I hate shoe shopping. Or, if I’m being more specific, I hate shoe shopping for me – which is rather inconvenient, as I’m sure you’ll agree.
It all began with early trips to get school shoes, which would always be from Clarks as they offered a fitting service and different width sizes for children. I should have known then that this fairly regular experience would prelude the pattern of frustration and feet-loathing that would follow in the years to come… Because even with different width fittings and half sizes each one of these trips took what felt like hours (ok, I was a child, it was probably 30 minutes) and I’d have tried on every pair in the shop by the end (that one actually isn’t an exaggeration). And I’d still never get the butterfly/heart/hidden-key-in-the-sole/light-up heel encrusted shoes of my dreams because they just wouldn’t fit. I’d leave with whichever pair my feet didn’t slip right out of at the first step and 9/10 times they ere were, to my even then appearance-obsessed little girl’s mind, the Ugliest Shoes in the Shop. Many tantrums ensued.
Two decades later, not much has changed (especially the tantrums). But actually, it’s even worse – because not only do I still have awkward, slimmer-than-average feet, they helpfully wound up as a half size. You see, I’m a 4.5… otherwise known as The Shoe-Size That UK Retailers Forgot. And when you’re an adult and you have difficult, narrow and between sizes feet, you’ll soon realise you’re doomed because in the UK most shops only sell ‘whole’ sizes (and sometimes 6.5s… I’ve never understood why the 6.5ers got so lucky).
And that trick where you go up if you’re in between sizes? When I go up a size, my feet rattle around in the shoe before coming to settle in all that lovely excess space they don’t need – approximately sideways. That’s if I haven’t walked out of them at the first step. Even with a strap, with that much space in a shoe I’ll acquire all manner of blisters from their scrabbling about inside it, desperately trying to stay in.
Of course, when you have such difficult feet to buy for and your life is a constant battle to get your feet to remain inside your shoes (first world problems), it makes perfect sense that your favourite styles are the simple but oh-so-strapless court shoes and ballet bump. You could say I’ve brought the shoe-shopping nightmare on myself… But, in my defence, I’m only 5ft 2” and am always trying to avoid Stumpy Leg Syndrome, especially when teamed with a mid-length skirt, which of course I’ve also got a penchant for as I love 50s style – along with punishing myself, apparently.
I’ve therefore made it my life’s mission (well, I had no better ideas) to try to find shoes that are slip-on rather than just slip-off. Years of research – painstaking (from the blisters) and expensive (from buying shoes I can’t actually wear) – has gone into trying to find a way to shod my awkward feet. While I still don’t think I’ve got the perfect answer, I do have some tips I’ve picked up along the way that might help other poor soles (pun most definitely intended) like me, when buying styles for difficult feet.
Order from overseas
Oh, it’s SO tempting. Every shop’s catalogue is online and the endless choice of size is right there, rubbing it in, no matter where you are in the world. But think about it sensibly – take a pretty reliable retailer like Clarks, for example. I’ve got shoes in sizes 4, 4.5 and 5 from them from the same season. No matter how well you think you’ve translated your shoe size to e.g. US women’s, you don’t know what that exact shoe actually fits like. You can read as many reviews as you like and you won’t be any closer – I’ve seen the same pair of shoes be reviewed as grossly large and small. The bottom line is that if you’ve got awkward feet your margin of error is too large to risk the extortionate return P&P – you can end up spending more than the shoes are worth just to send them back. How do I know? About a month ago I ordered boots from the US after thinking I worked out my size, ordering half a size up in case I was wrong as they were adjustable, reading reviews that confirmed my findings… Inevitably they’re at least half a size too small. Take it from someone who learned the hard way!
Size down too far on length
Here’s the facts: you can stretch a shoe’s depth and width. You can’t stretch its length. If your toe is right at the end of the shoe and it’s a bit uncomfortable in the shop, outside it will cripple you in under five minutes of actual walking, as opposed to the awkward strutting 10 steps in the shop you’ve just done. Ask someone else (a shop assistant, even, if you’re in a shoe-shop) to work out if your toe is right at the end and that’s what you can feel trying it on – sometimes it will be the depth not the length that’s the problem, and the depth can stretch although it takes some pain and solid breaking in.
Buy shoes without laces online
Really, buying shoes at all online that aren’t boots (preferably lace-up or adjustable somehow) or trainers, for the awkward-footed amongst us, is A Risk. The likelihood of said shoes being comfortable is small. Even if it’s got straps to hold your feet in, if the shoes are still too wide anyway, they won’t be comfy as you’ll just get blisters from how much your feet move around. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get something even nicer and more permanent, like corns (ouch). Not to mention that shoes that are too wide for your feet can make them look the size of boats. By all means, find styles you like online – but then go and try them in the store… More to come on this below!
Stick to the golden triangle of highstreet shoe retailers (UK)
Not to tar all shops with the same brush, there are some out there that cater for the half-sized foot. So if that’s your problem and you’re finding it difficult to keep ‘whole’ size court shoes and the likes on, sticking to one of these would be wise.
1. Clarks: the best all-rounder with the biggest spectrum of sizes, from the tiny to the not-so-tiny. Half sizes abound and you can get anything, from office shoes to party types to boots. They’ve hugely upped their game in the last few years and every season has some truly unique styles that are typically both comfy and stylish – that rare combination. My favourite UK shoe retailer by far, there are definitely several styles for the slim, half-sized foot to enjoy. Not badly priced for the great quality you get.
2. Marks & Spencer: another shop that offers a good variety of styles, they come second to Clarks for two main reasons – the quality is not as good as Clarks and the range not as big. However, where they do slightly better than Clarks is for stilettos and high heels – Clarks tend to play it safe with more chunky, mid-height heels (although have been doing better for higher heels lately), and Marks have always had the odd killer heel in amongst the ‘safer’ styles. I’ve got two pairs of stiletto-heeled court shoes that fit wonderfully from Marks, and for that reason alone they take second place.
3. Next: really, Next are only good for rather plain, office-type shoes and the odd ballet pump. And that’s because not every shoe is available in half sizes – I’d say it’s probably around 1/3 of their range. And that 1/3 is not the exciting, sparkly stuff, usually. Their shoes are typically well-made but not hugely well-padded, but you might find some slightly ‘sexier’ court shoes here than Clarks offer.
Make the most of free collect from store options
Clarks, to gush about them again, have a brilliant store delivery option where you don’t pay for the shoes when you order them – you just get them sent to store to then try them and buy if they fit. This has been brilliant for me where such precise sizing matters – I order the same shoe in 2 or 3 sizes, pop into store when they’re ready and buy them if they’re right for me. I often find that Clarks, while usually good, tend not to have complete stock of all sizes in a shoe, so this is a great way to make sure that any you’ve got your eye on are there to try properly when you’re able to.
Invest in half insoles
Half insoles are your best friend if you’ve got half-sized feet, but also if you’ve got slim heels. If you don’t already know, essentially what they do is push your foot up and into the back of the shoe where your heel is still flat, whereas whole insoles push all of your foot up, so it’s likely to still slide forwards if you’ve got a bit of extra space. I pretty much have a pair of half insoles in every pair of my shoes as my feet are so slim – they’re worth their weight in gold. I find the foam ones better than the leather for the pure reason that in tights my feet don’t slip on them.
Cut up heel liners
If your heel is sliding out of your shoe, you’d probably think about getting a pair of heel liners/grips. Leather heel liners are brilliant – I’ve never thought much of the gel ones as they seem to always peel off, but for some reason the leather ones stay on. However, I’ve always found the design really unhelpful – the ‘ridge’ halfway up only serves to push my heel forward. One day, it occurred to me that if the bump was only sitting at the top of the liner, it might help to keep my heel in. So, I cut a pair of liners horizontally along the top of the ridge and stuck what was essentially half an insert into my shoe. And voila, it really seemed to help this way! Just make sure you cut them while the paper backing is still on as those things are super sticky.
Down-size in sandals and peep-toes
This might be obvious, but in case it isn’t, I’ve always found that having a half-sized foot I can get away with pretty much buying all of my open-toe and even peep-toe (if the ‘peep’ is big enough) by rounding down to the nearest whole size. Thus, if I buy my 4.5 sized feet size 4 sandals, the fit tends to be spot on. If you’ve got half-sized but average-width sized feet, if you go for leather sandals they should stretch enough to still make this approach worthwhile.
Go for patent over plain leather and suede
There’s something I’ve found time and again with patent shoes – the material is that much more rigid that 1) they don’t stretch as much as leather or suede and 2) the patent version of the same style of shoes will fit often my slim feet better. I’ve put this to the test many times when I’ve found a shoe I like that’s available in different materials and it always seems to be proven true. Hence I now have three pairs of court shoes with a patent finish and none of them have stretched that much so they still stay on my feet. This theory will probably also apply to leather vs pleather – leather will always stretch and can make the difference between too big and just right for shoes.
Buy things that fit in other colours when available
Again, this seems an obvious point, but I have to continuously remind myself to do it. It just doesn’t seem that much fun buying the same pair of shoes in different colours, but here’s the thing: if you like them and they fit, seize the opportunity to further expand your shoe collection while it exists. It could be months, years, before another pair you like comes along that fits as well. Don’t get shoe regret!
Wear thick tights
Your average denier nylon tights are a real pain if your feet have a tendency to slide out of shoes – they only make them more slippery! My secret weapon in the winter for wearing court shoes and ballet pumps are fleece-lined tights. They don’t look that much different to opaques but they’ve got a thick, sock-like lining on the inside which helps my feet to pad out shoes. This year, many shops from Primark to Marks & Spencers are selling them in the UK.
So there you have it, my shoe story and tips for shopping for the awkward foot!
ABOUT CICI MARIE:
CiCi is a style blogger who primarily writes about vintage-inspired fashion over on her blog CiCi Marie.