At first glance, the ‘wrong shoe theory’ may seem like just another iteration of a short-lived TikTok-native core movement. But unlike the never-ending cycle of style and fashion-related trends that champion completely different silhouettes and aesthetics at the drop of a hat, the wrong shoe theory deviates. Instead, it follows a simple formula that’s ultimately trend-proof: take any outfit, think of its polar opposite in terms of footwear, and you’re all set.
Rather than buying new articles of clothing or shoes to adapt to the trend, most of your closet can easily be repurposed. If anything, this theory can breathe new life into your existing wardrobe by inspiring you to experiment with clothing combinations you may not have considered before.
So, when did all of this begin? The wrong shoe theory went viral in May 2023, after wardrobe stylist Allison Bornstein posted a TikTok in which she described how wearing the “wrong” shoe can make an outfit feel more interesting, personalised and styled. Bornstein encouraged viewers to choose footwear based on intention rather than function.
Put simply, this means that if trainers are your go-to because you walk a lot throughout the day, start with them when building an outfit, then pair them with other pieces you love. Instead of letting the runners dictate your style into a solely sporty look, by pairing them with a flowing, tiered boho dress, a tailored mini skirt or anything else that catches your eye, they still serve their comfortable purpose while also looking like an intentional, cool choice.
That being said, the wrong shoe theory is nothing new. Rebecca Mitchell, a senior writer for ELLE Australia, points out how “it fits the long-held tradition of ‘high/low’ styling.” She continues, “to that end, just think of festival wear for the past two decades: summer smocks x Hunter gumboots.” Variations of this concept have surfaced countless times over the years, but the phrase itself has taken off and clearly resonated with people, becoming a constant throughline of fashion trends over the summer (à la the no-pants trend plus ballet flats, or tailored trousers paired with gardening clogs).
While somewhat close in aesthetics at times, the wrong shoe theory shouldn’t be confused with the ugly shoes trend. As Jess Cartner-Morley, associate fashion editor at The Guardian, puts it, “the wrong shoe theory is about surprise, not deliberate ugliness.” At its core, the styling concept puts into generic language and visuals what runway shows have been doing for years.
One theory as to why it has skyrocketed in popularity is because Bornstein translated the high-fashion concept into a more accessible format—think sensible white trainers with pleated pants instead of clunky, sky-high platforms with a mini bubble skirt.
Wondering how you can start using the wrong shoe theory for your current outfit rotation? Start by testing out different combinations—don’t be afraid to go a bit out there with it—and see what works well in terms of visuals, comfort, etc. That’s really all there is to it.
If you’re in need of a bit of inspo, you’re in luck, because plenty of celebrities and influencers have been seen putting the theory to the test in recent months. Some examples we love include Emily Ratajkowski’s Burberry slip dress and cowboy boots combo:
DJ and podcast host Amrit Tietz’s poofy dress and chef-approved slip-ons also deserve a special mention:
And, of course, we couldn’t forget New York-based stylist and writer Michelle Li’s shiny Sambas with a lace skirt and tracksuit jacket:
Unsurprisingly, the wrong shoe theory was also employed during the latest Fashion Week, both on the runway and on the streets. Just look at this tailored, ballet-inspired look paired with flip flops by Sandy Liang or this street-style ensemble that pairs baggy menswear with dainty ballet flats, and try to tell me that it’s not everywhere.
What’s more, this seasonless styling hack can easily be applied to your autumn wardrobe as the weather begins to change. In fact, it could be the key to transitional outfits that are perfect for days that start out chilly and end up scorching (or vice versa). Some ideas you could test include pairing your favourite knee-high boots with baggy jorts, styling kitten-heeled sandals with ultra-comfy tracksuit bottoms or combining office-chic trousers with Crocs—the possibilities really are endless.
Best of all, this theory isn’t limited to shoes. Test it out with other accessories (we’re thinking bags, belts or sunglasses) to give your wardrobe a refresh this autumn.