Capitol Hill Style: Ask Belle: How high is too high?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013 by Belle

Ask Belle: How high is too high?

64

Hi Belle,

I found your site last year and I love it. I am the intern coordinator for my office and I spend a lot of time talking to your female interns about their clothes and your blog has been a big help.

Could you settle a debate my COS and I are having about shoes?  How high is too high for high heels?

Alanna

Let me first say, that I have been saving this Ask Belle since December.  Why?  Because as the weather gets warmer, the heels get higher, and I wanted the post to be timely.

While it’s hard to say definitively, because there are several factors beyond heel height (style, material, etc.) that determine whether a shoe is professional, if I were writing an office dress code, I would have a rule that says no heels higher than 4″.

Of course, I wouldn’t be breaking out the measuring tape, but my goal would be to steer women away from high heels with thick platforms or sky high stilettos.  Because I’m always a bit horrified when I walk into a professional office and see women wearing what could be charitably described as “club shoes.”

This shoe is not an office shoe, and yet, every couple of days, I see an otherwise professionally dressed woman wearing something similar.

Does 4″ seem like an arbitrary choice to you?  Allow me illustrate my choice using a visual aid:

Screen Shot 2013-03-06 at 1.36.29 AM

Five pairs of “nude” high heels.  Five different heel heights, but otherwise, very similar.

On the left, we have an under-3″ heel, the DvF Anette Mid-Heel.  Maybe too conservative for some people, for others, just right.  Next to it, we have the Kate Spade Licorice Heel–traditional, classic–a versatile work shoe.  And then, we have a shoe that is just under 4″, the Ivanka Trump Pinkish heel.  I would consider all of these shoes appropriate work shoes.

Across the thin red line, we find the Arturo Chiang Orina pump and the Jessica Simpson Waleo pump.  The exposed platforms, the towering stilettos–these shoes strike me as wholly inappropriate for the office.

So why do some women, esp. young women, seem to gravitate toward sky scraping heels?

I’ve done some thinking on this, and I have a theory.  As the celebrity and fashion worlds have moved toward ever-higher high heels over the last five years, the companies that make inexpensive shoes (Madden, ALDO, Forever 21, etc.) have heavily followed that trend.  Because young professionals don’t have the money to spend on pricier, classic brands, their choices for sensible, stylish, affordable heels are limited.  And they’re often too inexperienced to know how wearing such high heels might cause them to be perceived, so they buy what’s available in their price point.

But if you’re willing to pick through the rough, you can find professional, chic heels for under $100.

In the under-3″ category, these Arturo Chiang pumps are a good choice, as are these Ivanka Trump heels. If you prefer 3″ or just over, these Chinese Laundry Area pumps have a classic style and a $70 price.  And because I threw some shade at Madden shoes, I feel like I should showcase their $50 perfectly appropriate pumps just to be fair.

And if you need a little more height, try a 4″ heel with a hidden platform instead of an exposed one.  These Franco Sarto Cicero pumps (also in a to.die.for tortoise) are the perfect example of a shoe that looks professional but offers a lot of height thanks to a concealed lift and a slightly thicker heel.  These Nine West shoes also offer the same hidden platform with a thinner heel.

So what do you ladies say, how high is too high?  Or is there no such thing?

64 comments :

  • Mel

    I’ve gotten lucky getting a lot of low cost low heels are discount stores like Burlington Coat Factory. You need to search and sometimes have luck on your side, but they are there.

  • SQC

    I disagree. It’s the style of the shoe, the rest of the outfit, and the woman. It would not be fair to tell a 4’10 woman she can’t wear a four inch heel with a platform. I know short women who wear shoes like that daily so they will appear *more* professional, especially to their male colleagues who otherwise might be dismissive of them b/c of a diminutive frame. I also know a very professional and stylish woman who used to wear Gucci suits every day and a sleek, black platform heel. She looked powerful and polished, and is now the GC of a big international company.

  • SQC

    But yes, totally agree that a hidden platform is the way to go. And for me, I just wish retailers would bring back 3 inch heels.

  • G

    Belle,
    What do you think about exposed platforms for shoes under 4″ height? I really like the L.K. Bennett pumps or the latest Cole Haan “Chelsea” pumps but I’ve always been wary to wear them to the office because of the exposed platform (even though the heel height is 3.5″ and the pump is closed toe/pantent leather black or nude). Do you think they are inappropriate for the office?

    • Leslie

      My two cents here – it has less to do with the platform being uncovered and more to do with the height of the uncovered platform. In my opinion – a 3.5″ shoe with a 0.5″ platform is work appropriate.

      p.s. Courtesy of HRH the Duchess of Cambridge, I’ve been considering those same L.K. Bennetts

    • Belle

      I tried on the LK Bennett’s with the platform thinking I would love them, but when I got them home and looked in the mirror, I just couldn’t shake the feeling they weren’t quite sleek enough for me. But that was a personal opinion.

      I agree with Leslie though that height of the platform is more of a visual distraction than height of the heel.

    • Parker - Boardroom Belles

      LK Bennet has the Shiloh, a more toned “down” version of the Sledge, that is more work appropriate in my opinion. I’m completely with Belle on this topic. Especially, when the woman in question is short, the heels can’t be outrageous because otherwise they just look…well, outrageously disproportionate.

  • Jennifer

    I would consider the 3.75 to be pushing it, it just looks so impractical and uncomfortable. I never wear heels, and only one or two people in my office ever do, but when I see them on women out at lunch it makes me doubt the judgement of the woman wearing them because they are sooo bad for the health of you feet and legs (to a lesser degree if a woman is under 5’4″ or so, because for petite women it makes sense to want to be on the same eye level. but a 5’8″ woman in over 3″ heels? why?)
    Personal opinion, but I would rather be seen as practical than be seen as fashionable by my employers and coworkers; so I wear flats and boots.

    • Kristin

      I have the 3.75 in pair pictured and wear them to work regularly. They are actually pretty comfortable. I am 5′ 3 so I wear heels pretty much everyday. I wouldn’t wear anything higher than those, and I definitely agree that the super high heels with the exposed platform are not work appropriate.

    • A nonny moose

      I’m 5’9 and love 3-4 inch heels. To me, they look better than when petite women wear them, because they are more proportional. Just as my pants are longer and my feet are sized larger, my heels can be taller and look great.

      In general, I agree with Belle on the 4″ limit. Anything over, especially with an exposed platform, just doesn’t look professional.

      • Kristen

        I completely agree. I am 5’9″ as well, and feel unprofessional if I am not wearing heels, regardless of the fact that they make me over 6′ tall. I am asked by peers why I wear heels (never taller than 4″), and what people seem to misunderstand is that heels provide the same benefits to tall women as they do those that are more petite. I want my legs and butt to look better just like anyone else!

      • Kit

        I second this as well. I am 5’10 and have feet that are proportional to my body. When I wear flats or kitten heels, my feet look very long indeed and it looks especially odd when I wear skirts. I believe that heels with a height proportionate to my body make me look much better and, as others have mentioned, also have body shaping benefits. That said, I stay in the 3-4 inch range. I think that works for the length of my feet and keeps it professional.

        • Bryony

          I have to agree with the idea that it’s no less ridiculous for tall women to wear heels than short women. I’m 5’8″ and all of my heels are about 3″ or so. I wouldn’t go over 4″ in an office setting, but to be honest that’s most arbitrary. Though the other thing I would say is that your heel height ought to be complimentary to your hemline. If a skirt is above the knee, the heels should be corresponding shorter. It starts to look like a ‘club shoe’ (for lack of a better term) when you have a super short hem (or super tight cut) with really tall heels.

  • Sarah

    I think people should be very careful of heels over three inches. To me they either scream prostitute or present an image of a woman that is not ready to face whatever challenges might come her way, due to incredibly impractical shoes. As a relatively short woman, I find very short woman in very high heels to look like they are trying too hard to look grown up and professional. The way a woman carries herself and interacts with her coworkers leaves a far greater impression than how tall she actually is.

  • outside time

    Hi Belle. I debated whether or not I should post a comment but I think you care about stuff like this so I thought I’d point it out. I otherwise like your blog and have never commented before.

    The arrangement of the “nude” shoes from lightest shoe to darkest shoe, corresponding to most professional to least professional, subtly invokes race. Dove did something similar here: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2011/03/21/the-pitfalls-of-marketing-race-and-beauty-in-a-dove-ad/ and I think SocImages did a good job summing up the issue: “In this case, the arrangement of the models combined with the text above and below them unfortunately intersects with a cultural history in which White skin was seen as inherently “more beautiful” than non-White skin (not to mention thinner bodies as more beautiful than larger ones).”

    Though it may seem like a small thing, I think you can see what’s problematic about lining up pairs of “nude” shoes that correspond with different skin colors in order of professionalism.

    • Belle

      It’s pretty simple, I wanted a clean side view. The only retailer that I know of who shows you that is piperlime. I picked the shoes that were the height I wanted and I lined them up. No racial overtone intended, it was 1:00AM, and I wasn’t going to scour the Internet for shoes shown at the same angle in the same color when I could find them all on the same page. I chose “nude” because they’re the shoes that I often see with the high-high platform.

      • outside time

        You don’t need to respond with a personal defense because this is not a personal attack. I do truly believe you meant nothing by it. However, I think a compassionate, sensitive adult who is attuned to other people’s perceptions such that she can distinguish between inappropriate and appropriate shoes (and I agree, anything over 4′ is totally too high) would be sensitive enough to respond with empathy by saying, “I really didn’t mean to invoke race when I assembled this. I don’t understand what the big deal is but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt because I might be clouded by my own position of white privilege. I do see how this could really be interpreted and I’m so sorry if this is upsetting. It would have been better to use a plain black shoe, or anything else that didn’t look like a nude gradient.”

        • Megathy

          OT: It’s pretty unfair of you to tell Belle it’s not a personal attack, and then basically personally attack her for not responding exactly the way you had it in your head. Belle did explicitly say she didn’t mean to invoke race. Also, if you know much about her, you know that she’s not likely to bow to political correctness, so you shouldn’t expect her to.

          In addition, I don’t see a problem with calling them nude, as they’re all different shades, and they’re all nude for someone. Belle has done posts in the past about finding “nude for you” shoes for people of all skintones, so I think it’s fair to call them all nude.

        • Fiedah

          I know I’m late but I’m AA and didn’t think anything when I saw the nude shoes. Often the color nude is nude for someone, just not for me. It’s no big deal.

    • EK

      I’m so baffled by this comment. The Dove ad you linked to is problematic. The shoe line-up is not, for the simple reason that it is not “lined up in order of professionalism.” The shoes are lined up in order of heel height, which is a quantifiable metric. If anything, I think it’s great to see “nude-colored” shoes that encompass a wider range of skin tones – it’s been brought up in the comments before that what’s often considered nude in footwear tends to reflect pale/Caucasian skin tones.

    • Raquel

      this is just ridiculous. I highly doubt there were racial undertones in a post about show height.

      • Raquel

        shoe, excuse me.

      • Bryony

        I wouldn’t say ridiculous…just a logical leap. The height of the heel *is* meant to correspond, at least indirectly, with how professional or work-place appropriate the shoe is. However, if there is any racism going on (not that I think there is), I wouldn’t drop it at Belle’s door. If anything, it’s down to the people making the shoes who make assumptions about who’s more likely to buy what heel height. And even then, unless we go scour Piperlime, who’s to say there aren’t multiple nude shades within each heel height? Basically, the original comment was well-intended, but a step too far.

        • Valerie

          I think whatever color issues happened here were just a bad coincidence, not a racist issue. I know a lot of retailers have tried to gear “nude” shoes towards a larger range of skin tones, as not all of us come in the same skin tone.

      • BD

        I don’t think the poster thinks that Belle was intentionally putting racial overtones into such a piece. But that doing what she did adds to a cultural atmosphere that perceives darker skin tones as less professional. Many things act on our subconscious perceptions of race and if Belle has the platform to improve things why should not we ask her to be aware of the implications of her choices.

        Personally, I think that it’s just as problematic to refer to these shoes as nude and not just beige. (Piperlime just calls them beige by the way)

    • Karen

      This is the most ridiculous comment thread I’ve ever seen on this blog. So called nude shoes come in all shades from pale to tan, I’m sure Belle wasn’t trying to infer anything. If you looked at this post and thought about race, you should stop taking yourself so seriously.

    • Klc

      You need something better to do with your time. Coming onto a fashion blog and trying to cause drama. For shame!

  • Natasha

    It is possible for someone to choose to dress inappropriately even if they are the GC of international company and should be using better judgment about what to wear to the office. I am sure people are talking about how she dresses. Just not to her face.

  • Pancakes

    I have definitely seen some women wearing heels that look identical to the 5″ exposed platform pumps above to work.

    I think a 4″ heel can definitely work, depending on the style and overall feel. I actually have more trouble walking in a 2″ heel than a 3″ or 4″ heel.

    I generally say no to all exposed platforms, though. And I prefer to wear a slightly lower heel for interviews, especially since it’s awkward to interview with a male employee who might be significantly shorter than me with heels (I’m already 5’7″ in flats).

    • Belle

      I once interviewed for a job in 4″ heels and discovered that the man interviewing me was my flat-footed height. He was clearly uncomfortable and it made the rest of the interview somewhat so as well. There’s no way I could have known, but it did make for an awkward moment.

      • Angie

        Honestly, if a man is awkward or uncomfortable with a taller woman, that’s his problem and speaks to an insecurity on his part. I know it probably made for a less than ideal interview, but would the guy have felt awkward if he was interviewing a 6’4 man?

        (Admittedly biased here, I’m 5’9 in flats and the men I interact with on a daily basis- boss, coworkers, boyfriend- are all shorter than me. I wear heels for my own taste, and dont really think about whether they have a Napoleon complex).

  • EK

    I can’t stand exposed platforms. I understand the appeal for shorter women, but at 5’10″, I’m not trying to sneak any extra height in my shoes, and I think the look is generally unprofessional. That said, I still love the look of heels in general and the way I feel/walk in a great pair (3″ and under). I have a few Kate Spade pairs that I can easily go through a work day in, and a pair of 2.75″ Ferragamo slingbacks that are more comfortable than some of my flats.

  • joy

    I think even option #3 is too high for the office. While not over the top, it is a bit too sexy for work.

  • Just a thought.

    I’m 5’3″, and I think shoes higher than 3 inches aren’t office appropriate.

  • Anna

    This is more of a style issue and a quick vent session, but I HATE patent pumps for work. I think they look silly and should be saved for parties. I think plain leather, or calf-hair leopard in the fall/winter and snake in the spring/summer is really the best bet unless you work in a really creative field.

  • Sonia

    I have to say, I don’t understand how any heel could be too high to be professional, unless the shoe is made of clear lucite or something. A skirt can be too short because it shows way too much leg, a top can be too low cut because it shows way too much of your bosom, but a higher heel won’t show anything flats don’t already show… So why would it be considered too sexy or whatnot for work?

    I love heels, wear them all the time, and have absolutely no trouble walking in 4+ inch heels. I’m also 5’9″ but still love the added height.

    • Belle

      How do I say this…

      It’s not about skin showing. It’s about the connotation (?). I think when most people see a woman in a very high platform heel they automatically think about other venues where they’ve seen such shoes. The places that they think of are not usually professional offices. And then they make judgments about the woman’s character based on her footwear.

      Is it fair? Of course not. But I think it’s important to understand how certain items of clothing might lead you to be perceived. If you’re okay with fighting against that perception, than I say more power to you. But given how important first impressions are, I usually err on the side of caution.

  • Giggling Gourmand

    When I worked in Biglaw 4 inch loubs were the norm for a lot of female associates and partners. I really doubt anybody is talking about that GC behind her back because her heels are too high.

  • N

    something similar here, Corporette reached the same conclusion:

    http://corporette.com/2009/03/02/poll-results-towering-heels/

  • libertyonless

    I think a lot has to do with how you style the shoes as well. I’m more likely to wear a higher heel with boot-cut pants than I am with a skirt, or with a simpler outfit than with a patterned, busy one. Though I try to keep it under 4″ regardless.

    In the end, I think it’s all about not being too flashy since, after all, you’re there to work.

    • Angie

      Totally agree with @libertyonless. The overall outfit is what gives the impression of professionalism. Pairing a 4 inch heel with a tailored pant and jacket works better than pairing it with a short skirt and low cut top (that outfit may work for a cocktail party, but not for work).

      Also, as another colleague of mine mentioned, once you get past 4 inches or so it gets immensely hard to walk around unless you work in an office with a single floor and readily accessible restroom. Having to switch back and forth between “walkable” heels and flats gets frustrating after a while if the heel is just plain impractical.

      • Sarah

        Honestly, I can’t imagine any outfit with the last pair and maybe even the second-to-last pair that could look professional. The shoes would just ruin it, even in plain black.

        • Angie

          @Sarah I have the Nine West “Fortonight” pumps in nude, which I generally only wear with dresses and skirts to dinner (4.5 inch heel, 1 inch platform). I’ve only worn them to work with black trousers that partially cover the heel. Generally i stay away from shoes with more than a 1 inch exposed platform, you usually have spend more to make that style look classy.

  • MM

    I tend to feel that it’s the exposed platform or a super skinny/spiked heel that pushes something out of the professional realm, not so much the heel height on its own. (And maybe those variables are correlated…who knows?)

    Possibly feeling a bit defensive at the comments that have said anything over 3″ looks like a prostitute. WOW. Normally I wouldn’t even bother but I’m wearing a pair of very classic, black heels today with a normal size 4″ heel (small HIDDEN platform). I have received many comments about the classic nature of the shoe/inquiries about where I found them. I think there’s more than 1 variable that makes a shoe unprofessional.

    • Belle

      Sure there are multiple factors, but the exposed platform and 4-plus heel heights do seem to go together. Your shoes sound lovely.

  • Amanda

    I agree with several other readers that the problem is not if the platform is exposed, but rather how high it is. I bought these Chelsea Low Pumps: http://www.colehaan.com/colehaan/catalog/product.jsp?catId=100&productId=726824&productGroup=746559 in a few different colors because the three inch heel combined with the 0.5 inch platform makes them the most comfortable heels that I own. I can go all day in them without pain. The platform is exposed, but because it is such a small platform, it is unnoticeable. I don’t think that the proportions of this shoe are workplace-inappropriate.

  • Mary

    I always think it’s interesting to see which posts get the most comments. You definitely find out which subjects inspire lots of passionate opinions.

  • Jamie

    After reading this discussion, another question comes to my mind: what about women who have flat feet? As someone who has great difficulty in wearing heels (of pretty much any substantial height) without foot and back pain, do you have any suggestions?

    • Angie

      Jamie I have a friend with the same issue, and she’s had multiple surgeries that have made it only somewhat better. She wears very polished flats to work (Cole Haan, Piperlime, and Nordstrom are her go-tos for classics), and then will occasionally wear low wedges for special events with an orthotic insert. In my opinion a well-made flat looks just as nice as a heel.

  • Holly

    I personally can’t stand exposed platforms. I do have a couple of pairs of 4 inch heels with a covered platform. I’m only 5 feet tall so I like to wear 3.5-4 inch heels because they make me almost average height compared to my colleagues and that height makes the line of my leg look the best. Anything taller than 4 inches makes me look like a horse clomping around because they are visibly large for my petite frame. However, I have a coworker who wears 5 inch platform heels like the one pictured every day and she is consistently the best dressed person in the office. She is also taller and has the body of a model to begin with, so everything looks good on her. I often covet her clothing but personally would never wear the shoes she wears. I’d say it definitely depends on the person, the quality of the shoes, and the rest of the outfit they are wearing.

  • Britt

    As I’m about to go interview for summer law clerk positions in DC I have been waiting for you to post about shoes. I’m 23 and a firm believer that women my age need to dress more appropriately to work (on the whole – doesn’t mean every young woman is inappropriate). I agree that shoes shouldn’t be more than 4 inches in height (I like to keep work shoes between 2.5 to 3 inches). The 3 inch styles you posted were perfect and I will definitely be purchasing one of them for upcoming interviews! Thanks for the post!!

  • Casey

    I don’t think any heel height is inappropriate for work if you can walk properly. I’m only 5’0, so that may color my perception, but I don’t think most people would even notice how high your heels are unless you are stumbling around all day like you’re doing a hungover walk of shame. In any case, I think it’s ridiculous to make judgments about a woman’s character based on whether or not her heels are 4 inches or (gasp) 4.25 inches.

    I won’t wear open-toe shoes to work because I think exposed toes belong on the beach, not in the office. It’s not because I’m worried about giving the impression that I’m moonlighting as a prostitute or a stripper. If you work hard and you know how to create an overall professional appearance (no cleavage, no miniskirts, etc.), no one, aside from neurotic and potentially jealous female co-workers, is going to sit in his or her office and ponder how high your heels are and what that says about you as a person.

  • Whitney

    Such a great post! Tom and Lorenzo call those nude platform stilleto pumps “hooker hooves”, and I think that’s an appropriate name for them. So ugly. I used to work in a boutique that sold pageant dresses and accessories, and we sold a lot of nude pumps. Shoes 1-3 in your image above elongate the leg, 4 and 5 just make women look like the Budweiser Clydesdales clomping around at the county fair. I can’t wait for this trend to die.

    • Valerie

      Eh, Tom and Lorenzo have perfected the art of witty cattiness. You’ll notice most of their reader comments are meaner and much less funny. There’s a huge difference between 5 inch Louboutins/Choos and pageant pumps- better materials, more cleverly hidden or incorporated platform, etc. Whether they’re appropriate for work is another story, but I don’t think they’re fugly.

  • Amelia

    I work in a conservative law firm and frequently wear 4″ or 4.5″ heels. I dress fairly conservatively, but love outlandish shoes. I have some with platforms, some wedge, some crazy colours. I have never felt any negative backlash and always feel very professional. I have had comments before on how put together I look from other associates.
    That being said, I have also been practicing for seven years. I would have never done this my first 2-3 years . . .

  • JKG

    I saw a young woman in heels like the highest pair with bare legs and a short skirt walking down the street with her friends the other night. She couldn’t quite keep up with her friends. Maybe she doesn’t have to walk a lot if she wears those shoes to work and to each her own, but I thought she looked uncomfortable (and maybe cold). That said, I have bought heels after wearing them in the store for three minutes and thinking I could handle them all day and could not. Maybe she did the same.

  • Sarah

    I agree with your cut-off point for high heels! And I agree that the problem stems from lower price point brands largely carrying complete CRAP. One brand I swore by as an intern and still wear to this day is Nine West. Now, I’ve heard that some people don’t like them, but I find them to be plenty sturdy and comfortable. They’re worth a try if you’re looking for professional shoes at that price point. They have several styles that meet all of my requirements: under-4″ heel, real leather, professional color. I love that their sizing is UBER-consistent, so once you have a pair and know your size, you can order online or just pick up a pair at the mall without having to try them on (at least that’s what I do). For the office, my favorite style is “Caress” but others that I think would be worth a try are “Andriana”, “Gillyan”, and “Martina”.

  • Lady Lawyer

    I own those 4″ Franco Sarto’s in tortoise and in black (so mad they are 50% off now, but whatever), and I adore them. I work at a conservative law firm and feel totally fine wearing these. I agree with others who say if you dress conservatively otherwise, you can get away with a slightly higher heel. I would not go above 4″ though. Not only for the sake of professionalism, but also for the sake of my ankles.

  • mochimac

    3″ is the max I’ll wear. That’s professional enough and not too high so that you break your neck.

    4″ heels or platform stilettos are best saved for more casual affairs.

  • How High Should You Go: Corporate "Heels-tiquette" | The Corporate Sister

    […] or lower, even better… Back in April of last year, Capitol Hill Style had a great diagram on acceptable heel heights for the office, and a great post on it too! As you can tell below, anything past the red […]

  • HEEL HEIGHTS | Blame the Business

    […] Source: Capitol Hill Style […]

Leave a Comment:

Copyright © 2006, Capitol Hill Style. All rights reserved. The opinions expressed on Capitol Hill Style by Belle, a guest blogger or those providing comments are theirs alone. They do not reflect the opinions of Belle's current employer, Belle's previous employers or any groups or organizations with which she is affiliated.

Website design by Sarah Gerrity.

Updated for 2014