The Agony and Ecstasy of Ballet Flats
While there’s no doubt that ballet flats are everywhere right now, the definition of what constitutes a ballet flat is somewhat elastic. Here are some helpful parameters to keep in mind when looking for a pair of your own:
They are roughly the shape of ballet slippers with a round toe. (This seems obvious, but there’s a lot of room for error.) They can have a little heel but nothing higher than a half an inch. An open toe is a no. Straps are sometimes allowed, but anything too hefty or with a buckle turns a shoe into a Mary Jane. An elastic strap works (as on the extremely popular varieties from Miu Miu or, even better, the ones from the Row). And that’s it.
Maybe you’re not sure how to feel about the return of this trend. Maybe, like me, you went through a ballet-flat phase a couple of decades ago and thought you were done with them. Did you love the aggressively rounded toes? Did you, like Amy Winehouse, wear them so often they were the color of hot dog water? Did you often return from a day walking around in them only to wonder why flat shoes that seemed so practical were in fact deeply uncomfortable?
Do you want to try them again, but are not sure how?
The best advice, which you must try to heed, is to resist the siren song of dressing like a ballerina. I love leotards and tiny wrap sweaters as much as the next Balanchine devotee, but don’t wear ballet flats with them. Ballet flats that look too much like pointe shoes or have attached ribbons come across as costume-y.
Anyone who was obsessed with “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” knows that shoes like this wear out easily. So while you may find secondhand eggplant-colored Dior ballet flats with a braid or chocolate brown suede Lilly Pulitzer ones with a champagne metallic trim, you will have to sort through a lot of really worn-out pairs.
When you find the right ballet flats for you, get a cobbler to put a slip resistant tread on the soles, which will give the shoes a longer life. While you’re there, get a padded insole to make them a little easier to wear.
It turns out ballet dancers do wear ballet flats. Jenelle Manzi, who dances with the New York City Ballet, said on Instagram that she “can’t even look at” one popular brand, “mostly because I think about the poor bones in my feet, but I got the perfect pair of ballet flats in Paris last summer at Chanel.”
If a ballerina endorsement doesn’t move you, know that Chanel ballet flats look good with everything. Also, they have a cap toe, and sometimes the toe contrasts with the rest of the flat, like a black toe with a pastel tweed, or a navy toe with a blue-green leather body. This being Chanel, notorious for its low levels of stock, you have to go in person and see what is available in your size. If you find any crayon-style colors in a size 39 — taxi yellow, bright blue — call me immediately. ($875)
Maison Margiela is known for its many variations of the split-toe tabi shoe. Its fans are devoted to the tabi boots, but I think the tabi ballet flat is the friendliest entry point into that world. My friend Kat pointed me to the satin ones. “They’re the softest tabis (spiritually),” she texted. The colors are really incredible — deep violet, dark sage green, chestnut brown — and would look good with any kind of jeans, but even better with oversize tailored trousers and a loose oxford shirt. ($345, from $690)
Khaite makes ballet flats with studded with Swarovski crystals. The best are black satin with the crystals in a kind of harlequin pattern. The more elaborate and luxe the ballet flat, the better it looks dressed down. So wear these with track shorts in the summer and a white ribbed tank top and you’ll be the coolest person at the grocery store. ($980)
Ballet flats can look a little too preppy when worn with skirts and dresses. They need the structure and square toe of these satin ones from the Row. How good would the cranberry red pair look peeking out from under a long black dress at some kind of spring gala? The bonus is that this is the next most comfortable thing with the exception of socks to wear to a long party. ($790)
It’s easy to take for granted the delicate bows of many ballet flats. They’re just kind of there, looking perfect. This pair has an elongated toe box and a bow that hits the middle of the foot, instead of at the toe. “The Reikes are more substantial as a styling element,” said Anna Gray, who owns Club Vintage in Manhattan, a South Street Seaport shop that sells this style. So even though they are as versatile as a black shoe should be, they are subtly more elegant. And slightly less innocent. And so are you! ($280, from $350)
Mansur Gavriel makes ballet flats with a high vamp, which some people prefer to showing a lot of toe cleavage. They do all the basic colors (Repetto and Margaux and French Sole also have a range of great shades), but the most exciting version is made of raffia. With white linen pants? Or what about Pleats Please pants for a contrast of soft and natural meets futuristic? ($395)