Are Ballet Flats Actually Comfortable? The Shoe Of The Moment Goes Under The Spotlight

By Dan Ahwa
Ballet flats, ideally with a supportive Mary-Jane strap at the bridge, are making an impact.

Avant-garde iterations, design improvements and the inclusion of options for men have helped usher in a fresh perspective for a footwear classic.

When actor and style savant Donald Glover slunk onto the Emmy red carpet in January wearing a velvet dinner suit with a pair of patent opera ballet

While most of the male attendees opted for classic black lace-ups with their tuxedos — or, for the more adventurous, a pair of chunky-soled loafers or boots — Donald’s choice of ballet pumps was a purposeful example of how the shape of a shoe can quietly transform an entire ensemble into something more fluid, much more romantic. It’s a sensibility we’ve already witnessed in the shifting way men are dressing in general, and one women have long employed to soften a look.

Donald Glover arrived at the Emmy Awards wearing a pair of Bode Opera ballet pumps. Photo / Getty Images
Donald Glover arrived at the Emmy Awards wearing a pair of Bode Opera ballet pumps. Photo / Getty Images

Supporting the brand’s signature line of louche separates, delicate upcycled shirts, quilted jackets, crochet shirts, and even trousers made from lace tablecloths, its collection of shoes ranges from espadrilles to ballet flats adorned with grosgrain bows — the latter a recent purchase of my colleague Julia Gessler, who is an avid wearer of a good-quality ballet flat.

“In the context of both sportswear and things you’d wear to work,” says Julia, “ballet flats are a sturdy, versatile foundation. I like them most because they’re something I’ll wear daily, but also because they bring a certain degree of softness. They make my clothes look less severe, gentler.

“I’m currently rotating between two favourites: my comfy pair of red velvet ones from Vibi Venezia, which complement everything I own somehow, and a pair of leather opera pumps from Bode, with a cute, oblong-like bow that also manages to avoid being overbearingly twee. I’m incredibly picky about shoes — I’d been looking for the perfect black pair for half a year — which is how I justified the latter costing almost a month’s rent. Did they take two months (and lots of plasters) to break in? Yes. But now they fit like a glove.”

Like the Bode example, the current ballet flat renaissance is shaking off the basic flat ballet pump for something slightly more daring. It forces us to consider a choice of shoe that looks at least interesting, without having to default to the ubiquitous nature of a white sneaker or a pair of Crocs. Here you can slip into a shoe that can both challenge and inspire, like Alaïa’s sheer fishnet ballet flats that Jennifer Lawrence wore on a hot summer’s day in New York last June. Teamed with her classic off-duty uniform of a T-shirt, baseball cap and jeans, all eyes were on her feet and the opacity of the ballet flat matched with its helpful strap across the bridge of her foot. A used pair in size 39 are currently selling locally at Designer Wardrobe for $790.

Jennifer’s other preferred brand of “quiet luxury”, The Row, has also played a pivotal part in delivering interesting-looking ballet flats. Along with its minimalist interpretation of the classic Mary Jane silhouette in supple nappa leather (now sold out at its New Zealand stockist Scotties), its highly impractical-looking sheer organza ballet flat is another example of the ballet flat turned on its head into something much more subversive-looking.

Jennifer Lawrence wearing a pair of mesh Alaïa ballet flats. Photo / Getty Images
Jennifer Lawrence wearing a pair of mesh Alaïa ballet flats. Photo / Getty Images

Instigators of the viral “coquettish” trend Sandy Liang, Miu Miu and Simone Rocha (think bows, frills and an extension to sub-trend ballet-core) have all collectively contributed to the abundance of ballet flats parading about town, trickling down to mass retailers with their own versions at a fraction of the cost.

Of course, we can’t discuss the ballet shoe’s renaissance without at least acknowledging the mid-to-late noughties style icons who swore by a very basic ballet flat (most likely from French ballet shoe company Repetto). The British trifecta of Alexa Chung, Kate Moss and Amy Winehouse all wore their ballet flats with suitable irreverence; in Amy’s case, her signature pair of Gandolfi pink satin ballet shoes. Whether styled with other wardrobe essentials of that era including a pair of skinny jeans, a trenchcoat or a vintage dress, it’s become an unsurprising outfit formula that’s currently inspiring an entirely new generation of ballet-flat devotees.

Kate Moss shopping in London, 2011 wearing her off-duty uniform of skinny jeans, blazer, and ballet flats. Photo / Getty Images
Kate Moss shopping in London, 2011 wearing her off-duty uniform of skinny jeans, blazer, and ballet flats. Photo / Getty Images

But when it comes to comfort, ballet flats can be notoriously challenging to get right. They’re not often cushioned for support and can be a pain when they don’t fit correctly.

“I like and own ballet flats, although I wear them semi-regularly,” says my colleague Emma Gleason. “They’re not an everyday shoe for me; due to their inherent lack of support and my very flat feet, I have to be a bit strategic — no walking for miles.”

Dior Homme’s sporty take on a Mary Jane flat.
Dior Homme’s sporty take on a Mary Jane flat.

In January, Dior Homme creative director Kim Jones sent his army of male models out wearing an assortment of ballet flats and Mary Jane’s. I couldn’t help but think how they look almost childlike, as if plucked from the pages of an Enid Blyton adventure. “I was lucky to have these things in my life as a child and they stuck with me,” the designer told WWD after his show in January.

“I was indoctrinated by ballet flats twice; first as a child, fantasising about being a dancer but being ‘removed’ from class, then again in the mid-2000s when they were the shoe de rigueur, worn by everyone from Amy Winehouse to Lauren Conrad, and Black Swan was all over Tumblr” explains Emma. “I love how they look and feel (like the footwear equivalent of not wearing a bra) and all the layers of cultural subtext. They can be prim and perverse, that’s the beauty of them.”

While the ballet flat remains a polarising shoe, it’s best to err on the side of one with a helpful Mary Jane strap to ensure your foot is secure. For those with flat feet and in need of arch support, look for a pair with cushioned insoles, and for anyone with narrow or wide feet, it does pay to size up and look at brands that offer half-sizes.

For men, much of the recent ballet-wearing phenomenon may attributed to when Harry Styles wore a pair of flat dance shoes with a pair of Molly Goddard jeans for the cover of his Grammy Winning album Harry’s House (2022). Thanks to his influential collaboration with stylist Harry Lambert, the duo have played a pivotal role in reframing the way men dress now —ballet flats included.

While I imagine it will take me a while to consider slipping my feet into a pair, I’ve found a pair of Fisherman sandals from Spanish label Hereu that is a nice testing ground for a finer-shaped toe. In fact the brand offers its own ballet flat style for men, which you can shop below should you wish to skip the training wheels of a Euro sandal and dive right into a ballet flat.

Once you’ve successfully found a pair that fit, it will take a couple of wears before you break them in; and when it comes to styling your ballet flats, don’t be too precious, as Julia notes.

“They’re the comfort shoe equivalent of slippers you can wear outside the house, which means it’s good to think about how and where you’ll wear them. Bear in mind that some have little sole support (fine for slinking around the office, terrible for hiking up the hill to get there), so it’s important to try them on and do some laps at a bricks-and-mortar. The great thing is that, while they may be associated with balletcore and that acute femininity, there are plenty of versions that aren’t connotative: think satin that’ll go with jeans, or silver-tone hardware that’s more punk than pirouette.”

Shop these chic ballet flats

From adventurous to classic, there’s a range of options to shop right that work with your personal style preferences.

On trend

For a ballet flat that’s having a moment, go sheer.

Mesh ballet flats and Mary Jane shoes have made an impact for 2024, and for an option that offers plenty of comfort and support, these Italian-made beauties feature a supportive buckle with cushioned calf leather insoles and patent leather piping details.

Long and wide

Big feet don’t fret — there are a range of stylish options for you.

If you have large feet, there’s a range of good-quality ballet flat options at specialist retailer Willow Shoes, who have a generous collection of shoes for women with larger size feet. These metallic slippers, for example, range from sizes 42-46.

Texture studies

For a ballet flat that combines suede, patent and hardware, these options are particularly great with autumnal textures from knitwear to denim.

A suede ballet flat is given a little more edge by way of a strap with what the design team describes as “punk-inspired” buckles with oversized eyelets. The hardware on the straps does give these ballet flat options a contemporary look that will work best with a pair of your favourite jeans.

Pure romance

The whimsical appeal of a velvet ballet flat offers a romantic twist to any outfit.

These handmade beauties are crafted in Italy and come in both black velvet and ruby red versions. Made with a Mary Jane strap with silver buckle detail, these shoes are stitched with supportive rubber soles that make them perfect for wearing outdoors in dry weather. What’s great about these is their rounded toe, a simple-shaped shoe that works well with both dresses and trousers.

Comfort is king

For first-time ballet flat wearers, consider something versatile and highly practical.

If it’s something that errs on the side of Kate Moss, a classic slip-on ballet flat like these is an ideal choice. Known for optimising comfort with its line of footwear, Hush Puppies provide a soft ballet flat with a supportive recycled heel grip and a flexible rubber outsole. Ideal for both work and weekend dressing.

Male Order

For men with slightly progressive tastes, invest in quality.

Spanish label Hereu is synonymous with quality leather footwear, featuring an easy elasticated and adjustable top line these are a smart option that work with loose-fitting trousers.

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