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High heels aren’t just a type of shoe. For many, the popular shoe style is a way to channel femininity, power, and even sexiness. Needless to say, there’s an undeniable allure when it comes to the feelings associated with heels. It only makes sense that the popularity of women’s heels transcends decades, from the kitten heels of the ’50s to the platforms of the ’70s to the strappy heels of the ’90s. High heels have history—and some serious staying power.
In the 2020s, heels are still a cornerstone of the shoe market, from noughties-inspired styles to classic black pumps. But navigating the seemingly endless options of high heels can be difficult for those not well versed in shoe verbiage. After all, a “D’Orsay” sounds like a French pastry and “kitten heels” sound like a questionable addition to your furry friend’s paws.
To help you decode high heel taxonomy and make shopping that much sweeter, check out the guide below for all you need to know about women’s heels—including how to make them actually comfortable.
Types of heels
When shopping for the perfect pair of heels, it’s helpful to know what type of heel structure you’re looking to buy. Whether you decide on soaring stilettos, beginner-friendly wedges, or anything in between, knowing a bit of heel anatomy is undeniably important. Heels can adhere strictly to these broad categories or mix styles for a heel structure that’s out-of-the-box. But getting familiar with the below options is a good place to start before scrolling through countless shoe options.
First introduced in the 1950s, stiletto heels feature long, thin heels—often several inches in height—like this Jimmy Choo pair. This type of heel is actually named after the stiletto dagger, so it’s no wonder the style is synonymous with fierce and edgy femininity—not to mention seduction.
Continental heels are a type of stiletto that feature a curved backline and a straight front, like these branded Balenciaga heels. Pumps, a classic heel style, often feature a continental heel.`
Popularized in the 1950s, the kitten heel is also a type of stiletto, only significantly less intimidating. A kitten heel is only about one to two inches high, making walking on them very easy, even with the technical stiletto classification. Kitten heels were first created as “training heels” for young girls but became popular with women of all ages for their comfortable yet formal style. Today, kitten heels are sought out for their vintage feel, like this Coach pair.
A great introduction to heels with height, wedge heels include a “wedge-shaped” piece that lifts the heel but provides a flat surface to walk on, like these STAUD stunners. Wedges are known for being incredibly stable, providing the same height as tall heels with more forgiveness when it comes to balance, thanks to the flat, sturdy sole.
A tapered heel features a large, stable surface area at the top of the heel, but slims to a thinner point at the bottom, like these unique Gianvito Rossi glitter heels. Also known as a cone heel, this heel shape is significantly more advanced than wedges, but still provides a good amount of stability for those working up to a stiletto heel.
A block heel is just what it sounds like: a girthy square-shaped heel that provides a lot of stability for the wearer. Block heels can be short, super-tall, or anywhere in between. They are versatile and typically easy to walk in, like these Kate Spade booties.
A flared heel starts out thinner at the top of the heel, then curves to a wider base where the heel connects to the floor. This heel style provides more stability than many types of heels, thanks to the broad base. These bold Stella McCartney glitter boots feature a flared heel that makes all that height less intimidating.
A type of flared heel, a spool heel has somewhat of an hourglass shape, flaring at the top of the heel and then slimming out in the middle and then flaring at the bottom yet again. The name comes from the heel’s resemblance to a spool of thread or cotton, demonstrated by this golden Vince Camuto shoe.
One of the most important things to consider when shopping for a high heel shoe is heel height. If you are new to the shoe style, it’s best to stick to proverbial training wheels with a pair under 2 inches. If you’re a seasoned pro who happens to be going to an event where you’ll be sitting all night, then tossing on a pair of 5-inch heels won’t even make you bat an eye. To assist you in all of that decision-making, check out this breakdown of heel heights.
2-inch heels and under
Kitten heels and short block sandals fall into this category, giving you a touch of height with virtually no discomfort. Heels clocking in at 2-inches and under are the top choice for beginners, lifting your heel just enough to adjust your walk and ease you into the shoe style.
Commonly known as “pumps,” 3-inch heels are some of the most common heels on the market. They are perfect for the office or events where you’ll be on your feet a bit. Yes, they are more advanced than kitten heels. But pumps are still friendly for most people, even if your balance could use a little improvement.
Once you get comfortable in your pumps, graduating to 4-inch heels is the next step. Platforms, wedges, and other chunky heel styles are especially popular in this category, giving you the height with some added stability. But you can easily find a killer pair of 4-inch stilettos out there if you’re feeling daring and confident in your skill.
5-inch heels and up
If you’re a pro who could balance on a pencil, this heel height is for you. Even 5-inch wedges are a challenge to walk in—and that’s not to mention the trouble of towering stilettos. If you are choosing a fantastically high heel, make sure you’re a balancing pro—and that you don’t need to stand much throughout the night.
How to make heels comfortable
Let’s cut to the chase: The trick to making heels comfortable is a good fit. Period.
If your foot slides around or your heel is “bobbing” significantly in the shoe, it’s too big—even if it’s your usual size. If you feel any pinching or have overhanging toes, your heel is too small—and blisters are in your future. The perfect heel will be secure, but not tight. Your heel will fit perfectly in the designated area of the shoe, and your toes won’t smash uncomfortably when you step. Sure, you may feel some discomfort due to the inevitable arch of your sole and pressure from standing on the ball of your foot. But that feeling shouldn’t be immediate and should disappear quickly after taking off your shoes for the night.
If you already own heels that are too loose or have “hot spots” (a.k.a. points of pressure leading to discomfort and pain), try shoe inserts and pads to add additional cushion. It’s a cheap fix, especially when dealing with designer duds.
How to walk in high heels
Finding a good-fitting shoe is half the battle when it comes to walking in heels. The other half is practicing a simple walking technique that’s unique to this classification of footwear. Many heel-wearing experts advise walking heel to toe in high heels, finding your stability on the heel of the shoe then pressing down to the ball of your foot where there’s more surface area. This also cuts down on the tell-tale “clunk” of heavy feet, adding more polish (and less noise) to your stride.
Heels also require a shorter stride than a flat shoe, so be sure to take baby steps, keeping your walk slow and steady. When taking those short, slow steps (heel to toe, remember?) put one foot in front of the other—literally. Imagine you are walking a tightrope, walking in as straight of a line as possible. It takes some practice, but soon, these essential tips will just become second nature rather than an overwhelming checklist in your mind.
A bonus tip: Be sure your heels have good traction to help any slips and slides on slick floors. If your heels need a little help, scuff the bottoms on a sidewalk or grind the soles with sandpaper to break them in a little. There are also specially made shoe pads on the market if you’ve picked up a particularly slippery pair.
All shoes have different toe shapes—and that certainly includes heels. From pointed-toe pumps to open-toe sandals, a heel can completely change depending on the toe shape. Check out the nude heels below to learn more about the most common toe shapes you’ll see when shopping for heels.
Rounded toe heels are ideal for those with wide-width feet, giving your toes more room to splay naturally, like these Nine West round toe pumps.
A pointed-toe pump is one of the most noted heel shapes—and a classic. The shape is ideal for those narrow feet, like this nude pair of Christian Louboutins.
Like Goldilock’s porridge, almond-shaped heels—like this Rebecca Allen pair—are the perfect in-between shape for any foot shape. Whether you have wide feet, narrow feet, or in-between feet, an almond shape will fit like a glove.
An incredibly modern style, a square toe box is wide-foot friendly—but works with all foot shapes. You’ll often see square toes on mules, like this pair of Marc Fisher stacked heel shoes, or heeled sandals.
A peep-toe shoe, like these Chinese Laundry platforms, shows off a few of your toes—most notably your big toe and second toe.
An open-toe shoe is similar to a peep-toe shoe, but shows all of your toes, like these Steve Madden platforms. Be sure your pedicure is in check before busting these out.
Additional heel anatomy
Heels can, of course, be combined with several different types of shoes, from heeled loafers to heeled sandals to heeled Mary Janes. But the terms below are relatively isolated to heels, describing common silhouettes of the popular shoes.
Pumps are arguably the most common high heels you’ll find on the market. Pumps, like this Saint Laurant pair, often feature 3-inch heels and have a closed toe, most often pointed or rounded.
A stacked heel appears to feature stacked wood or leather to make up the layered heel, like this Madewell pair.
Synonymous with the ’70s, platforms are chunky heels that feature a dramatically raised sole, like these Jeffrey Campbell heels. They often feature a high block heel, adding several inches to your height. But the towering shoes are somewhat of an optical illusion. They are easier to walk in than they appear, as the raised sole helps compensate for the intimidating heel.
Slingback heels have an open back with a strap around the heel, like this mint Zara pair. Many slingbacks feature a buckle or elastic to keep the strap snug, tailoring the fit to your foot.
Ankle Strap Heels
An ankle strap heel, like this Steven Madden pair, features—you guessed it—an ankle strap for extra security around the heel. They differ from slingbacks in that the strap encircles the ankle rather than securing the shoe just at the back of the heel.
T-strap heels most often feature a closed toe and an ankle strap, which are connected by a midline strap. The design is synonymous with vintage vibes, like this Clark’s pair.
D’Orsay heels—which are most often pumps—feature large cutouts on the inside or both sides of the shoe, revealing the arch of the foot, like this pair of Louboutins. It’s an even sexier take on the heel, as if that was even possible.
A mule has an open back, like this Nine West pair. Mules can feature any type of heel, from a high stiletto to a wedge to a kitten heel. They can even be flats, though that’s less common than a heeled version.
Known as the quintessential summer heel, espadrille wedges feature a rope heel and, most often, a canvas or fabric upper, like these Jimmy Choo wedges.