Professional, practical, or posh — whatever your style, shoes are the calling card. One look at the feet and it’s easy to judge a woman’s profession. Or is it?

The heels versus flats battle rages on, and shoes are definitely a power play for women in business. As a pilot, I must wear a certain shoe — it’s black (the uniform standard), with a rubber sole (no slipping!), and practical (given you’re walking, sitting and carrying heavy bags). When I instruct in the simulator, there’s another class of shoe: business-like with a low heel and closed toes (safety first!). When I teach a class, it’s a dressy business ensemble, but when I brief the staff, it’s suit-appropriate. For my military duty, it’s an ugly patent boxy oxford, or my urban-green combat boots. Shoe warfare doesn’t even begin to describe it! Add in the expectations of professional appearance for women combined with my physiological obligation for support — well, it’s amazing there hasn’t been a revolution yet. Shoes are a big deal for most women.

Heels or Flats at Work

No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service

Shoe issues in the working world are not small. In fact, shoes are the center of the fashion world. To get a leg up in business, know your feet. There’s a subtle shoe judgment from fashionistas, fashionable how-to’s from famous designers, and odes of glory on Pinterest Shoe Boards. Need more help? Shoelust is inspiring with artistic design. Sea of Shoes lets individual personality outshine the footwear. WWD reports the business in Footwear News. A sea of other shoe blogs espouse the charms of pretty pedi-wear, business case studies abound, but the best of the best is the tome of one of my favorite business authors, Rosabeth Moss Kanter. She sets it straight in her HBR article for International Women’s Day. And from the investor perspective, the shoe business is booming. Innovation is happening not just in design, but in manufacturing, comfort and marketing. It’s about time.

Run, Don’t Walk

Bottom line: the shoe is a product, and it must fill a need. The closet must be properly stocked with the shoes that match your personality and daily activities. Oh, and we love them so. Of course you want fashion, but while observing beauty, pay attention to fit, and buy shoes that are well made. Here’s the rundown of basic shoe necessities:

  • Business:  Tailor this collection to your primary work activities. Suit-wearing women should have two to three pairs of dressy pumps in the primary professional colors (black, brown, navy, nude or grey). Sophisticated is the theme. If the office environment is more business casual, then the collection tends toward classy yet fashionable. Modern loafers, flats, low heels and open-toes are acceptable. More active businesswomen like restaurateurs, doctors and those in uniform need to have an array of footwear appropriate to the job — comfortable and sturdy. The key is to keep these shoes clean and new-looking, as these women are usually hard on shoes.
  • Casual:  Every closet must have footwear that can go from Saturday-jeans-and-movie to dress-down day at work. This category is for the shoes you’d wear every day if you could.
  • Special Occasion:  Don’t be caught off guard! One formal and well-made pair of black strappy heels is in order. They go with everything and never go out of style. Spend good money.
  • Workout Keep in shape for this campaign with your weapon of choice. Running shoes, hiking boots, ballet slippers, and cycling shoes all need to fit well and be replenished often. Take care of your body and feet and they will take care of you.

Yes, the shoe war rages on. So march out there confidently to conquer the world. Be prepared and be polished. There are big shoes to fill. And if the shoe fits, wear it.

Flats or heels? What do you prefer to wear to work? Tell us in the comments!

Photo courtesy of Loeffler Randall and Meet Me on the Streets