Shoes: Pleasure and Pain at the V&A: looking for shoes that give all of the pleasure, none of the pain

This autumn’s big exhibition at the V&A is Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, showing ‘extremes of footwear’ from around the world, and considering their role in status, transformation and seduction.

The museum has delved into its unrivalled collection of contemporary and historical shoes from around the world, and selected 200 pairs for display, many for the first time, along with footwear from international collections and private individuals.

They range from ancient Egyptian sandals to 15th and 16th-century chopines (precarious platform shoes worn by women to protect their shoes and dresses from the mud of unmade roads) to futuristic-looking shoes created using 3D printing.

Shoes. Pleasure and Pain. VandA. Chopines Venice Italy c1600
Perilous leather chopines c1600 from Venice. Photo © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It got us thinking that, even if we’ve been life-long high heel wearers, we want pleasure not pain on our feet these days. So how do we find stylish shoes that let us do what we want in some degree of comfort? After all, as Marilyn Monroe said, “Give a girl the right shoes and she can conquer the world.”

Susannah Davda, The Shoe Consultant, is on a mission is to help women and shoe brands to make better decisions about footwear. She believes shoes should be comfortable AND beautiful, and part of her work involves taking individuals and groups on shopping trips to find the perfect shoes.

Best flat shoes. Yellow Superga sneakers. Hannah Rochell of En Brogue on Instagram. With permission
Yellow Superga sneakers worn by Hannah of En Brogue

Four shoe shopping tips from an expert

This is what Susannah looks for when buying shoes, which you may not have thought of.

Leather or suede uppers. Unlike fabric and synthetic uppers you can look after them. Give them a polish every month.

Leather linings. These have more give than synthetic linings, last longer, absorb perspiration and are less likely to smell.

Type of heel. Block heels provide more balance and comfort than narrower heels. But you should also check the position of a higher heel and look for one that’s a little bit further forward than you might imagine. Susannah explains: “When you look at your leg with the shoe on, the heel should be a continuation of the calf bone, under your centre of gravity. You may find that following this tip means you can wear higher heels than you thought.”

Shelf wobble. Give the shoe a prod as it stands displayed on the shelf. If it wobbles then so will you when you’re wearing it. This is an indicator of the heel position and quality of the shoe making. “Don’t assume expensive shoes are better quality. Very high-end shoes can have terrible shelf wobble.”

Buying shoes. Heels illustration. Courtesy of Susannah Davda
The centre-of-gravity test when buying heels. Illustration from The Shoe Consultant
Best flat shoes. Marni trainers and Cos trousers. Hannah Rochell of En Brogue
Marni trainers worn with Cos trousers by Hannah of En Brogue

The Duchess of Cambridge, always at ease in high heels, is said to use Alice Bow leather insoles, which are handmade and cushion the ball of the foot. A useful purchase at £13.90 a pair, although there’s currently a waiting time of four to six weeks, possibly due to recent coverage in Vanity Fair.

How to find flattering and stylish flats

Coming back to earth, Hannah Rochell, fashion features editor at InStyle and founder of flat shoe blog En Brogue, says: “There’s never been a better time to start wearing flats.

“All the brands, from high street to designer, are putting more effort into designing flats. I don’t think wearing flats has any impact on whether or not you look stylish, so long as you choose the right shoes.”

Don’t head to the ‘comfy shoe’ section. Try new styles that you haven’t worn before to find a shape that suits you. There are many styles to choose from. Hannah’s colourful paintings of brogues, loafers, espadrilles, flatforms, slides, ballet pumps, and many more illustrate her book En Brogue: Love Fashion. Love Shoes. Hate Heels.

En Brogue book cover 400x474

“Women don’t want to wear flats because they don’t believe they are flattering. But a low-cut shoe like a ballet pump is leg lengthening,” Hannah says. “Find a style that shows off as much of the top of the foot as possible. And a pointed toe mimics the powerful feeling that women get when wearing heels.”

Proportion is important: wear cropped trousers or turn up your jeans to show your ankles. It’s more feminine and shows off your beautiful shoes.

Don’t feel you have to go for heels for occasion dressing, says Hannah, but warns: “Beware of ballet pumps with a summer dress if you don’t want to look like a little girl. A pointed-toe pump is more grown-up and looks elegant with a floral shift.”

Best flat shoes. White Anne Thomas flats. Hannah Rochell of En Brogue
You can even do flats for a wedding: Hannah from En Brogue wears Anne Thomas flats

Three brands for comfortable, stylish shoes

Susannah’s pick of the current ranges:

John Lewis own brand Kin. Good quality Scandi chic at affordable prices.

& other Stories. A Scandinavian aesthetic, with many types of shoe and mostly leather linings.

Duo. Well-known for their boots in many calf widths, this more classic range also offers different shoe widths. “Our feet are getting larger and wider, and not all brands are keeping up with this,” says Susannah.

Best flat shoes. UGG shoes. Photo by Holly Jolliffe for En Brogue
Obviously one never wears Ugg boots. But these red flats are a different matter. Photo by Holly Jolliffe

Celebs who look amazing in flats

If you’re looking for inspiration, who is getting it right?

For the first-time wearer of flats, Inès de La Fressange in flats proves they can be chic and sexy.

“I like the way Nigella Lawson often wears brighter footwear with a black dress, making the shoes the star of the outfit,” Susannah says.

“And Michelle Obama has worked out her personal footwear style formula, and looks comfortable and elegant in the mid-height heels she usually selects.”