A Woman’s Right To Shoes

legs in the air with colourful high heeled shoes

Get any bunch of women in a room and it is not long before talk turns to shoes. Honestly, any bunch of women you could name. But among my circle, the conversation’s shifted, somewhat. These days, we’re not debating the gorgeous mauve suede of a pair of kitten heels vs the lustworthiness of a pair of red-soled Louboutins, but which makes of shoes are the comfiest on the planet. Because when you’re aiming for 10,000 steps a day for optimum health, you want to stride, not teeter. (This is even more important if, like me, you’ve managed to fall over twice and break a wrist. Even though once that happened slipping on a greengage on my own lawn wearing flats, I still want to minimise the chance of falling from any kind of height onto a hard surface.)

Now, I often think that if an alien landed from out of space, one of the things they’d marvel at would be the spectre of millions (probably billions) of women on Planet Earth having a minimum of two pairs of shoes with them at all times. One pair to look pretty, the other actually to get from A to B in. I have in past years sometimes had the privilege of being invited to the annual Women of the Year lunch. This boasts an informal ‘re-shoeing area’ at the foot of the stairs leading to the ballroom, where everyone from cabinet ministers to TV presenters to Olympic athletes (oh, and me) would change out of their practical flats into their heels before lunch, then reverse the process after coffee had been served and the last Award handed out.

Almost the only woman who didn’t have to do this was my neighbor at the lunch a couple of years ago, Cressida Dick CBE, whose role as (the first female) Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police meant that nobody batted an eyelid that she was wearing sensible police-style lace-ups rather than ‘party’ shoes to the lunch.

None of this means, however, that I want to go around wearing shoes that look like they were made for a hobbit, or an extra from Game of Thrones, or which basically resemble a Cornish pastie in shape and colour. So I have become a bit of a world expert on stylish COMFORTABLE shoe brands. Here’s what I recommend to my best friends – and of course, to you.

Allbirds. After an ad for these – promising they were ‘the most comfortable shoes in the world’ – had popped into my Instagram feed for around the 734th time, I finally rolled over in submission and took myself off to their UK flagship store in Covent Garden to try them out for myself. And guess what? They are the most comfortable shoes in the world, made from felt-like wool (and lots of sustainable/reused materials), with soles so springy I’m now doing a fine impression of Zebedee from The Magic Roundabout. I so loved my first pair that I went back three days later and bought another. First day I wore them, I notched up 17,000 blister-free steps – which is unheard-of, in a new pair of shoes. What I would say is: made from wool, they don’t have the support of a sturdier material, thus I wouldn’t wear them for long country rambles.

Veja. This Brazilian brand also has a super-comfy line-up, and will be my summer go-to when wool shoes are going to feel wrong, just so, so wrong. Veja offer lots of examples of white tennis-style trainers (these are still going to be on-trend for summer 2019), all with a ‘V’ emblazoned on the side so everyone knows how cool you are. Actually, I’ve never been cool – but the Duchess of Sussex is. I admit I was a teensy bit put out that Meghan put Veja on the global radar when she wore a pair of their trainers on the Royal tour to New Zealand and Australia – I got there first, Meghan, been wearing them for a year! – but very happy for the shoe brand, which uses lots of sustainable, organic and even recycled materials. You can basically pretty much wear white sneakers with a ballgown these days, which is great news for our tootsies – and I won’t be looking any further for my next pair.

Ecco. These Scandi guys have really moved on from the time when they just made shoes that only your great-aunt would actually swoon over. I find them particularly good for comfy summer sandals and even funky hiking sandals. (Yes, I now hike – although I do not own a compass or a waterproof kagoule, which definitely makes me the fairweather kind.) Many styles are smart enough to wear to meetings. And I’m talking city meetings, not gatherings of the Women’s Institute.

Ferragamo. I also have one pair of sturdy, shiny, rubber-soled, shiny, black Ferragamo lace-ups that basically look exactly like something out of Cressida Dick’s shoe wardrobe, and I bloody love them. The famous Florentine shoe line does not always have sensible flats in their collection, but I’m always keeping my eyes open for another pair – even though mine show not a sign of wearing out for many years to come. I have to admit: the pair I bought cost an arm and a leg (and both feet), but they are so beautifully constructed that I can (and do) walk miles and miles in them, so the cost per mile is now a fraction of a fraction of a penny.

Chie Mihara. OK, I’ve saved the best for last, here. Every year, I invest in one new pair of Chie Mihara heels (because they really aren’t cheap either). But I still have and wear almost every pair I’ve ever bought and I have lost count of the number of times I have been stopped in the street or at parties or after giving a speech and asked: ‘WHERE DID YOU GET THOSE AH-MAZING SHOES?’ I’ve got gold lace-up heels, and a similar pair in black embossed leather. Chunky platform sandals in snakeskin and also a deep velvety rose colour, with a suede rose adorning the front.

The platforms make me taller, while showing off a pretty pedicure – but the bottom line is that all these shoes so, so, so comfortable because (so I’m told) the somewhat unpronounceable Chie Mihara herself, founder of this Spanish shoe brand, used to be a podiatrist. So she (or rather, Chie) perfectly understands foot architecture, and that we need padding under the balls of our feet, and that we most of all want stability and not to fall off our platforms or our heels. Ever. And that once we reach a certain age, we want styles that are – yes – stylish, but basically timeless.

I’ve been known to walk fairly long distances in her heels, if needs must – and I really haven’t done that since I was about 19. You do have to pick your style – I like the ones that look more like tap shoes, but they just don’t suit me – but I have a little piggy bank with ‘Chie Mihara’ on the side, for my next pair.

Happy walking…

Why This Technique Is The Best Medicine For New Mums

white musical notes on red

As a beauty and wellness editor, I get inundated with hundreds of press releases titled ‘next big wellness trend’. That’s usually when I start to sigh or eye roll. Because, while some new wellness trends are backed by scientific and profound evidence, others, such as ‘weight loss teas’ and the celebrity endorsed ‘vagina steam cleaning’ are not only ludicrous and a waste of time, worryingly, they can negatively impact our health.

There is one wellness trend however, that I will preach about at any given opportunity. The Alexander Technique. Although fairly under the radar its been tried and tested for over a hundred years, and as a new mum, AT has neatly helped me to ride out the overwhelming physical and psychological changes that constantly ripple through me whilst trying to navigate motherhood. Now relentlessly time-poor soul-soothing self-care rituals seem a distant memory, and when a glass of red wine isn’t always a viable option (like at 11 am in the morning) this healing practice has been my one true saving grace.

First some background. Founded by actor Frederick Matthias Alexander in the 1890s, he devised the technique after suffering from vocal problems. He realised that when reciting he would strain his vocal organs and after observing himself in mirrors, he noticed he pulled his head back and down, depressed his larynx, and also gasped for air when trying to speak. While this was the root of the problem, he realised it this was part of a bigger pattern of tension involving the whole of his body, that manifested itself at the mere thought of reciting. To heal, he had to re-educate both body and mind, to resist his instincts and learn new behaviour.

Whilst I’m no singer, I benefit so well from AT because I to have developed tension patterns since having my daughter. A career sitting at desk meant that my posture was out of shape to begin with, so being held hostage on the sofa breast-feeding for hours on end, to pacing up down the living room trying to rock her to sleep at 3 am has only served to amplify it. These repetitive and often at times uncomfortable movements not only cause me physical pain in my neck and back, but also bear down on my mood, making me feel foggy, weary and irritable.

AT teacher Brita Forsstrom explains why: ‘The underlying coordination and freedom of movement in the natural balance of the head, neck and back works as an integrating principle in everything we do. If we disturb this balance with excessive and inappropriate tension we interfere with the most efficient use of our bodies.’ AT works by restoring natural balance in body. ‘In essence what you learn is a form of ‘embodied mindfulness’. Being more aware of how we react to the demands of motherhood we can learn to prevent excessive muscular tension and also feel calmer and clearer in our minds,’ adds Forsstrom.

Since having my daughter I have two sessions 2-3 times a month with my veteran teacher Jean. Well into her seventies, she is a complete powerhouse and her healing hands have on more than one occasion worked miracles on my malfunctioning lower back. The first part of the 45-minute session always involves a few minutes learning how to sit down and stand up from a chair with Jean helping me to realise how my habitual reactions contribute to my bad posture and pain. It sounds easy and simplistic and yet getting to grips with ‘unlearning’ 20 plus years of slouching, overusing some muscles and neglecting others, takes time. This is followed by hands on guidance where I lay on a table and so that Jean can loosen all the tension in every single muscle, allowing my back to lengthen and chest to open, which is turn helps my breathing to regulate and my mind to slow.

I often leave an AT lesson, feeling not only taller, (thanks to my spine being lengthened) but as if the mountainous problems I had prior to the session have suddenly shrunk down to nothing. Sleep deprivation seems less torturous and I’m less anxious about work deadlines. I have total emotional and physical equilibrium, and I savour every second of it while it lasts.