Reader Request: Working with Orthotics and/or Limited Shoe Options

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An anonymous reader put this question into the suggestion box:

… you talk a lot about shoes here, and it’s hard to get excited about shoes when one’s shoe choices are limited. Any words of encouragement for people whose medically necessary shoes seem to ruin the best constructed outfit?

Since shoes can make or break an outfit, it can be incredibly frustrating when your shoe choices are limited by comfort, health, or even budgetary reasons. There are more options than ever before for those of you who wear orthotics – see Kirsten’s guest post for proof - but you may still feel like your shoes are holding back the rest of your wardrobe. I’ve been a shoe lover for ages, and I can only imagine how aggravating this must feel. I don’t think I’ve got any universal solutions, but here are a few suggestions that might help you feel less discouraged about working with limited shoe options:

Buy the simplest shoes you can find

Most of the shoes I’ve seen that accomodate orthotics seem strangely complex. They’ve got thick, detailed soles and lots of little panels, topstitching, stripes of textured material, and other bells and whistles that just clutter them up. Especially if you end up needing shoes that are more about comfort than looks, try to track down something extremely simple. Clean sides, minimalist soles, dark colors, laces that match the shoe body. If you can handle wearing a Mary Jane style at times or in addition to lace-ups, those are a good bet for warm weather wear and for pairing with dresses and skirts.

This advice also holds true for those of you working on a very restricted budget. If you can only afford to have two or three pairs on-hand and one of them is bright red suede platform sandals, you’ll just be limiting yourself even further. Plain ballet flats, boots with little embellishment, neutral colors, versatile fibers. It’s certainly true that fabulous shoes can amp up your looks, but if you’ve got to limit your purchases, focusing on pairs that will be incredibly versatile is wise. And simple shoes are generally more versatile.

I realize that this bit of advice pertains to shopping and purchasing shoes as opposed to styling them, but felt it was worth including. Making sound decisions when buying shoes will help make working them into your outfits easier.

Draw the eye upward

If you’re stuck with a pair that doesn’t quite work with your outfit, do everything you can to draw attention upward. Statement necklaces, scarves, printed tops, even eye-catching hairstyles will keep the focus on your top half. In this case, you might want to go for shoes that are close to your skin tone for maximum blending-in, but I know that many comfort and orthotic-friendly brands in skin tone shades can look a little dowdy. It’s your call.

Create a long leg line

This tip will likely work best in cold weather, but matching your tights, hose, or pants to the color of your shoe creates a long leg line down to the ground. It also helps the shoe blend in and feel less obvious. If you live in Tallahassee, you probably don’t do tights much and few people want to wear pants year-round. But consider these options for days when you just don’t want to worry about your shoes standing out.

Experiment with sporty outfits

Since comfort shoes tend to look more casual or even rugged, it can be beneficial to find ways to create sporty looks that work with your existing style. You don’t have to completely transform yourself into a hiker and biker, but experiment a bit with new items and outfits. See if you can find a pair of cargo pants or crops that you like. Shop for a sleek track jacket that looks good with jeans. Have a few options in your arsenal that make your shoes seem like a natural choice.

Make sure your colors work together

Most orthotic shoes seem to be available in black and dark brown. Versatile neutrals. I get it. But if you find an amazing pair in red or green that you’d just love to try, do it! Make sure, though, that you’re picking a color that works with YOUR colors. What shades do you wear most? Will these complement those colors? Think especially about the patterned pieces you’ve got, as tying pattern and shoe color together creates instant coherence.

Keep looking

Again, “shop more” isn’t the greatest solution to shoe frustrations. But since there really are loads of new brands and styles coming out all the time, it’s worth keeping tabs. Don’t feel obliged to buy every time you see a pair that tickles your fancy, of course, but keep abreast of the new styles. Someday you might find the perfect pair to bridge your wardrobe gaps. (Again, Barking Dog Shoes is a great resource!)

I wish I had more suggestions, and am hoping that those of you working with limited shoe options will be able to chime in! How do you mix up your looks? What do you do when you don’t have the “right” shoes to complete an outfit? Do you tend to downplay your shoes, or just work with them as best you can? Any orthotic-friendly brands or styles you care to share?

Image courtesy Footsmart.

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  • http://notdeadyetstyle.blogspot.com/ Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    I love “Barking Dog Shoes”! The name, and the content. Great site.

  • http://rainbowreverie.net Sarah

    Word! I just got orthotics after breaking my foot and then developing a neuroma. I am wayyyy too young to be wearing velcro shoes – and yet, here I am, with a closet full of stylish heels in a rainbow of beautiful colors I can’t wear. BUT! Here are a few tips I have learned recently:

    – Boots! Boots! Boots! Boots somehow magically appear very stylish while still being flat, comfy and forgiving (at least, you can find pairs of boots that do this – there will be no stiletto boots in my immediate future…). And, now that it’s Fall, it’s time to get down and funky with the boot options.
    – Sandals. Depending on the type of foot problems you’re working with, open sandals can be very versatile and comfy. They won’t fit orthotics, but if you can go without for a summer afternoon here and there, find a pair with a hard sole and you’ll survive.
    – Danskos. They are expensive and often clunky, but they mostly come with removable insoles, are very durable and are great for work if you’ve got an office job.
    – Sneakers. These aren’t really stylish, per se, but they work for weekends, plane trips, running errands and working out. New Balance seem to make versatile pairs that work for me (and have removable insoles!).

  • Olivia

    Great suggestions! I have arthritis in one foot and my feet are a bit wider since my second pregnancy. I have found Birkenstock work well for comfort, and since I have a limited budget I have decided to go with what I know works rather than try a lot of different shoes that may not. That said, I get tired of wearing the same clogs over and over, so I watch Ebay and look for Birkenstocks in different colors, patterns and styles. There are off-shoot brands like Footprints that offer the same insole and sturdy construction, but are not clogs so I have been able to find Mary Janes (in patent leather!) for dressy outfits and sneakers for more casual wear.

  • Darla

    First time commenting here, obviously a hot topic for me. Due to a leg/foot/balance problem my shoe choices are very limited. Shoes have to be flat, non skid and something that hold onto the foot so slip in styles. I find SAS shoes work for me. Some of them look frumpy but they do have a couple of more attractive styles and they are made in USA.

    Darla

  • Darla

    OOPS, that should say NO slip in styles.

    Darla

  • Rachel S

    I use full length orthotics and I’ve found that pretty much any brand of shoe that has removable insoles will work, as long as the heel isn’t too high. I just remove the factory insole and slip in my own custom-made orthotic. For example, Camper has quite a few flats and casual shoes that have removable insoles. Another brand I really like that almost always has removable insoles is Romika. Ecco as well has great looking and comfortable boots with removable insoles. A funky brand called El Naturalista also often has removable insoles, as does Think!. Generally in addition to having removable insoles, the brands I’ve listed are also super comfortable for walking (e.g., they have rubber soles). If you’re buying shoes online, Zappos usually indicates in the shoe description whether or not there are removable insoles. A lot of these brands are high-end, but I’ve found that if you aren’t afraid of second hand shoes, then you can buy these brands for a fraction of the cost on eBay.

  • http://tallerconBrilloPropiofanpagefacebook Francesca

    hi Sally, wonderful suggestions, it’s my case too, I think I will try to get points on my hair this time, a big hug from Valparaiso, Cile S.A.!

  • Anne

    Although I do not use custom orthotics, I have very few brands of shoes I can wear due back and hip issues. I have found that Naot shoes have many styles with removeable footbeds to accommodate orthotics. Other brands I recommend are Aetrex, Dansko, Think!, and Aravon.

    From a style perspective, I have had to change my style to accommodate the shoes that I can comfortably wear. Fortunately, I am a school counselor so I have a lot of lattitude with what I wear. My style is comfortable creative and I incorporate a lot of natural fibers, scarves, one of a kind artsy jewelry, fitted jackets,and skirts. Chunky shoes look good with clothing with texture and with simple prints like polka dots, stripes, plaids and paisleys.

    I try to chose simple shoes without a lot of stitching detail for more dressy occasions. I bought a pair of gray Naot heels that are tolerable for a couple of hours on my feet.

    I would recommend finding a shoe store that specializes in comfort footwear – either brick and mortar or online. You may have to try on lots of different shoes and you will have to pay more, but being comfortable is priceless. Then try to plan your wardrobe around the shoes. It seems backwards but it is how I have managed to feel stylish and comfortable at the same time.

  • Susan Williams

    Thanks Sally! This is very timely for me. I finally visited the podiatrist this summer for my painful feet. My daughter, trying to prepare me for the inevitable, said you may have to wear orthopedic shoes. At first I laughed off the concept of me in “those” shoes but sitting in the waiting room everyone was wearing either bright white trainers or ugly orthotic shoes. I began to have a panic attack and almost left without seeing the dr! I’ve been wearing a pair of Chaco sandals my doc approved but with the advent of fall I’m dithering over shoe purchases. You given me lots to consider. Anyone else have thoughts for me?

    • Lady Harriet

      I love Earthies for somewhat fashionable shoes with very good arch support. They’re one of only four brands I’ve found with enough support for my feet. (The others are Birkenstock, which I own, Orthaheel, and Chaco, which I have only tried on in a shoe store.) I hate the heels they have out this year, but I like the flats, and many of last year’s styles are still available. They’re the only brand of heels I’ve ever worn that aren’t unbearable after a very short time. They’re expensive, but worth it. I haven’t been terribly impressed with their flat sandals, but the other styles are good. The same parent company also makes the brands Earth and Kalso Earth, which are cheaper and may work for you.

  • Christine

    Good suggestions, Sal. And at the risk of making some eyes glaze over, I’d like to gently remind readers that women have a lot more foot problems than men, most if not all of which can be attributed to years of wearing women’s shoes. In other words, if you don’t want to face orthopedic shoes in your future, start considering shoe fit, comfort, and ergonomics now. I’m sorry to say that I speak from experience on this!

  • Kathrin

    Thank you very much Sally! This post ist so timely: I have a quite fresh injury and have to wear a brace for the next 6 weeks.This means that I can only wear my most chunky shoes (for those who want to get an impression: “Waldviertler” Tramper und Eisbär at http://www.gea.at/frameset_gehen.html) First I thought I have to banish all my beloved skirts and dresses for the next weeks but than I found out that those shoes work quite well with shorter skirts an dark tights. The shorter they are the better they work. As soon as they are above knee-length they realy look horrible.
    I also started to experiment with trousers and more interesting tops, which is quite new for me because I normaly find drawing attention to my upper body not very flattering for me.
    PS: sorry for my english, its not my native language; Sally,feel free to prrofread if you want to ;-)

    • Ruth

      I’m sorry about your injury, but I think I must have ‘orthopaedic eyes’. I looked at the shoes you linked to, and so many look so nice and stylish to me. The boots! The brogues! I immediately started thinking about skirts and bright coloured tights. i saw somebody out yesterday in a pair of hardly there wobbly sandals covered in bling and thought ‘how ugly’. Am I the only one who thinks that some of these shoes are really handsome?

  • Barbara S

    http://www.barkingdogshoes.com/ is a great source for orthotic-friendly shoes that are nice to look at as well- and the reviews are great. I don’t need orthotics (yet) and I’ve still bought some shoes based on her suggestions.

  • Lynn

    I’ve had foot issues for years and my advice, similar to Anne, is try many brands and types of shoes on and then look for them on ebay and other sites. For instance, I can’t wear Danskos because of their rocker sole, but Naot generally fits well. I’ve purchased many shoes that I can’t wear looking for one that does not hurt, so take your time. Also try on shoes later in the day when your feet are tired to get a better sense of how they will wear. It really is trial and error. I’m a pants girl so I have fewer fashion problems — wider legs hide many clunky shoes!

  • Anna

    To give better treatment to my wide forefeet, bunions, and hammertoes, I am just about to try Hotter shoes, made in the UK and available from http://www.hotterusa.com (disclaimer: no business connection with them). Their styles are attractive and the reviews are good. Not a corrective shoe per se, but many of them could sub for corrective while still looking nice.

  • Janet

    Thank you for the post. I have rarely worn heels in the past 25 years (I am 50), so my shoe issues are probably arthritis and fallen arches. I love fashion and this whole shoe business is totally frustrating. It doesn’t help that the Heel is so “in” right now. I have two pairs of flats that I bought in the summer that are new that I can’t wear and another pair of very expensive “comfort shoes” that I need to return. All I can say is: PATIENCE. I am determined to sort it out. And, it may mean a shift in styling. Oh well, comfort is pretty darn important!

  • Copy Czarina

    So frustrating! I have arthritis in my feet, ankles, and hips, and spend more time than I’d like in New Balance walking shoes. I prefer dresses, so I also get a lot of wear out of Ros Hommerson riding-style boots (extra-wide foot and calf). I’ve also had some good luck with a New Zealand brand called Ziera (formerly called Kumfs); I have sandals and Mary Janes by them. (Zappos carries Ros Hommerson and Ziera.)

  • Erika

    Hear, hear!!! Options are actually a lot greater than you would first expect. I’ve got custom orthotics, one pair for flat shoes, one pair for heels. Pricey, but worth it, after all, not wearing them for more than one day has major impacts on my body (it’s not readily noticeable, but one slightly shorter leg combined with some back issues means my orthotics are very important to me).

    Couple of tips that others may find useful. Where you can, buy leather, it will stretch. If you’ve high arches, steer away from shoes with stitching over the instep as they won’t stretch where needed. Depending on the degree of correction needed, you may be able to get existing shoes stretched by a cobbler. Talk to them first though. Make friends with your local cobbler, they’ll be able to help adjust your shoes for you and massively extend their working life. Size up. For me, it is a whole size. I have to make sure there’s a deep back to the heel counter, so summer sandals are a major headache..

    And haunt eBay. That way you can try different brands without putting too much money up front. The internet is probably your best resource.

    Everyone has different foot issues, quite apart from differing tastes and lives. Good luck!

  • Deborah Lawton

    I have had success with SAS, Indigo by Clark, Saucony trainers, some of Naturalizer’s sandals, and (of all brands!) Aeropostale. I have a high and “migrating” arch that combines with chronic inflammation in my feet. I have to switch shoes and heel heights daily, and wear strong arch supports.

  • K

    This is an issue I’ve struggled with for years. For a long while, I used to go to the 11 shoe stores within an hour’s drive and try on 1/2 the shoes in each store to try to fit my abnormal feet and orthotics. Here’s what I’ve learned over the years:

    – Be open to trying on anything. Even of you think it doesn’t look cute (and a lot of orthotic friendly shoes aren’t known for their looks), it may look better on your foot.

    – If you want to try on shoes in a store rather than order online, go to an independently owned shoe store. Their associates have much better knowledge of both reading your feet & what they have in store that could work for you. They also typically have shoes from brands known for comfort & quality over fashion-purposed shoe places like DSW. As noted below, sometimes they also have special tools on-site like shoe stretchers for shoe hot spots like for bunions or wide pinky toes.

    – No one will be paying as much attention to the fashionableness of your shoes as you are.

    – If you’re trying on shoes with laces, redo the laces to widen the area by the shoe tongue out first; this will give you more width/room in the upper part of your shoe by the top of your foot.

    – While you don’t have the uber stylish options of people without feet challenges, it’s definitely worth it to put your health first. Otherwise, your feet/hips/back will hurt badly if you go without supportive shoes for more than a few hours.

    – As someone said, continuing a similar color from your bottoms to your shoes makes a huge difference in minizing attention on your shoes. For instance, I now have many black/brown/eggplant opaque tights to wear with my black and brown shoes, and the similar tone of dark colors hides the shoes pretty well. For pants, I wear similar colors to shoes as well an then try to wear a slightly longer length to cover up some of the shoe’s large rubber sole.
    Commando is by far my favorite brand for tights; they truly have a lineless, comfortable, no-roll waistband. They’re pricey (~$34) but don’t catch/run and so last a while; I’ve had some 5 years. (No affiliation, I just really love their tights & underwear. Sold at places like Nordstrom and Herrroom.com)

    – You’ll likely need to go a width, or two, to fit the size of your orthotic and/or hammertoes, bunions, etc. Most women’s shoes come in width M (medium) or B. European brand shoes can come in width C. For American brands, the next width up from M/B is W (wide) or D. The next widest sizes will be marked WW (double width) or E,EE,EEE (3E), 4E, 6E, with each successive width being harder to find.
    Zappos carries a great selection of wider widths as do comfort-inclined & spirting-goods focused shoe stores.
    It’s also worth checking out men’s shoes as their standard width is D with men’s “wide” typically coming in E/EE, which are far rarer in women’s shoes.

    – You’ll come to be an expert on how shoes fit. After years of trying on thousands of pairs of shoes and getting a handful to fit, I can now look at a pair of shoes and have a good idea of whether it definitely won’t fit or whether it might have a good chance of fitting.
    You’ll learn about areas of the shoe that differ for orthotic-friendly/ non-stereotypical feet, areas like “toe box” (width and height in the first 2-3″ by the toes; wider and taller is usually more accommodating; high/low vamp (how high the shoe comes up from the soles; usually higher vamps keep shoes on better, and if you’re going for a low vamp shoe, it’s best to have strap(s) across like a Mary Jane does); arch inclines (although if you have, say high arches, but also have an orthotic, you’ll want shoes for neutral arches (no tilt by the arch) rather than shoes billed for high arches as those shoes will come with a built-in mini-orthotic which won’t let your own orthotic lay flat; shoes billed for low-arches/high arches/pronators/etc are best if you don’t have your own orthotic already. Shoes will soft/pliable tops of heels will be less aggregating to those with heel pain or generally sensitive feet.

    – I recommend all people with feet pain/problems get shoes with good shock absorption and cushioning. The recent styles of barefoot running type shoes are not for us; they are for people who have no feet problems, have perfect alignment of the feet bones, muscles & tendons, and those who have already learned & practiced for years proper running form so as to minimize impact on the feet. If you don’t fall into this rare category, get the shock absorption materials in the soles (in materials like EVA footbeds).

    – When you’re trying on a shoe, before you get up & test walking/jogging/step-climbing in store, strike your heel against the floor so that your heel fits snugly within the heel cup of the shoe. After this, you should have about 2cm (or 3/4 in) room between your toes and the front of your shoe.

    -As someone else said, it’s better to go shoe shopping towards the end of te day/after you’ve been on your feet a few hours as otherwise your feet will expand more than this amount, and they might expand more in length/width/height.

    – if you find a shoe that’s pretty close to fitting but is tight in one or two spots, you can either buy a shoe stretcher (cost ~$25 at places like zappos) and stick in a peg in the shoe model to where your tight spot is, or some independent shoe stores will have special show-stretching tools on hand in store & can expand the spot around your trouble spot if you’re committed to buying the shoe.

    – SHOE BRANDS I’ve had good luck with:

    For SNEAKERS/SPORT SHOES, hiking boots, trail shoes, and sometimes cleats – New Balance (largest selection/easiest to find of these brands), Saucony, Mizuno

    For EVERDAY SHOES – Keens, Aetrex, Aerosoles, Ariat, Murad(very pricey, but good & look less orthotic-y)

    For WINTER BOOTS – Sorel (also look at men’s for width), La Canadienne (very pricey, but they last incredibly well)

    Good luck!

    • Anna

      K, what a wonderful wealth of detail you have provided here. Thanks!

  • Tagatha

    I’ve tried several brands that are available in my country and so far, the best fit for me when not wearing my custom orthotics is Birkenstock. Naturally, I have a friend who can’t wear Birkenstocks, so it’s not a universal remedy but definitely worth a try.

    Recently I’ve discovered Converse, as the inside of the shoes is completely flat so it fits orthotics very well but I needed to size up for that. Speaking of sizing up, it’s good to try different sizes anyway as foot size may change with age and weight.

    K makes a very good point about shock absorbing and cushioning, I’ve found that I need both for everyday shoes as well.

  • Donna

    My podiatrist told me I need toe joint surgery and to wear rocker soles. I’ve decided to embrace the funky. Today, I had a choice between my black Dansko Pros and my shiny silver clogs. True, the conservative black Danskos blended in and of course were leg lengthening, but darn it, the silver clogs were a lot more fun and added a bit of pizazz on a gray day. If it were warmer, I would have worn my silver Fly London sandals which can be laced to accommodate my bunions.

  • Sarah P

    While I don’t wear orthotics myself, I struggle to find shoes that don’t make my feet ache after a day of teaching and that are both attractive and versatile.

    My go-to brands are Danskos and Orthaheel, purchased primarily through Zappos and Ebay.

    Thanks, everyone, for your additional brand recommendations. I can’t wait to explore my options!