she needed some general shoe-incorporation advice. I sent along these links, which were somewhat helpful:

But, in the end, she was looking for guidance on how to WEAR fun and interesting shoes, and how the choice is made to do eye-catching shoes over, say, leg-elongating ones. She wrote:

Bloggers often say they knew the outfit needed something else, or repeat that interesting shoes make the outfit. How does one decide that a fantastic shoe is the needed tweak (not a different accessory)? Or why would a pretty/colorful shoe be required to give oomph to the outfit, as opposed to an appropriate shoe in your base neutral that blends in? I guess I don’t understand the rationale behind when to choose a colorful shoe. Brown (or black, for others) just goes with everything! (Barring cream skirts in summer, of course). And is there anything else to consider other than color when using shoes as a statement accessory?

Whew. Toughie. Shoe choice is often informed by personal preference for color, style, balance, and many other factors. And especially since there is no “right” way to choose shoes, it’s difficult to explain how I – or anyone else – knows which shoes to pick to make an outfit work. But here are a couple of ideas that I floated to Alyssa:

Shoes can be a focal point

Take these for instance. They’re colorful, complex, and statement-y. The outfit I wore to accompany them isn’t completely plain, but it doesn’t have a lot of pattern, texture, or layering going on. And all of the clothing and accessories are mirroring the colors of the shoes. This doesn’t apply to Alyssa’s current collection or philosophy since she’s working with a very small group of shoe options, but one way that shoes can “make” an outfit is if they’re very bold, interesting, or unusual in and of themselves and the outfit built around them is purposely subdued.

Shoes can mirror outfit elements

When you’ve got a few colorful pairs in your stash, they can enhance your outfits by mirroring colors or textures present elsewhere.  If you’re wearing black pants and a shirt with red, white, and black in it, you could certainly do black shoes to elongate your leg, but red shoes will add a bit more sass. (More on how to make this work in the Incorporating Colorful Shoes post.)

Shoes can create contrast

Outfits that juxtapose looks typically use shoes to do so. An entirely princesslike ensemble with combat boots, for instance. Or a moto and ripped jeans with patent stilettos. You can use shoes to create a pleasing sense of contrast within a single ensemble, and by doing so they often become the piece that creates both harmony and interest.

Alyssa was also interested in the choice to utilize an interesting shoe, as opposed to another eye-catching accessory or accent. In my opinion, that choice is generally about balance and focus. In terms of balance, if there’s a lot of color, pattern, or texture around your face, choosing flashy jewelry or a bold belt may make the outfit feel crowded toward the top. Doing funky shoes will spread the joy around a little and create overall visual balance. In terms of focus, depending on how an outfit fits and falls, you may want to redirect the focus of the observing eye. If you’re wearing something that fits snugly around your midsection and that makes you anxious, you may want to draw the eye downward toward your legs and feet instead of highlighting your waist.

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  • In terms of “it” accessory shoes definitely take center stage in today’s fashion world (we’ve got 6 seasons and 2 films of Sex & the City to prove it). But in terms of personal preference, shoes can be a just like any other item of clothing. And it’s totally okay not to make shoes your focus accessory.
    From what I understand Alyssa already has a small curated wardrobe of classic shoes (probably in the high end range that were build to last). Which means that in terms of what suits her personality, she may prefer to use scarves or earrings or gloves or hats or something else as that defining it accessory to complement her outfit and express her individuality.
    My advice would be find that item and rock it. Personally, I’ve found brooches are my thing.

  • I’m definitely more about blending than about high contrast, even when I’m wearing a lot of color, and the shoes that are hardest for me to style are the ones that cause a high contrast with my seasonal clothes. I just like to wear subtle shoes. I’m drawn to cartoonish, bright fluevogs, but when I get them, I find them so hard to wear. If you are the kind that only has a pair of shoes for each season, bright shoes are not going to be a very flexible option unless you pick a color that’s a “virtual neutral” for you because of how it mixes with the rest of your wardrobe.

  • Katharine

    I agree with coffeeaddict; it sounds as though shoes are not, for Alyssa, something that she thinks of that way.

    I, of course, do; shoes are my primary accent, but again, that’s my personal preference. I’m bulky, and short, and tend to look top-heavy because of my extra-wide back and shoulders, and also have (for the rest of my width) smallish feet and ankles; I feel as though a shoe (or more likely, boot) with solid impact adds more weight and balance where I need it.

    It’s also… I don’t know. I’ve moved drastically away from jewellery as an accessory, it feels like “too much”. I like scarves, but they do tend to add even more to my shoulder mass. My style’s become more and more minimalist, and a relatively simple, yet interesting shoe always seems to be the perfect choice for that little something in a minimalist outfit. And it’s balanced in terms of the whole body. So much of most women’s wardrobe trim and accessorising is concentrated on head/face/neck/front of body, and in general I don’t like that. (I’m very vocal about my loathing, for instance, of tops or dresses that are decorated or embellished on just one side, as though we were all flat — which we are not!) Shoes have three-dimensional interest, and give foundation to a whole outfit.

    I do wish it were easier to find good coloured shoes. They’re something that you’d think would be easy to find, but — good quality, well-made, simple yet striking and slightly unusual shoes in vivid shades — not so common! I tend not to care for the more colourful Fluevogs, as they are a bit too whimsical and girly for my taste and style.

  • great post and insightful comments above. I agree that an interesting shoe can add a bit of sass to an otherwise ordinary outfit.

    … but then there are days like today, when I wake up to torrential rains and my best bet is a sturdy pair low heeled black mary janes. Nothing wrong with utility under these circumstances.

  • For most of my life, I followed the old-fashioned rule of “matching” shoes to an outfit. Now I like to go with contrast when I can – in color, texture or mood. It’s much more fun.

  • Grace

    For me, the critical distinction is often “boots or shoes?” More and more, the answer is boots. Boots make me feel more put-together and confident– like, even if it doesn’t work, it works.

  • Mel

    Funny….I never gave any thought whatsover as to why I chose a particular shoe. Guess it must have been intuitive…now that I read your post, yeah, that’s what I do. Mirror, contrast, balance. Once again, you’ve articulated my sub-conscious thought process.

    Part of it is that I’m short, on the heavy side so I use shoes for contrast and balance. I love fun things, but fun clothes that fit (read: any clothes that fit) are impossible to find, so I’ve given up on that and just dress in neutrals, using the shoes to provide something fun, and some color.

    Hadn’t heard of Fluevogs….just looked at their web site. Ooh….a cool pair of maroon, suede combat boots. A little outside my price range (well, a lot outside), but worth saving up for!

    Fun shoes make me feel good…makes up for the dire lack of clothing choices. I love looking down and seeing fun, colorful shoes on my feet.

  • I was just thinking about this today! As the snowy and cold, dark winter months have arrived here in Finland, it’s impossible to stay comfortable in “pretty shoes” or shoes that were made for fashion instead of survival. We don’t have snow and ice yet, but once those two hit us there’s no way of walking in high heels or using smaller shoes. I’ve bought a pair of super thick winter boots with rough detailing for winter just to keep myself alive, and I’m a bit worried about how I’ll stay chic for 4 months with shoes like that. I prefer heels over flats, and I like feminine shoes as I tend to use a lot of classic pieces and I’m so dead tired of cute skirts or dresses mixed with tougher shoes – it’s just so last season to me. Everyone’s done it already, and I feel it’s not who I am at all. We’ll see if there’s anything worth calling style over at my blog after a couple of months in those boots 😉

    • Katharine

      You don’t change your shoes when you go inside in Finland? I have winter boots — and a tote bag! The boots are for wading through the snow, or stomping through the slush — they’re functional. Like the winter coat or jacket — also chosen less for style than for its ability to block -30C windchill. Once I come into the office, or wherever, the boots come off and hit the boot tray, and the shoes come out of my tote bag.

      Chic has nothing to do with my winter boots… and I would NEVER wear my good shoes, or even my good boots, outside in the Canadian winter. Mind you, we use road salt here like anything, and that ROTS leather.

  • Mar

    I’ve transitioned into “colorful and interesting” shoes in the last year or two (partly inspired by you, Sally!), and I mainly use them to mirror or contrast. I however adore wearing a lot of (often contrasting) colors and patterns which incorporates colorful shoes quite naturally, and even with more neutral outfits I most of the time long for a small pop of color somewhere – and it happens to be shoes for me a lot of the times. I ironically have mainly neutral color scarves, and mainly neutral jewelry. I have a pair of shoes that I have used as a focal point since they are just *that* adorable in my opinion, and I’d like to use “shoes as a focal point” strategy more often, but it’s right now limited by my shoe collection.
    I think the approach to deploying or not deploying colorful shoes really depends on one’s general style. Like I said, I love color, so colorful shoes are a natural extension. If I however felt most comfortable in subdued neutrals, I might always go for a classic neutral shoe, and not want it to “make” an outfit in the sense of an “oomph”. I don’t think there are any rules regarding outfits that just universally cry out for a colorful shoe – it really is about personal style. (But I really like the tips Sal outlined for experimenting with shoes)

    • Sal

      Woohoo! Go Mar!

      • Mar

        Thank you, Sal :).

  • Alyssa has an interesting question. I think maybe a girl just has to love shoes to even care how they change, elevate, or recede from an outfit.

    For me, they’re the most interesting element of any outfit—my clothes are very minimal and understated. I let the shoes do the talking.

  • I think that I can choose them as a focus one day, and a balance the next. As a very petite person they make an outfit for me by creating a longer line for the skirt or trousers I’ve chosen. Love yours today.

    Marie @ Lemondrop ViNtAge I’m having a giveaway…

  • Dee

    I guess I have never been really “into” shoes. I like to see them on others but for me its more about comfort at this point in my life. I walk a lot so they need to be comfortable, and I need a wide width which limits me some. The shoe I wear each day has more to do with the length of pant I have on, do I need a flat or more of a heel, kind of thing. I used to have more colors of shoes but over the years I have found I wear the black leather ones the most. Unless its summer then I wear all kinds of sandals but still in mostly neutral colors. I do have several pairs of boots and I do change once I am at the office. I find boots too hot while indoors.

  • Coincidentally, the outfit I’m wearing today depends on colorful shoes! Tho’ the pictures won’t be on my blog until after 7pm PST 😉 I’m wearing a simple black dress & black tights with a grey cardigan & burgundy crushed-velvet ankle boots. I love the way burgundy & grey go together, even if they’re not right next to each other in an outfit. With these two elements, the outfit goes from ‘basic black’ to something more spiffy (not that there’s anything wrong w/basic black — I wear a ton of it!).

    Probably 75% of my shoes & boots are black because it’s easier to get more wear of out them that way. They’ll go with absolutely anything else in my closet (again, I wear *a lot* of black). These aren’t just utilitarian black shoes either. I have heels, wedges, platforms, pointy toes, buckles, straps, you name it.

    Then I have the other 25% of colorful shoes & boots (which includes a few black + another color shoes, such as a two-tone shoe or heavily embellished shoe). These are footwear that requires an outfit be built around them. But those can be some great outfits! Tall lace-up purple boots, for example, make a statement. But they don’t get as much wear as my tall black boots.

  • Eliza

    I have an entire folder on my desktop dedicated to shoes I love. Most of them are elaborate: silver kid shoes from the ’20s, Valentino pumps with lace sprouting from the heel like a cloud, a pair of suede boots heavily embroidered white thread, or another pair of boots completely covered in mother of pearl buttons. But in my day to day life, almost every pair of shoes/boots I own is black or brown. And oddly enough, I’ve probably received more compliments on my shoes than on any other part of my closet, and they tend to be the “statement” of my outfit. I tend to look best, and feel most comfortable in, muddy colors like olive green, tarnished gold, or a deep portrait pink, so it’s true that my clothing doesn’t tend to overpower black and brown shoes in the same way that Sal’s clothing probobly does. But if black or brown shoes are a staple of your closet, the way they are in mine, it’s still good to consider texture (smooth leather, suede, distressed leather,fabric, etc), the shape of the shoe (is it chunky or delicate?) embellishments (studs? jewels? no hardware at all?), if the shoe is more casual or formal, and how all those options relate to the rest of your outfit. I’m remembering one of my grandmother’s old friends, a very wealthy and stylish woman who used to insist that there was no reason to own shoes in any color but black, brown or navy. It was true that she only owned shoes in those three colors- but she still had tons of shoes because she owned almost every variation of style possible!

  • Eleanorjane

    I love colourful and interesting shoes, but I don’t generally build outfits around them. I’m happy adding a random lemon yellow heel to a blue and green outfit or matching red shoes to a red scarf and belt on a black and white outfit…

    Today I’m wearing a navy skirt, pale apricot top and off-white classic lowish heels. Just ‘cos. 🙂

  • Julie

    I am a shoe girl, and I love bright & colorful although 1/3 of my shoes are black, brown, or gray. (Yup, I’m a Fluevoger.) The brighter the shoe, the less likely I can put them on as an afterthought to my outfit. For instance, I have a pair of blood orange Mary janes and they don’t get a lot of love because everything has to be carefully planned so they don’t look like clown shoes. If I’m fully clothed and try to put those on thinking that maybe it would be fun to have a little pop of orange on my feet, it never works. So, I keep an eye out to find clothes or little doodads to match my brightly-colored shoes, not necessarily the other way around.

  • sarah

    Great questions. First, I tend to organize my outfits around my shoes and accessories. I ask myself, what shoes am I in the mood for today? Am I going to be doing a lot of walking? Am I tired and want a comfy flat? Do I feel like being spunky or classy with heels? Do I have the right socks or tights or hose clean to wear that pair today? I’ve switched outfit ideas many times based on the answers to those questions.

    Then, I have plenty of outfits that go with all my shoes (so the shoe doesn’t dictate everything, but it’s a great starting point for me). Some days my shoes just blend in well or are comfy (if I’m in that mood) and other days, they area more of a focal point. On those days, I work extra hard to make sure the ensemble works… belt doesn’t clash, top details aren’t too busy or distracting, skirt or pants are the right length, etc. I think, like you said, balance is key. Finally… most of my shoes are in neutral tones. It’s the varying silhouettes and casual/dressy levels that I change up the most. That makes decision-making easier I think.

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