High Heels vs Flip Flops vs Sandals (Compared)

Unless you refuse to expose any part of your feet, you’ve probably worn at least one pair of high heels, flip flops or sandals. And if you’re like most, you’ve probably worn dozens of pairs of them all. These three types of shoes have been seen on the most famous and fashionable feet throughout history. The biggest of big names have worn one or all of these designs. We’re talking about history-makers like Cleopatra, Socrates, Moses, Marie Antionette and Queen Elizabeth of England…both of them! 

Person trying on different pairs of shoes in all styles

But when you compare these three standout ways to stand up, which type of footwear emerges as the one you should be wearing? When it comes to high heels vs flip flops vs sandals, which one will you wear better? 

Flip Flops

Flop flops became popular in the U.S. at the end of WWII. Modern flip flops typically have a combined sole and insole made with rubber or foam and a plastic thong that attach to the sole in three places, separating the big toes from the other toes.

Person wearing flip flops in a lake setting

The modern flip flop is a variation of thong sandals, a shoe style that dates back at least as far as ancient Egypt, around 4,000 B.C. Thong-type sandals encrusted with jewels were worn by pharaohs. Ancient flip flops were made with leather, straw and other natural materials. The style of modern sandals, a supportive base with a thong between the toes, was worn in ancient Greece. Ancient Romans wore a similar style. 

The modern flip flop wasn’t really born until Japan, however. The Zori, a traditional Japanese style, was made with a thong that rested between the first and second toes. The wide thong and flat design clearly inspired the popular modern style of flip flops. 

At the end of WWII, Japan’s economy was devastated. Japan had to rebuild quickly. Rubber reserves left from the war became the answer. Factories in Japan started mass-producing flip flops that were affordable and simple. American soldiers returning from Japan brought the flip flops back home to their wives and children. They became a popular summer shoe right away.

They quickly caught on. In the 1950s, the new sandals were made in increasingly vibrant colors and fun styles. In the 1960s, the name “flip flop,” based on the sound the shoes made while a person was walking, was widely used. The colorful, comfortable flip flops were a hit. They’ve never been out of style since.

The Dark Side of Flip Flops

They’re comfortable, they’re colorful, they’re available in an utterly stunning array of colors, patterns, materials and styles. They’re perfect for summer, for the pool, for the house, for the locker room, for the store, for being outside, for being inside…well, you know. You probably can’t even count how many flip flops you’ve owned in your life. 

Person standing in a beach setting wearing flip flops

Affordable shoes that are easy to wear, easy to make and widely available in any look you want? What’s wrong with that? Well…lots, actually. Various foot and shoe studies have gathered data suggesting that flip flops actually do a lot of damage to feet over time. Flip flops are not highly supportive shoes. The flat design doesn’t conform to the natural curves and bends in the feet. What does that mean? That means that if you wear flip flops a lot, it will change the way you walk and step over time. It puts pressure on different areas of the feet and on the joints, which can lead to problems like joint pain and shin splints down the road.

You can also get plantar fasciitis from wearing flip flops too often. While rubber soles are shock absorbing, in flip flop designs they are generally thin and flat against the bottoms of feet. Because they have so little support to offer, flip flops don’t provide much protection from stepping shock. This impact hits your heels instead, which can end up creating chronic pain problems.

Flip flops can cause back pain and cause you to change your posture. Because flip flops change the way you stride, it changes the way you hold your body and this, in time, can change your posture and body alignment entirely. This can lead to joint pain, back pain and lots of other aches and pains. 

Wearing flip flops all the time can also create hammer toes. This is a foot deformity in which your toes are somewhat curled, or bent, and stay that way. This is a result of your feet naturally attempting the grip the flip flops as you flip-flop around while walking in them. Not great. 

Flip flops are increasingly available in more supportive styles. You can find styles that have contoured insoles and thick EVA foam insoles, for example. Repeat flip flop wearers should look for orthopedic designs and styles that have an extra ankle strap or another supportive strap. Thin sole designs won’t provide enough support for frequent daily wear.

Sandals

Sandals are a simple shoe that is made up of a sole that connects to the foot with a strap or several straps. Within this definition, sandals can take any form, any shape, any look, any style. And here’s a big secret in the big battle between shoe types: sandals can be flip flops and they can be high heels. That’s right. The versatile sandal can almost be anything you want. A strappy sandal looks great for all types of occasions and all sorts of fashion looks.

Person wearing sandals on a paced street

Whether it’s an affordable design made with little more than paper and string or a high-end designer shoe from a big name that costs hundreds of dollars, sandals are one of the most worn shoes not just in modern fashion but in all of history.

The first known sandal designs are as old as writing itself, dating to about 6,000 B.C.E. The oldest sandals date to the Anasazi culture of the southwestern U.S. These sandals were plaited and woven in a highly flexible, durable design.

Sandals have been worn by just about every culture on every spot on the globe and made with just about every possible material, from leather to rope. It’s even been written that none other than Jesus wore sandals, along with droves of other celebrities, royals, emperors and conquerors throughout history. That’s a pretty impressive shoe legacy. 

For thousands of years, sandals were the height of fashion for everyone from the most humble farmers to the most royal of royals. But then in the seventh century, around the year 600, they totally and completely feel out of style. Showing your toes in public became quite the taboo, so sandals disappeared in favor of closed-toe designs. 

The Rebirth of Sandals

It stayed this way for about one thousand years. By then, the sandal was nothing more than an ancient type of shoe seen in paintings and told of in stories. They were worn by those Roman gladiators way back when, by those ancient Greek philosophers and people who lived long, long ago. But you know what they say: everything old is new again.

Person sitting on stone steps wearing strappy sandals with heels

And fashion, as it always does, decided to go retro. The old sandal designs from the past suddenly came back when the stylish people of France, trendsetters for the world, took great interest in the classical looks of ancient Greece and Rome. Those sandals worn by all those ancients, they were suddenly tres chic

By the 1810s, a strappy, sandal-like design was popular, though it still had closed toes. They were known as sandal-slippers…and they were the beginning of a shoe revolution. 

Strappy closed-toe designs remained popular in shoes and boots. And then in the 1920s, women’s fashion got incredibly daring. Women were baring their legs out in public and their toes made an appearance, too. Open-toes sandals with wide straps became popular as beachwear and pool wear. The style quickly migrated into mainstream fashion. By the 1930s, dress sandals were being paired with evening gowns. By the time the decade ended, sandals were available in a huge range of styles and worn for daily wear everywhere. Adjustable straps and other innovations soon followed as sandal style continued to evolve.

Sandals caught on and got diverse and today, they’re firmly rooted in modern style. 

High Heels

High heels are not practical shoes. You can’t do anything really athletic in them. You can’t really run in them. Heck, it’s not even easy to walk in them. High heels are strongly associated with high fashion. The world’s most glamorous stars and royals wear them regularly, stalking around in delicate-looking creations made by high-end designers that cost many hundreds of dollars. 

Many pairs of feet wearing different styles of high heels

So it’s a little hard to believe that high heels actually were invented for practical reasons. The oldest example of high heels is probably the Persian cavalry riders of the Middle Ages. They found that heeled shoes kept a better grip on stirrups than flat-soled shoes. After they started wearing them in the 900s, heels were standard men’s fashion. But for centuries, they were only standard in Persia. This initial, practical use for high heels still remains to this day in modern style in the form of cowboy boots, the footwear still associated with horseback riding. 

A group of Persian delegates visited Europe in 1599, traveling to various courts on a diplomatic mission. The high heels gave these men a commanding presence, elevating their height, which created an impressive physicality that European monarchs instantly noticed. They quickly adopted the style to add to their own regal personas. 

The trend of wearing high heels began to spread from there, first among royal courts and then to more everyday types of folks. And yes, they were worn by men for more than a century. Louis XIV was well-known for his colorful shoes, which had red heels. This pop of bright color worn by a King was the inspiration for the famous red soles of Christian Louboutin shoes, a look that has become a signature style for the designer.

By the 1730s, the impractical high heels had fallen out of men’s fashion. But by then, women had started to adopt the style. They briefly fell out of fashion after the French Revolution that ended the reign of Louis XVI and put an end to the French monarchy completely. 

Rebooting High Heels

Heeled boots were the style in the 1800s, though they were hard to see under the very long, full skirts that were popular during this era. Heels in lower-cut shoe styles appeared in fashion again in the early 1900s, though heels were short and chunky at this time. Heels were a hot look in the 190s, with women wearing many strappy designs and pump styles with low kitten heels and block heels.

Person wearing red heels and a red dress bending to adjust ankle strap

Wedges caught on in the 1940s. High heels started to get a little bit higher at this time, though the styles were still somewhat chunky. High heel designs began to expose more of the foot in the 1950s as pinup fashion took off, with many women wearing strappy heel styles. 

And then, a man named Roger Vivier changed everything. You may not know his name but you’ve heard of his boss: Christian Dior. The House of Dior had been established in the late 1940s. Roger Vivier was a young designer working for Dior who was looking to experiment with some of the materials that were becoming more widely available…like steel.

Vivier used steel to add structural support to his absolutely fanciful shoe designs and in this fashion, invented the world’s first stiletto heels. It changed everything. Suddenly, different heel styles exploded on the fashion market, spurred by the popularity of Dior’s clothing designs at the time. Dior became incredibly important in the 1950s thanks to the “New Look,” which experimented with new materials, new silhouettes and well, a whole new look for women’s fashion. 

High heels got really, really high and now, they’re considered to be synonymous with high fashion. 

The Case Against High Heels

High heels are definitely the go-to style for the world’s fashionistas. The world’s most famous fashion designers have created eye-popping styles, lifting feet up higher and higher in gravity-defying designs that look positively terrifying. And since the world’s most beautiful women slide their feet into them frequently, it’s somewhat shocking to know just how bad high heels really are for your feet.

View from behind of a person about to fall while wearing high heels

The evidence is in and high heels just plain do a lot of damage. Of course they do. It simply isn’t natural to lift up the heels of the feet and carefully mince around on the balls of the feet, stepping carefully to prevent heels from getting stuck in the soft ground or potentially getting stuck even in thick carpeting. They’re dangerous, they’re damaging and they cause a lot of foot pain, strain and even long-term problems. 

High heels can cause a host of foot issues, including hammertoes, leg pain, back pain, heel pain, plantar fasciitis, bunions and joint pain. They change posture, balance and natural walking movements. And frankly, they’re a terrible falling hazard. They can even cause you to get an ingrown toenail!

High Heels vs Flip Flops vs Sandals

High heels, flip flops and sandals are all truly iconic types of footwear. All three types of shoes are instantly recognizable and all are available in a huge range of styles made in all types of materials, everything from clear plastic to leather to fabric to anything else you can name. All three shoe types have a really long history in fashion, with ups and downs that are truly dramatic. New innovations changed them while still honoring those first styles of the past. It’s all pretty thrilling.

Many pairs of high heels arranged on shelves

So if these three giants of fashion were to battle it out, which style would ultimately come out at the top of the style heap? Sandals are the oldest, dating back a few thousand years before the first thong sandals, the precursors to modern flip flops. High heels definitely took the fashion world by storm, rising to the front of the fashion runway and ruling the style scene, with all the most expensive and fancy designers creating their own pricey heel looks. 

Versatility, history, high-fashion appeal…all three types of shoes have it all. But when comparing these three, sandals do have a distinct advantage. Flip flops can never be high heels and high heels can never be flip flops but sandals, they can be flip flops, high heels or almost anything else they want to be. Wedge sandals can even be sandals, flip flops and high heels all at the same time. They can also be something that flip flops rarely are and high heels never are: good for your feet.

In certain designs, sandals won’t cause a whole bunch of problems and pain even if you wear them every single day. Well-known brands that make sandals in designs that are actually supportive and safe include Birkenstock, Teva and Vionic. Other well-known shoe sellers, such as Nike, Adidas and Timberland, make sandals that are supportive enough for some sporting activity and even hiking. 

You absolutely cannot and should not attempt to do sports, hike or be athletic in any way while wearing high heels or flip flops because doing so is actually dangerous. Sandals, however, can be designed with a contoured footbed, a sole made for shock absorption and the other features that feet need to be well cared for. No matter how expensive or fancy, no pair of high heels is truly good for your feet and traditional flip flop designs, even the really good and supportive ones, simply don’t connect to your feet well enough to allow you to walk and move naturally. This is never a good thing. 

So if you’re looking for everyday footwear that won’t lead to problems for your feet, legs, joints, back or body in the future, it’s the sandal. But every so often when you want a great beach look, grab those flip flops again. Slip into some heels for a night out. It’s okay to wear any type of footwear you like in moderation. Avoid wearing flip flops and high heels on a daily or even on a very regular basis. Stick to supportive footwear, including sneakers and sandals, for your go-to everyday looks. 

FAQs

You may still have style questions about how to wear one of these types of footwear, when you should be wearing them, places you can’t wear them and other important stuff that’s still floating around your mind. We’ve got the answers to the most-asked questions about these types of footwear, so keep reading to become an expert on wearing the right shoes in all the right situations. 

Person walking down stone stairs wearing sandals

What are flip flop shoes?

By strict definition, a flip flop shoe is a rubber sandal with a thong that fits loosely around the foot. [Source: Merriam-Webster]

However, designers have taken the basic design of flip flops and rebooted them. Flip flops are now made in a huge variety of materials and different variations on the basic style. 

Are flip flops bad for your feet?

Doctors, foot experts and numerous studies agree that flip flops are actually some of the worst shoes you can wear. They can create back, foot, hip and knee injuries. Most any podiatrist would recommend not wearing flip flops. [Source: Everyday Health]

It’s probably better to never wear flip flops at all but if you really want to, wear them only for short periods of time. Flip flops don’t have enough support for your feet and they don’t fit securely enough around feet. Don’t wear them for extended periods of walking and standing and certainly don’t wear them for hiking or any type of athletic activity. [Source: Gotham Footcare]

Should people with problem feet wear flip flops or sandals?

If you have bunions, hammertoe, plantar fasciitis, foot pain or any other type of foot problem, don’t think about specific types of shoes you should buy, such as flip flops vs sandals. Look for shoes that have arch support and an insole shape that will match the natural curves of your feet. You also want shoes that will fit well around the feet and allow you to walk naturally. [Source: Cleveland Health Clinic]

Fit always matters when it comes to foot health. Make sure your footwear fits well and feels good. Your feet need plenty of room but not so much room that the shoes are slipping and sliding on your feet. If you have wide feet or flat feet, make sure you get the type of fit you need.

Should you buy flip flops a size smaller?

How should flip flops fit? It’s a normal question to ask because flip flops, unlike many other types of shoes, do not come in half sizes. They’re also somewhat shapeless, resembling the vague outline of a foot rather than a more articulated design. Flip flops also have an open design, so it’s hard to know if they’re fitting the right way. Vionic sandal shoes recommend an easy method for sizing your foot.

There’s an easy way to make sure you’re getting flip flops in the right size. First, place your foot on a hard surface. Take a piece of paper and put it under your foot. Trace the outline of your foot. You don’t have to be very precise. Just do a rough outline. Now, you can measure this outline to determine your shoe size using a standard size chart. Always round up, not down, if you find yourself on a half size and the flip flops you want are available only in whole sizes. [Source: Vionic Shoes]

Make sure the straps fit comfortably, too. You don’t want them biting against your skin or foot or pressing into the space between your toes where the thong connects to the sole. Your foot shouldn’t hang off the sole of the flip flop anywhere, not even the smallest little bit.

Can you wear flip flops through airport security?

The TSA has not imposed any hard and fast rules regarding what footwear you can and cannot wear when going through security checkpoints at the airport. You can wear any type of shoes you want. However, keep in mind that the TSA can ask you to remove your footwear at any time. This means you want to wear a pair of shoes that you can get into and out of easily. If you take several minutes fumbling with your shoes, you will hold up the entire line of travelers and risk being late for your own travel connections.

This is why the TSA officially recommends slip-on shoes. It’s also recommended that you wear socks. If you have to remove your footwear, you will not have it on your feet. If you don’t have on socks, you will be barefoot. [Source: TSA]

Are sandals bad for your feet?

Sandals are made in a huge range of different styles and designs. Some sandal designs are far less supportive than others, while others are made to be comfortable sandals with lots of cushioning. If you wear sandals that do not have a supportive design frequently, you can do damage to your feet over time. 

Are sandals business casual?

When it comes to dressing for the workplace, even a pretty casual workplace, sandals are iffy at best. As a general rule, you should never wear open-toed shoes to work in any type of office environment. There are sandal designs that keep the toes covered but often, these designs expose a lot of the foot anyway. You don’t want to wear any shoes that expose a lot of your foot, even if it does keep your toes covered. 

For the most part, sandals at work are usually a no-no because a bare toe is a no-no. Sandals can be casual and they can even be formal but rarely do they meet the fashion standards of being business casual. 

Can you wear flip flops everywhere?

Flip flops are no longer summer sandals and they can be worn pretty much any time of year in the right weather conditions. From a fashion standpoint, there are a few places where you might look way too casual if you’re wearing flip flops…even your “fancy” flip flops. And from a practical standpoint, there are many places where you definitely should never wear flip flops because it’s potentially very damaging to your feet. 

Fashion-wise, you don’t want to wear flip flops to a swanky restaurant or at a bar or club. It may seem like an okay option to wear flip flops to a club but many of these establishments have dress codes, even down to your footwear. You also shouldn’t wear flip flops at work. [Source: Bustle]

From a practical standpoint, you want to leave the flip flops at home if you’re in natural terrain. Any type of hiking or walking in the woods is not suited to flip flops. It’s dangerous to wear flip flops in the kitchen, where sharp objects and hot objects may fall and damage your toes and feet. You probably won’t like wearing flip flops while on public transportation, at a music festival or anywhere there may be a lot of people and trash, as your feet will get dirty quickly. 

How do high heels change posture?

When you walk in high heels, your feet are in a downward-pointing position. When you stand, they are at an angle rather than flat against the ground. Clearly, this is unnatural. High heels put pressure on the balls of the feet and not on the heels, which are designed through nature to support the weight of the body. This unnatural positioning of the feet changes the walk you walk and has a big effect on the natural gait and posture. [Source: VeryWellHealth]

How do high heels affect your feet?

No matter how expensive your high heels or how much cushioning they have, high heels are no good for your feet. If you wear them frequently, they will do damage to your feet over time. High heels can cause bunions, ingrown toenails, plantar fasciitis and other ache and pains that you don’t want. [Source: Self]

How important is ankle support? 

Do your ankles need good support from your footwear? Many types of sandals, high heels and flip flops provide no ankle support at all. Some types of basketball shoes, running shoe designs and athletic shoe styles offer a great deal of support around the ankles. For some athletes, extra support around the ankle is an absolute necessity to prevent strains, twists and other sports injuries.  [Source: Inside Science]

If you’re going about your daily life and you’re not doing any hard athletics, ankles support isn’t really a big necessity. However, it does offer more protection against ankle injuries when you have some support here.

What about wearing socks with sandals?

You’ve probably heard that it’s okay. You may have been told that it’s not okay. What’s the final ruling on whether or not you can wear socks with sandals? 

In fashion, the rules are made to be broken. Most syle experts agree that wearing socks with sandals is more than okay. Many celebs have done so and many have experimented with colorful, high-fashion sock and sandal combinations. [Source: Vice]

Sources

  • BBC – Why did men stop wearing high heels?
  • CR Fashionbook – The History of the Kitten Heel
  • Harper’s Bazaar – What High Heels Looked Like the Year You Were Born
  • Health – The Best Sandals for Your Feet, According to Podiatrists
  • The Healthy – 11 Reasons Why You Should Never Wear Flip-Flops
  • Heddels – Flipping Through the History of the Flip-Flop
  • High Snobiety – Socks & Sandals Go Together Like Peanut Butter & Jelly
  • Independent – The Timeline: Flip-Flops
  • InStyle – There’s a Reason Everyone Still Loves Dior
  • The Ladders – Work dress codes: Business casual women examples
  • The Lazy Historian – A History of High Heels
  • The List – When You Only Wear Flip Flops, This Is What Happens To Your Body
  • Love to Know – History of Sandals
  • Today – The surprisingly functional reason high heels were invented
  • VeryWell Health – Why High Heels Are Bad for You
  • WikiHow – How to Buy and Walk in Flip Flops
  • Women’s Health Mag – 20 Best Flip Flops For Women Who Wanna Be Active In 2021

 

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