Business Attire: These Shoes Were Made For Walking

Last week’s article about wearing tennis shoes with business attire spawned an avalanche of emails, both from readers who agreed with me and those who vehemently did not.  I’d had a similar response the last time I wrote about this, back in 2001, but since I’d seen an overall decline of this odd combination, I was curious to see if, five years later, my readers were ready to let this one go.

Many aren’t.

The responses ranged from (I’m paraphrasing to combine multiple comments):


“At last!  Someone is finally talking about this. Don’t these people own mirrors?”

“We’ve been laughing about this ridiculous American custom for years.” (Readers from Milan and Paris)

“Will you quit giving away the keys to the Executive Washroom?”



“Tennis shoes with business attire is out?  Really?  What rock have you been living under? Everyone does this – it’s mainstream.”

“I took a poll around our office and we all agreed that if we take them off the instant we get to our desks, it’s okay.  Besides, the only people who see us are sales clerks, doormen, and waitresses.  What does that have to do with credibility?”

“Give me a break!  I can’t imagine anything more painful than walking ten blocks every day in a pair of $15 shoes.  I’ve endured years of back and foot pain and I’ll take tennis shoes with business suits any day, so judge away.  I don’t care.”

Interesting division, isn’t it?  I started to feel a bit like John T. Molloy (the 1970’s “Dress for Success” guru) conducting an experiment with this topic.

Let me start by saying that I agree whole-heartedly that walking long distance in comfortable shoes is a must, particularly if you’re prone to back pain and foot problems.  That those shoes should be tennis shoes is where we disagree.  I still say that a neutral-colored pair of flats is a much better choice for commutes.

Now I realize that a lot of people really like tennis shoes and wear them all the time.  At the same time, this goes back to the article I wrote a few weeks ago that asked, “Can you go everywhere you need to go with what’s in your closet right now?”

If you’re reaching for gym shoes to commute in with your more formal business attire, the answer is clearly “no.”  There are plenty of good-looking, comfortable walking shoes at all price points to choose from, so don’t simply assume that tennis shoes are the best, most comfortable choice without exploring your other options.  You may be pleasantly surprised by what else is out there.

Brands most favored by seasoned travelers include:



Clarks England

Dr. Martens


Finn Comfort




So why am I harping on this?

Well, I won’t “give you the keys to the Executive Washroom,” as one of my readers accused, but I’ll jingle them a little to give you some “food for thought” as I take a closer look at some of these comments.  Depending on your goals in life, you can do with the information as you see fit – including agreeing to disagree with me.


“Everyone does this – it’s mainstream.”

Take a closer look at those following this practice.  It’s NOT everyone.  By and large, it’s women who are thirty-five or older, mid-management level or below.  There are always exceptions, of course, but you’ll find that the majority of followers fit this description.  It’s rare that twenty-somethings or executives wear this combination.  Young women think it’s too “old-ladyish” while most image-conscious executives know better than to mix very casual shoes with more formal business attire.


“I took a poll around our office and we all agreed that if we take the tennis shoes off the instant we get to our desks, before we do any work, it’s okay.  Besides, no one sees us besides sales clerks, doormen, and waitresses, so how does that impact credibility?”

First, I encourage you to be VERY careful from whom you take your advice.  If your source has the income and lifestyle that you want, by all means, listen up.  But if she doesn’t, look to the one who DOES and follow his or her advice instead.  If you have your eye on the corner office, dress like the gal in the corner office (or better).  She knows how to get there; everyone else just has an opinion.

Secondly, you’re not invisible when you commute, not even to service or retail personnel.  They judge you based on your attire every bit as much as you judge them.  Since shoes have long been used as an indicator of wealth and status, from the elaborate sandals worn by the ancient Egyptian aristocrats right up until the designer brands so popular today, I think you’d be shocked by just how much those gym shoes reveal about you.

Have you ever heard the term, “well-heeled?”  It was coined in the 16th Century when Venetian merchants brought back platform shoes from the Orient and they instantly became “all the rage.” The towering heels kept their wearers inches above the mud and muck of the streets, but only the very wealthy could afford such shoes.  Ever since, “well-heeled” has meant prosperous and well-dressed.

So what do your shoes say about you?  If you mix very casual shoes with more formal attire, it says to many that you either don’t know any better or that you can’t afford more appropriate shoes.


“I can’t imagine anything more painful than walking ten blocks every day in a $15 pair of shoes.  I’ve endured years of back and foot pain and I’ll take tennis shoes with business suits any day.”

You’re right – a cheap pair of shoes wouldn’t stand up to such abuse, and neither would your feet.  But tennis shoes aren’t the answer for commuting to and from work.  Invest in a good pair of walking shoes from the list above instead.


So what’s the bottom line here?

Yes, tennis shoes are more comfortable to wear long distance than high heels.  But so are well-fitting flats.  If you invest in a pair of good, attractive walking shoes, you’ll come out ahead in the long run.  While tennis shoes are only appropriate for casual attire, a simply styled, good-looking walking shoe can be worn for either casual or business.  You’ll get twice the use from one shoe AND you’ll look more pulled-together wearing them.  You’ll also enjoy better service from those you encounter along the way.  If you don’t believe me, just try it for a few days and see.  I think you’ll be surprised.

Need some more help pulling together a business wardrobe that works? Download a copy of Business Wear Magic to see how easy dressing appropriately for business can be. Business Wear Magic



  • Merrell

    April 4, 2008

    Merrell offer some very nice walking shoes… also their designs are cute and durable