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If The Shoe Fits: The Rise Of The Stylish Comfort Shoe

Orthopedic shoes.
Shmeleva Natalie
Orthopedic shoes.

Women's shoes are often objects of self-expression.

Bold, business-like, laid-back, sexy, sporty — there's a shoe to match.

As women age, however, comfort starts to compete with style.

I remember my grandma taking me by the hand, years ago, and leading me upstairs to her closet, where clear plastic boxes of shoes were stacked, floor to ceiling.

There were hundreds of heels in animal prints, bright colors, feathers — pointy-toed and at least 3 inches high.

"These are all yours, now," my abuela said in her awesome Puerto Rican-accented English. "I can't wear them anymore."

She was crying.

I called my 83-year-old grandma, Iris Portela, and I asked her to corroborate my memory.

"I had so many beautiful shoes," she told me on the phone with a sigh. "Now, I have to wear flat shoes. ... I'm old, but I don't like old-people clothes."

She's always taken pride in looking stylish, and shoes used to be her statement piece.

That's not the case anymore, although she admitted to finding a brand that doesn't make her feel geriatric.

"Clarks. They're my favorites. But they're expensive, those Clarks. They cost a hundred dollars!"

Comfort And Style

The $100-and-up comfort shoe is where the women's footwear market has grown most in the past few years — up 6 percent from last year — thanks, in part, to the baby boomers who demand style with their comfort and will pay for it.

Fashion footwear brands have responded. Stuart Weitzman makes high-end pumps with chunkier heels and more padding. Brands that might have been stigmatized by the comfort label years ago, such as Aerosoles or Naturalizers, have stepped up their fashion game.

"Twenty years ago, the shoes looked comfortable, and when you say that, it's a taboo," says Marcia Arranaga. She's been in the shoe business for 25 years and owns three stores in Southern California. Her boutiques, called Riviera Euro-Comfort, specialize in comfortable European walking shoes. Arranaga says there are so many options these days, it takes weeks to find the right ones for her stores.

Comfort shoes have their own category in the footwear market, but the definition can be squishy, especially now that more brands want in. Arranaga lists her must-haves: "You can wiggle your toes when you're inside the footwear; it absorbs the shock when you walk, step or stand; the arch support is there."

Off the record, she gave me another list, one of older celebrities who have come in through the store's secret back entrance to shop. (We spoke at her Beverly Hills location, not too far from the famous shoe designer Jimmy Choo's Rodeo Drive boutique.)

By the looks of the shoes in Arranaga's store, you can have both comfort and style. They come in a variety of colors, materials, heights; funky and fashionable footwear that doesn't scream "get thee to a nunnery!" But they're not cheap.

The shoes range in price from $100 to $600 — too high for women like Anne Flores, a 51-year-old single mom and transportation planning manager. She's up and down from her desk all day and takes public transportation to and from work. After bunion removal surgery on both feet, she knows her way around a comfort shoe catalog.

"I genuinely did feel depressed about not finding a look that made me feel vital and made me feel pretty," she said.

She had a respite this summer, because Birkenstocks were back in style and she felt hip. But now that the weather's getting cooler, Flores feels anxious about her options.

"I don't have any close-toed shoes that don't look like nurse shoes," she said. "No offense to nurses — you guys rock — but I want attractive-looking shoes that aren't going to cost so much money that I can't afford them."

'I'm Not Old Enough!'

Footwear experts say the prices are high because a truly comfortable shoe costs more to make.

They are engineered differently, and the brands that specialize in supportive comfort are often smaller, so output isn't large enough to bring down the price.

Arranaga says her customers are happy to pay extra for footwear that's beautiful and comfortable because they're over either wearing sneakers everywhere or being in pain all the time.

Abbasseh Towfigh, a podiatrist in Santa Monica, Calif., says, "I always tell my patients the feet are the tires of our car: The more mileage you put on them, and the kind of mileage you put on them, causes wear and tear at every level, from your skin to your joints to the fat padding."

Towfigh says that as you age, you wear out the fat pads at the bottom of the feet, the cartilage thins in all the joints, and your muscles, tendons and soft tissue tighten up.

Those changes cause pain, but she's wary to suggest comfort-shoe shopping first thing, because comfort is still a word her patients — like 66-year-old Ellen Stein — recoil from.

"Ugly, unfashionable, something I'd say, 'Ew, I'm not wearing that.' I don't care, you can tell me whatever you want, I'm not wearing it!" says Stein. "I'm not old enough to be wearing awful, ugly shoes."

While there are more stylish choices than there were 20 years ago, that whiff of a convalescent home continues to linger around the comfort shoe.

I just saw an AARP commercial that opens with a woman's feet in sky-high stiletto heels. The camera pans up as she struts with ease down a city street.

That's right, stilettos — not a sensible wedge or flat with good arch support.

The title of the video? "I've Still Got It."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.