High heeled shoes come in all shapes and sizes, from the classic height of stilettos to the mild vintage vibes of kitten heels to the stomping allure of ’70s-style platforms.
But even with the endless variety, the anatomy of a high heel is fairly standard across all styles of the shoe genre. And knowing a bit about the anatomy of a high heel and how they are constructed can help you become a more educated shopper, an essential when it comes to finding the right high heel shoes for you.
While you may not currently know what a counter is or why a shank is so important, you certainly know the feeling of a supportive pair of high heels versus the feeling of a wobbly pair that leaves you teetering.
Needless to say, no one wants the latter, no matter how good high heels look with your outfit. Knowing a bit of high heel anatomy can save you from shelling out on a pump that won’t support your best model-like walk, especially while shopping online.
With the right knowledge on the anatomy of a high heel, you can easily clock which shoes were made with top-notch construction and which are just lookers that won’t ever leave your shoe rack—even if only looking at pictures on department store sites.
To learn more about the anatomy of a high heel, check out these top terms breaking down the construction of the shoe style. While high heel anatomy can be pretty universal from shoe to shoe, it’s worth noting that you may find some high heel styles don’t include certain features listed below—like open-toed options bending the rules of toe boxes or mules leaving the back portion of the shoe open.
But the terms below will give you a good knowledge base for the general architecture of a pump.
It doesn’t matter if you are a high heel veteran or new to the world of lifted footwear, you’ll likely learn something from this need-to-know high heel terminology that will make you a smarter shopper. Get ready to perfect that strut.
The vamp is the portion of a high heel’s anatomy that covers the top of the foot, enclosing your foot securely in the shoe. While it’s easy to identify a vamp on a traditional pump, even open-toed heels and strappy high heels still have vamps. Low vamps often show more of the top of your foot, which in turn provides less security, while high vamps cover your toes and then some, providing more security to your steps.
Contrary to what you may think, even strappy heels can have a high vamp, if the straps climb up the foot to the ankle. Remember: The higher the vamp, the more support there is for your feet.
The counter, also known as the quarter, is the stiff portion at the back of the shoe that supports the heel. A sturdy, well-fitting counter can reduce the risk of cuts and blisters at the back of your heel, providing much-needed support for your ankle.
A counter should contour to your heel and fit snug so your heel doesn’t come loose with each step—but not too snug that it causes friction, redness, and cuts.
The top line is the stitching around the top of the vamp and counter that finishes off the top of the shoe opening, providing shape to the area where your foot sticks out of the heel. The top line also adds structure to the shoe, making sure the lining, vamp, and counter are secure and fitted to your foot. Some shoe styles use the top line to add some flare to their footwear, creating wavy top lines or V-shaped top lines.
Predictably, the toe box is the area of a closed-toed shoe that covers your toes. In heels, the most common toe box shapes are rounded, pointed, oblong, square, or almond. It’s important to have a toe box that fits your foot without pinching your toes to prevent blisters, bruising, or painful friction while walking.
Wide-width shoes tend to have a larger toe box to accommodate those with wide feet—and the same philosophy applies to narrow shoe toe boxes being smaller for those with narrow feet.
The lining of a heel is the fabric inside of the heel that touches your foot. The lining helps separate your foot from any internal seams and the insole, providing a comfortable space for your foot. Top-quality high heels should have a sturdy liner that won’t quickly deteriorate or hold odors—especially since you don’t often wear socks with heels.
The insole, or footbed, of a high heel is the cushioned, contoured portion that your foot sits on. This part of the shoe, which is situated under the thin lining, is often made of foam, gel, or cork. While much of the structure of a high heel is rigid and focused on stability, the insole is focused on the wearer’s comfort.
In addition to the insole, footbed padding helps provide additional comfort to your heels. Footbed padding sits underneath the insole, often made of felt, cork, or similar material that has some give. There can be either be one, two, or more layers for footbed padding, depending on the shoe.
The shank is part of a heel’s internal structure, sitting between the insole and the outsole. The shank, which is often made of metal or thick plastic, provides essential stability to your arch while your foot is placed somewhat precariously in the heel. The shank sometimes sits between layers of footbed padding, ensuring the wearer benefits from the shank’s rigidity but still experiences adequate comfort.
The platform is the raised portion of a shoe between the inner structure and the sole, which can increase the height of the shoe overall. Not all high heels have platforms, but it’s a common way to make shoes with very tall heels easier to walk in, as a platform helps compensate for some of the intimidating heel height.
The sole of a high heel is where the bottom of the shoe contacts the ground. Since top-quality high heels are all about stability, it’s important a high heel sole has sufficient grip to make walking easier and to prevent slipping.
Often, heels have a two-part sole, featuring a thin portion of rubber (sometimes called the midsole) for flexibility that is then covered by a secondary outer sole, which provides traction with the ground and enhances durability.
When referring to a high heel shoe, the seat is where the heel meets the body of the shoe. It’s typically shaped to match the form of the upper, providing a seamless look between the two main structures of the shoe.
If you are going to talk about high heel anatomy, you need to address defining feature of the style: the heel. The literal heel on a high heel shoe can come in a variety of shapes, sizes, heights, from short kitten heels and sky-high stilettos to chunky block heels and many, many more.
The heel breast is the vertical part of a heel located under the arch of the shoe. Often, this portion of the shoe is a continuation of the sole down the length of the shoe, providing a seamless look.
The top piece, also known as the heel cap or top lift, is the portion of the high heel where the heel hits the ground. It is often a piece of plastic that is highly grooved to provide traction.
Since the top piece takes the brunt of the contact to the ground, it’s important the piece is durable enough to hang tough. Often, you’ll find top pieces are about an inch thick for this very reason.
High heels are made in three separate sections—the sole, the upper, and the heel.
Technically called the top piece, it is often also called a heel tip, top lift, or as I like to refer to it as: a heel cap. What is this? Usually made of a durable plastic, it gives a stable base to the heel, and helps provide grip when walking.
High, Mid and Low Heel Types.
Quarter: The back part of the upper, typically beginning where the vamp (see below) finishes, and wrapping around the heel. If the shoe is whole cut, the quarter and vamp will be the same piece of material. In most shoes, however, they are two separate pieces of leather.
Topline: The top edge of the upper. Upper: The entire part of the shoe that covers the foot. Vamp: The section of upper that covers the front of the foot as far as the back as the join to the quarter. Welt: A strip of material that sits between the upper to the sole to ensure a secure bond.
At its most basic, a shoe consists of heal, toe cap, insole, and outsole that covers the foot. But other secondary parts make up the rest of the shoe anatomy too. They include upper, eyelets, quarter, vamp, lining, tongue, topline and top edge, and these give the shoe more detail and structure.
The rear part of the footbed, whether found in a clog, sandal, slipper or any other form of shoe, is called the heel cap. As the name implies, the heel area here is embedded in a kind of shell, i.e. a slightly raised edge, in order to increase the stability of the foot in the shoe.
Sandals are an open type of footwear, consisting of a sole held to the wearer's foot by straps going over the instep and around the ankle. Sandals can also have a heel.