Ballet flats are back. Everyone’s saying it—Vogue, the TikTok girlies, The New York Times, Instagram’s foremost fashion narcs, the whole gang. Shoes from trendsetting brands such as Alaïa and Miu Miu line store shelves, and hundreds of cheap alternatives are available online at fast-fashion juggernauts such as Shein and Temu. You can run from the return of the ballet flat, but you can’t hide. And, depending on how much time your feet spent in the shoes the last time they were trendy, maybe you can’t run either.
The ballet flat—a slipperlike, largely unstructured shoe style meant to evoke a ballerina’s pointe shoes—never disappears from the fashion landscape entirely, but its previous period of decided coolness was during the mid-to-late 2000s. Back then, teens were swathing themselves in Juicy Couture and Abercrombie & Fitch, Lauren Conrad was ruining her life by turning down a trip to Paris on The Hills, and fashion magazines were full of Lanvin and Chloé and Tory Burch flats. The style was paired with every kind of outfit you could think of—the chunky white sneaker of its day, if you will.
How you feel about the shoes’ revival likely has a lot to do with your age. If you’re young enough to be witnessing ballet flats’ popularity for the first time, then maybe they seem like a pleasantly retro and feminine departure from lug soles and sneakers. If, like me, you’ve made it past 30(ish), the whole thing might make you feel a little old. Physically, ballet flats are a nightmare for your back, your knees, your arches; when it comes to support, most offer little more than you’d get from a pair of socks. Spiritually, the injury might be even worse. Twenty years is a normal amount of time to have passed for a trend to be revived as retro, but it’s also a rude interval at which to contemplate being punted out of the zeitgeist in favor of those who see your youth as something to be mined for inspiration—and therefore as something definitively in the past.
Trends are a funny thing. Especially in fashion, people see trends as the province of the very young, but tracing their paths is often less straightforward. Take normcore’s dad sneakers: In the mid-2010s, the shoes became popular among Millennials, who were then hitting their 30s, precisely because they were the sneakers of choice for retired Boomers. But in order for a trend to reach the rare heights of population-level relevance, very young people do eventually need to sign on. In the case of dad sneakers, it took years for Zoomers to come around en masse, but their seal of approval has helped keep bulky New Balances popular for nearly a decade—far past the point when most trends fizzle.
The return of ballet flats is a signal of this new cohort of fashion consumers asserting itself even more widely in the marketplace. The trends young people endorse tend to swing between extremes. The durable popularity of dad shoes all but guaranteed that some young people would eventually start to look for something sleeker and less substantial. The ballet flat fits perfectly within the turn-of-the-millennium fashion tropes—overplucked eyebrows, low-rise jeans, tiny sunglasses—that Zoomers have been tinkering with for several years.
Ballet flats are an all-the-more-appropriate sign of a generational shift, in fact, because they are the folly of youth made manifest. Wearing them is an act of violence against podiatry, yes, but their drawbacks go further. Many ballet flats are so flimsy that they look trashed after only a few wears. They’re difficult to pair with socks, so they stink like feet almost as quickly. Ballet flats are impractical shoes that sneak into closets under the guise of practicality—hey, they’re not high heels!—and prey on people who do not yet know better.
What does that mean, then, for the people who do know better? For one, it means that the extended adolescence that some Millennials experienced following the Great Recession is finally, inarguably over. We’re old, at least relatively speaking. Every generation eventually ages out of the particular cultural power of youth and then watches as younger people make mistakes that seem obvious in hindsight, and the ballet flat is a reminder that people my age are no longer the default main characters in culture that we once were. When I was a middle schooler begging for a pair of wooden-soled Candie’s platform sandals in the mid-’90s, I remember my mother, in a fit of exasperation, telling me that I couldn’t have them because she saw too many people fall off their platforms in the ’70s. This is the first time I remember contemplating my mom as a human being who existed long before I was conscious of her: someone who bought cool but ill-advised clothes and uncomfortable shoes, who went to parties where people sometimes had a hard time remaining upright.
Even the cool girls with the coolest shoes at some point grow to regard parts of their past selves as a bit silly, and they become the people trying to save the kids from their own fashion hubris. This sensation is undoubtedly acute for Millennials, because this hubris is displayed most prominently in an arena they used to rule: the internet. On TikTok, the world’s hottest trend machine, the over-30 crowd is more onlooker than participant, and the youth are using the platform to encourage one another to dress like they’re going to a party at the Delt house in 2007. Someone has to warn them.
If you’re realizing that this someone is you, my advice would be to not let the generational responsibilities of aging weigh too heavily on you. The upside of losing your spot at culture’s center stage, after all, is freedom. You can look around at what’s fashionable, pick the things that work for you, and write off the rest as the folly of youth. (The Zoomers are right: The lug-soled combat boots that I wore in high school actually are very cool.) In place of chasing trends, you can cultivate taste. When you fail at taste, at least you can be aware of your own questionable decisions. In the process of writing this article, I realized that French Sole still makes the exact same prim little flats that I must have bought three or four times over during the course of my first post-college job, in the late 2000s. They’re as flimsy as ever, but whatever made me love them 15 years ago is still there, buried under all of my better judgment. I haven’t closed the tab quite yet.