Choosing the best shoes for your outfit

How to choose the best shoes for your outfit. Using the concept of visual volume to create outfit balance. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

It may come as no surprise that I’m a bit of a shoe-holic. 😉 I’ve collected quite a few pairs over the years, and love how they can really make an outfit sing. However, it’s taken me a while to figure out why some pairs work better with some outfits than others.

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There used to be a lot of hard-and-fast rules about which shoes to wear with what outfit:

  • Match levels of formality: pumps with a dress or skirt, sneakers for working out, etc.
  • Ideally match the color of shoes to pants, skirts or tights. If not matched, the shoes should always be darker
  • Shoes and bag should match, or be the same color (black with black, brown with brown, navy with navy).
  • Certain materials or colors were limited: patent leather or velvet for dressy outfits only, white and other lighter colors for Spring and Summer only, etc.
  • Metallics, sequins, jeweled embellishments for evening wear only.

I’m sure you can think of a few more. We’ve mostly left those rules by the wayside over the past couple of decades. And while more choices mean more ways to express personal style, they can also be confusing.

I once heard footwear described as “the exclamation point on an outfit.” I love that, and find that shoes are a great way to inject some personality into a simple outfit.

In addition to comfort, style, color, and function, there’s one more factor that I’ve found helps determine which shoes work best with an outfit: visual volume.

How to choose the best shoes for your outfit using visual volume

What do I mean by visual volume? In terms of clothing, it’s what has visual “weight” in an outfit, or what the eye is drawn to. A chunky, oversized sweater will have more visual volume than one in a fine knit that’s more fitted. A wide or flared leg pant will have more visual volume than a slim leg. A long jacket has more visual volume than a shorter one. Color, pattern, texture, and layers also tend to add visual volume.

To my eye, an outfit is most “flattering” when it looks balanced. And you can use the visual volume of your shoes to help achieve that balance.

How to choose the best shoes for your outfit using the concept of visual volume. Details at une femme d'un certain age.

loafers | ballet flats | sandals | sandals
sneakers | sneakers | boots | boots

When it comes to footwear, there are several ways to add or reduce visual volume:

Of course, the interplay between all of these factors will determine how much overall volume a shoe has. My suggestion is to try shoes with varying levels of visual volume and see what looks best to your eye.

Your own shape and proportions may also factor in. For example, because I’m broad-shouldered, I find shoes with more visual volume work best to keep my outfits looking balanced. That used to be easy to achieve with a bit of heel, but since I stopped wearing heels over 2″ I’ve had to rely on other ways to add volume.

Aaand…Aquatalia is offering 20% off sitewide (including an additional 20% off sale styles!) with code EXTRA20

Do you factor in balancing volume when creating your outfits?

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  1. I think I do that without thinking about it. I prefer my chunkier lace up boots to my dressier pointed toe ankle boots. I also have broader shoulders and most of the shoes I like to wear do have more volume. I always look to your shoes. I love your taste. I bought a pair of the Mephisto Lissandra sandals after seeing yours. They are beautiful and so comfortable.

  2. What a wonderful, well-thought-out post! May I also add that I believe thicker soled shoes, such as platforms and lug soles seem younger and fresher….as long as they are still walkable!

  3. Terrific analysis, Susan. This is the kind of slippery stuff we kinda-sorta intuit, but you’ve captured it and broken it down. Your analysis will never leave my brain. Brava!

  4. I loved reading through your “old rules” for shoes! They brought back a lot of memories and I still struggle with letting go of a few of them. I have to say that right now the only thing I’m seeing when I’m out is sneakers (which I guess can technically be high or low volume depending on the style). I live in a somewhat metropolitan area and yesterday I had to run some errands at the mall, Target and the market. I swear to you that in all the people I saw there was not one person wearing anything but sneakers or Ugg’s. And I’d estimate 85% of the women were wearing some form of sweatpants or leggings. I wonder if it will take awhile to shed the leggings and sneakers when the pandemic is over.

    1. Hi Karen, I hate to answer with “it depends,” but…it depends. 😉 It depends on the silhouettes and styles you’re wearing, and the overall proportions of an outfit. My suggestion is to try your favorite outfits with a few pairs of varying volume, and see what looks best to your eye.

  5. I often find this balancing thing really difficult. But I know you are right. Some outfits need ‘a bit of flesh’ at the bottom. Strangely enough, most of my 7/8 trousers need that. I have seen so many models wearing trousers like that with platform sneakers but when I do that, it looks ridiculous.
    I know it also has a lot to do with my narrow flat feet with a very low arch. Low heeled shoes are dangerous for me. Ballet flats which are a bit wide at the toe area, are good (but often too classic) and shoes with coverage of the top of my foot are good. It remains a difficult thing.

  6. Very informative post Susan. I’m always saying “I don’t have the right shoes”. As I have gracefully aged my super sensitive feet have not. I will be referring to these tips as I make an effort to find shoes that are not only comfortable but stylish as well. Thank you!

  7. Really loved and learned a lot from this instructional post. I’m very envious of your beautiful shoes and how they make the outfit.

    I feel like I don’t get a lot of choices when buying shoes. I usually start shopping with something I need but if I see something else that’s great, I’d buy it. I narrow down all the choices in a shoe store by what won’t work for me: too expensive, heel too high, too pointy (round feet), no platforms (make my size 9 look bigger), color, comfort, etc. A not-fun process of elimination and almost nothing to try on.

    If I try anything on and if I’m lucky, one may be fit. I usually don’t love it, but it’s comfortable and affordable and works. Then I have to decide if I should take it or continue the hunt. I love shoes. I finally figured out how to stop buying shoes that end up not getting worn. I do wear what I have and they are comfortable.

    But I have very few shoes that I really love. Most of my shoes are compromises. I make them work. I do best with German comfort shoe brands and when I get to Europe, I buy several pairs. The selection there is way better than the export line and they cost less.

    This post will help me decide on all those should-I-buy-them compromises and have a fresh eye as I start the hunt.

  8. I agree with Karen. Questions about the small shoulders and larger lower area. I tend to wear flats due to knee issues anyway and often try to make my feet disappear to keep the focus on my top half. When I do wear a pair of fun shoes or boots it is with skinny jeans or a full skirt below the knee and add interesting jewellery to the neck and chest area. When we were going out for things, some days I would change my footwear a few times to get the right ‘look’. My fav pair of sneeks does have a slightly thicker sole, and is in a really neutral light pink/blush slip on style. Lots of food for thought here.

  9. Love this post and really appreciate the insight into selecting shoe styles. I have purchased several pairs you have worn in previous posts and feel ‘put together’ when I wear them. This reminds me that I would love to see a couple posts where you style some of your shoes with different outfits, especially the Vince tan shoes and the yellow Eileen Fisher sandals.

  10. I love your oxford choices. They look more youthful and stylish than ballet flats IMHO. I like oxfords made from perforated leather or soft suede — they have more visual interest and can make the shoe appear lighter. Now when I see a naked foot in a ballet flat in the winter it just doesn’t look right!

  11. Shoes are my drug of choice. There simply can not be too many colours or styles. I can’t stop myself. This past year with lock downs I firmly pledged “no more shoes”. Yet at least 4 more pairs hopped in my online basket. So much to choose from I can’t resist. I’ve gained 15 pounds this year but my feet are still the same size. So until the weight comes off my post menopause frame, clothes are easy to resist but shoes are a struggle. When my closets were redone a few years ago the installer said “you won’t be able to fill up these shoe racks”. Little did he know who he was dealing with.

  12. This is such a thorough and useful post. I always am happier with a chunkier sole to balance out the midsection and skinny legs. Now I know that it’s visual volume that makes the difference! It also matters the length of the pant, often with a 7/8 length, showing some skin creates the balance, as No Fear of Fashion noted above.

  13. Absolutely! Such an excellent articulation of something that feels like “intution” but is grounded in something actionable!

    And I think this principle also works with earrings.

  14. For me, the comfort factor comes first, followed by heel height (like you, had to give up high heels recently), and then balancing volume.
    Susan, maybe you could do a post on supportive but stylish shoes one can wear all day while at home (during this Covid time). I’m recently retired but had a full calendar before Covid hit (we’re in lockdown here in Ontario Canada), so still dealt with shoe & clothing decisions each day. Now that I’m at home, I find that I need supportive shoes and boots to get me through the day, so Clark’s, Paul Green & Hartjes (both from Austria) walkers are my indoor footwear. Along with supportive shoes, I get dressed, little jewellery & makeup on, and I’m ready to face another busy (can you believe it!) day at home.
    Thank, Susan for your informative posts!

  15. I have never heard this point about the visual volume of shoes and I think it is an excellent one. I seem to be very sensitive to the actual weight of shoes and therefore find it hard to add that visual weight. Even most trainers are too heavy for me. I could use the color option in a minimal style I guess, but does anyone know any voluminous looking shoe that is actually lightweight?

  16. Wonderful description of visual volume…great examples, too!
    My goals in footwear choices are very different: I don’t want my footwear to be a visual distraction. I prefer simple coordinating footwear and I totally avoid white shoe soles especially since they are a real eye-catcher. IMO why would I want someone to look at my feet!!?!
    I stick to classic, solid-color footwear and splurge on colorful tops and interesting necklaces/scarves. Just my opinion. . .it keeps by shoe budget well under control. 😉

  17. I am so pleased there are so many interesting choices for those of us who have put aside the higher heels because of age . No granny shoes for me! Your suggestions always inspire.

  18. I agree with others–learned a lot but am not sure how to apply the “visual volume” principles of finding shoes to complement a person’s size, shape and wardrobe. Could you do another post to illustrate the principle with particular shoes and clothing choices?

    1. I second that request. I once read that wedge and platform shoes balance a triangle-shaped body type, because triangles carry weight on their lower body. I agree with that. Stilettos look ridiculous on me. Maybe they’re better suited to a rectangular body type, because the shoes mirror that silhouette.

  19. I really enjoyed the post today about visual volume. I am still learning how to balance. Jeans and shoe ration. Sometimes it works and other times -not. I do admire your choice of shoes with your jeans. You are inspiring me to think differently. Thanks!

  20. So many others have already expressed what I could say: You’ve done a great job of putting your finger on why some things work and some don’t. For me, I think it’s usually been intuitive but I didn’t know that it was a “visual volume” thing. I always take a look in a full length mirror and if something looks off, I’ll try a different shoe till the look feels right.
    I’ve also found that the shoe or ankle boot influences whether I cuff a pant or not and if so, how big of a cuff, how much ankle is showing.
    Thanks for sharing this insight, Susan!

  21. Foot width is also part of the visual volume equation. This is especially true in sandals, where a narrow foot can look narrower, or a wide foot wider. Very narrow or wide feet have fewer style choices. Maybe this is why I started building outfits around the shoes that I have. Looking back at old photos of shoe styles from high school, maybe this saved me from some unfortunate Abba-esque/Elton footwear choices.

  22. Thank you for the careful dissection on the visual impact of shoes. I also thank you for the heads-up on the unusual Aquatalia sale over the weekend! I was able to order the booties you have recommended for travel for about a fourth of the usual price, which I could absorb in my budget. Granted, I bought them in black for their universality, so won’t be making an “exclamation point” on my travel outfits, but I truly appreciate your taste and comfort experience.

  23. I’ve really been enjoying seeing all your shoe choices. I want to thank you for letting us know about that Aquitalia flash sale over the weekend. I have often admired your Aquitalia travel booties but found them rather pricey. They are gorgeous and so practical. As I am more and more committed to comfortable shoes, it is great to find so many choices with low heels that still have some style. Anyhow I ordered four styles, hoping one would work and three could go back, but now I think I’ll keep two! The sale now is still pretty good and I see there are also some at Nordstrom on sale, but that flash sale was awesome!

  24. In a recent post you featured an Eileen Fisher pair of pants in unbleached cotton which was very appealing. Then you wrote that you like the new lantern silhouette for pants. I have been avoiding this look wondering if it suits my 5’2″ 104 lb frame. Could you post some photos of you wearing this style and with the tops you think are good for that look. That would be so helpful. Thanks!