If Carrie Bradshaw of Sex and the City had been just a couple of years older, she would be trading in her Manolos for orthopedic shoes right now.
Or maybe not.
Now that almost 40 million women are getting to be the age where their feet hurt when they slip into designer shoes, it's the shoes that are changing. Baby boomer women still love their stylish footwear, but some of them are now dealing with unpleasant conditions like hammertoe and Morton's neuroma, a painful nerve disorder.
"These aren't found in men," says Dr. Brent Tabor, a Gaithersburg-based podiatrist, who blames those deliciously pointy toes and stiletto heels for creating foot problems. Even if you don't have such serious conditions, as you get older, you may suffer from bunions -- or simply notice that comfort matters more than it used to.
Alma Belthea, 56, a schoolteacher who lives in Elkridge, now at least sometimes puts comfort over high fashion. She loves top-quality Italian shoes; when she moved recently, she was shocked to find she had "about 20 pairs of Ferragamos, six pairs of Balis and 30 pairs of Bruno Maglis."
But she's started wearing Aerosoles at work because, she says, her feet are "elongating," and she craves the comfort.
The American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons has also warned against the double whammy of wearing narrow-toed dress shoes to work and pounding the pavement when you run. Boomer women, famous for exercising long past the age previous generations did, should take note.
There is good news. It used to be women had to sacrifice comfort for style. That's changing. A couple of years ago, Comfort One Shoes, a regional chain that has several stores in this area, switched its motto from "The World's Most Comfortable Shoes" to "A World of Style." OK, it may not be the sexiest motto; but it does reflect a shift in emphasis for the store.
"We were getting a big call for more fashion-forward, but still comfortable shoes," says Shawn O'Neill, the company's vice president.
Once known for its Birkenstocks and other casual, bohemian comfort shoes, Comfort One now also carries expensive, dressier lines from Europe like Thierry Rabotin, Trevata and Ara.
You won't find excessively pointed toes. One of the characteristics of even designer comfort shoes is a wider "toe box" with a bit more wiggle room, and narrower heels so the shoe doesn't slip in back. There's also more arch support.
"The heels don't lift you up and throw your foot to the front of the shoes," says O'Neill. "They lift you up and rest you on your arch."
If you're one of those women who wouldn't be caught dead in a comfort-shoe store, even if its motto has changed, no worries. These days, comfort shoes with cachet can be found in high-end shops that would never have thought of carrying such styles in the past.
Jody Kesner, manager of Joanna Grey Shoes of London, a designer shoe store in the Village of Cross Keys, says her customers are "demanding comfort, but still want to look young."
Among other lines, Joanna Grey carries Taryn Rose, a luxury shoe collection designed by a woman trained as an orthopedic surgeon. Kesner calls them her "omigod shoes" because women are so surprised at how comfortable they are.
"They are pricey," she says, "in the $400 range, but women are willing to pay for comfort."
The biggest difference, Kesner notes, is that designer shoes have much more padding these days. "More cushioning in shoes makes a big difference for aging feet."
But you will still find plenty of heels.
Tabor, the podiatrist, argues that no heel is a good heel. "When you wear even a small heel, the foot has a tendency to push forward."
Besides the negative things he has to say about very pointed shoes, which he advises women "to avoid with a passion," he recommends wedges when they need to wear dressier shoes.
"They have the most support. Most of my patients do best in those," he says. "In general, women's dress shoes are not good."
If your feet are narrow, he adds, you're lucky -- although you may not feel that way when you shop for shoes and can't find them in your width. "Women with a very narrow foot tend not to have problems."
As for those staples of summer, flip-flops and clogs, they can help with pain in the back of the heel; but the flip side (no pun intended) is that they are unstable, so they can create their own foot problems. Tabor recommends limiting their use during a day.
Still, many women will probably always give up total comfort for a great look. It's just that, these days, it's easier to combine the two.
"Let's give big boomer headlines to Taryn Rose as well as Cole Haan with Nike Air Technology for addressing function, design and fashion," says Tom Julian, a nationally known fashion trend analyst. "I know that many retailers today realize that the shoe can be engineered as well as fashion designed."
Style is all in the details
One way to look stylish is to buy comfort shoes in materials or colors or with detailing that make them fashion forward. Trend analyst Tom Julian suggests you look for these:
Patent, which he describes as the "most visual story for fall"
Color-blocking, like a Mondrian painting
Multiple patterns and fabrics, like patchwork with suede
Flats, influenced by Tory Burch ballet flats with a gathered back
Oxfords, more tailored and Great Gatsby in feel for fall
Metallics - shine, matte and unexpected colors