A Style Guide for Minimalist Footwear

A Style Guide for Minimalist Footwear

Let’s start by explaining exactly what we mean by minimalist shoes. Compared to “regular” running, casual, or work shoes, minimalist shoes have less cushion in the insole, very little drop, little or no arch support, a wide toe box, and are made of very lightweight materials.

Minimalist shoes are manufactured this way for one simple reason–their goal is to produce a walking or running experience that’s as much like going barefoot as possible. Being able to feel and adjust to the contours of the surface beneath your feet is a major goal of yours if you are a minimalist walker or runner.

With that background in mind, let’s explore

  • why you’d want to wear minimalist shoes
  • whether minimalist shoes can be stylish
  • what minimalist shoes are available now

Types of Minimalist Shoes

Minimalist shoes feature 2 style variations–barefoot shoes and minimalist shoes. The purpose of barefoot shoes is simply to protect your feet from sharp or painful objects (twigs on the trail, shards of glass on the sidewalk, sawdust on the shop floor, etc.) you may encounter.

Truly barefoot shoes usually resemble a thin, form-fitting glove that slips over your feet. Minimalist shoes provide slightly thicker soles, a few millimeters of drop, and styling that resembles a regular shoe. The Xero shoes is an example of a minimalist shoe.

Why would you want to wear minimalist shoes?

Minimalist shoes are the “back to nature” segment of footwear. Folks who wear minimalist shoes point out that we were born barefooted, and learned to walk around comfortably in our bare feet, without the help of a cushioned insole, a heel cup, or arch support.

Skeptics agree with this assessment, but point out that most adults simply don’t have the option of going barefoot all day, even if they wanted to do so. Assuming that you could wear minimalist shoes for at least part of your day, why would you want to?

  • Minimalist shoes help strengthen your foot muscles. A downside of cushioned shoes with lots of arch support is that they don’t allow your foot to move and flex as it would if you were walking barefooted. This actually tends to weaken your foot muscles since muscles atrophy if they are not used. Minimalist shoes allow your feet to move naturally and actually increase foot strength.
  • Minimalist shoes allow you to walk with a natural gait. Shoes with a raised heel change your natural gait. The higher the heel, the more your natural stride is affected. Consider how a woman’s gait changes when she pulls off her sneakers and dons a pair of dress shoes with 4” heels. Minimalist shoes are designed to have little or no drop, which means that the heel is not elevated above the ball of the foot. Zero-drop shoes allow your gait to remain the same when you’re wearing shoes as it is when you’re not.
  • Minimalist shoes encourage you to plant the ball of your ball first. This is the norm for babies when they learn to walk. (Watch a toddler and verify this for yourself, if you’re skeptical.) When we begin wearing shoes with an elevated heel, we simultaneously start allowing our heels to hit first. Minimalist shoes encourage a mid-foot strike rather than a heel strike.
  • Minimalist shoes are designed with a wide or open toe box. This design mimics the shape of the human foot, which is wider at the front than at the heel. It also provides adequate room for the ball and toes of your foot to spread as you walk, run or exercise. This increases your balance and enhances circulation to your toes.

Here’s something very important to remember

One caution is needed here. If, after seeing these benefits, you decide to purchase a pair of minimalist shoes, don’t throw your cushioned running shoes out and go for a 5-mile run in your new shoes. Doing so will very likely cause painful feet. It could cause you serious injury.

You will need to transition gradually from regular shoes to minimalist shoes in order to allow your foot muscles to strengthen and your feet to adjust to a new gait before you realize all of the benefits listed above. Gradual transition allows your feet to adjust and strengthen without hurting.

Can Minimalist Shoes Be Stylish?

Style like beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder. If not, we’d all have the same pair of dress shoes in our closets. We’d show up for work wearing the same shoes all of our co-workers were wearing. Questions of style are tricky. However, there are some noticeable style differences between barefoot and minimalist shoes

Most barefoot shoes will look a bit unusual, and not particularly stylish. Many barefoot shoes are sandals with only a few straps to attach the shoes to your feet. Closed-toe varieties are generally thin and flexible synthetic shoes that resemble gloves for your feet. In that sense, barefoot shoes aren’t particularly stylish, except for casual wear. The trainers are typical barefoot shoes that look like barefoot shoes.

Minimalist shoes that aren’t necessarily barefoot shoes are more apt to be stylish for casual wear, for work, and for dress. Several of these lines look very much like top-selling brands of traditional shoes, especially if you’re looking at the upper of the shoe. The biggest visible differences lie in the thin sole of minimalist shoes, the wide toe box, and the lack of a pronounced heel. Several examples of these shoes are detailed and linked below.

What are some examples of minimalist shoes available now?

Because of their increasing popularity and growing demand, minimalist shoes are now available in styles that run the gamut from sandal to loafer and from work shoe to wingtip. Stylish options are available from several manufacturers that focus on minimalist shoes. These include Vivobarefoot, Taveedo, Nothing New, Giesswein, Vibram, Astral and others. Additionally, several makers of hiking or athletic footwear–like Puma, Merrell, Columbia and New Balance–now offer a few minimalist shoes.

They are available in fabrics that include real leather as well as man-made leather, canvas, and a variety of synthetic materials. Slip-on and lace-up options are available, as are a few work boots with safety toes and met guards.

We highlight below some great minimalist shoes in several categories. We note the key features that are hallmarks of minimalist shoes–wide toe box, zero-drop heel, lightweight materials, natural feel–and point out unique characteristics.

Minimalist Dress Shoes

Vivobarefoot is a leading provider of dress shoes that include all of the classic minimalist features. Like Primus Lux leather trainers, Gucci or the Billy Ruffian calf style Chelsea classic boot.


They are all lightweight and flexible, with zero-drop soles and wide toe boxes. They are stylish enough for an evening out.  Very dressy shoes are available in minimalist styles from Billy Ruffian. However, they are truly minimalist shoes with very little drop and a wide toe box. To make their dress shoes more stylish,  Billy Ruffian shoes round the tip of their shoes.

The Billy Ruffian Kendal Brogue in navy suede is lovely and so light.


Minimalist Sneakers

Minimalist sneakers are available in low-top, mid-top and high-top styles. With a flat sole and a roomy toe box, the Cloudfoam shoe fits the minimalist category but is styled like a traditional sneaker. This shoe features a Memory-foam liner, so it’s more cushioned than many minimalist shoes. Another minimalist sneaker by a company not known for minimalist shoes is The  Merrell Men’s Vapor 4  trainer is a low-top shoe with a fabric or textile upper and a Vibram sole.

Vivobarefoot and Within offer several variations of sneakers that feature different heights and thickness of the sole. The Geo Court men’s Everday barefoot classic by Vivobarefoot is a white tennis shoe made from leather and organic cotton. It is a trainer with a  breathable, black, lightweight sneaker with an upper made of canvas. Both are low-top shoes with wide toe boxes.

Minimalist Hiking Books

Hiking boots make up a reasonable segment of the minimalist shoe market. You’ll find hiking shoes in low-top, mid-top and high-top varieties. Some are waterproof, while others are water-resistant and quick-drying. Some minimalist hiking boots include arch support; others don’t. A few, like the incorporate a cushioned sole, but still maintain a zero-drop heel. Virtually all are made of lightweight fabrics. Some, like the Astral TR1 Merge are also vegan boots. These other minimalist hiking boots showcase a variety of features available.

Minimalist Work Boots

The majority of minimalist work boots are made for office work, light warehousing situations or other settings where steel toes, met guards and EH ratings aren’t required. The Vivobarefoot Men’s Tracker FG M leather walking shoe and the Golden Fox Men’s American heritage work chukka boot are good examples of nice-looking zero-drop boots comfortable enough to wear all day, and sturdy enough to protect your feet under conditions that aren’t particularly rugged. Both boots are lightweight and feature slip-resistant wedge soles. The Golden Fox boot is also oil-resistant.  A third option is the Davinci Mohawk. This is a 7” tall Derby boot with 1-cm sole and zero drop. Unlike the others, the Mohawk is a leather boot and features a gusseted tongue.

Minimalist work boots that provide protection in rugged or hazardous situations are often made by mainline boot or athletic shoe companies. Examples are the  Under Armour Men’s Stellar Military and Tactical boot, which is a quick-dry leather and textile boot with a Ortholite sock liner that is antimicrobial, and the Sorel Men’s Madson Moc Toe Bootwhich is waterproof leather and has a removable insole.

Minimalist Sandals

Sandals are a hallmark of the minimalist movement and are the year-round go-to shoe in warm climates.  Common features are a very thin sole, zero drop and only enough straps to anchor your feet securely to the shoes. Shoes with a toe divider and without one are widely available. Some shoes are vegan-friendly. Many are flexible enough to be rolled up and tucked into a knapsack or backpack.

Popular styles include, the Bedrock combines minimalist design with a lugged, Vibram sole for great grip, plugless toe posts and durable aluminum hardware.


Minimalist footwear is no longer a footwear fad expected to pass away quickly. As consumers become aware of the benefits of minimalist shoes, interest has increased and demand continues to climb. The result is a growing number of brands and styles that incorporate a variety of synthetic materials as well as some genuine leather. A number of brands also integrate recycled materials into their lines. Some market vegan-friendly shoes that are careful not to include real leather.

In addition to a wide range of minimalist sandals, you can now find functional minimalist vegan footwear for hiking, work, casual wear, or formal occasions. More and more of those options are combining function and style elements to create shoes that feel good on your feet and like good while you wear them. There’s almost certainly a style available that will be stylish and comfortable enough for you to enjoy wearing

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