A Visual Guide to the "Wrong-Shoe Theory" Going Viral on TikTok

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The "wrong-shoe theory" is exactly what it sounds like. Stylist and creator of the term Allison Bornstein coined it in a video she posted on TikTok last month, explaining how the simple styling trick can have a massive impact on how interesting your outfit appears. According to Bornstein, the wrong-shoe theory is how fashion people always seem to achieve a cool and visually appealing outfit that no one else is wearing. 

Essentially, the idea is to choose a pair of shoes that are categorically mismatched to the rest of your outfit. In her video, Bornstein uses the example of wearing sneakers in a nonfunctional way—e.g., with an elevated outfit like trousers rather than with something sportier like leggings. The reason this works so well is because it takes the sneakers out of their original function as athletic shoes and makes them feel like a much more intentional choice. 

If you're starting to get the picture, good, because the theory extends far beyond just sneakers. It really comes down to choosing shoes that oppose the aesthetic of the rest of your outfit. So if you're wearing an airy summer dress, skip the obvious choice of strappy sandals and go for a pair of tough moto boots or academic loafers instead. Some of the most expertly dressed fashion people swear by this trick, and to prove it, we sourced a ton of outfit examples from across the internet. To see the viral shoe theory in action, just keep scrolling.

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(Image credit: @emilisindlev)

To us, no outfit screams "wrong-shoe theory" quite like this one that combines relaxed track pants with crystal-embellished slingbacks. It's almost so wrong that it's right.

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(Image credit: @CAMILLECHARRIERE)

Along those same lines, socks and loafers look infinitely more interesting with satin track shorts than they would with something like a pleated skirt.

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(Image credit: @aimeesong)

Baggy cargo jeans are anything but delicate, yet the choice of styling them with the most delicate shoes out there—satin ballet flats—is pretty genius.

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(Image credit: @nnennaechem)

The wrong-shoe theory doesn't always mean going with a completely different kind of shoe, though. Here, sportier rubber flip-flops work better than a pair of strappy leather sandals would.

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(Image credit: @anoukyve)

Heels are hardly our first instinct when wearing denim shorts, but the contrast between casual and polished just somehow works.

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(Image credit: @pernilleteisbaek)

Leggings and an oversize jacket just scream Sunday morning coffee run, so you'd expect to see that kind of outfit with sneakers or slides, but styling it with stiletto boots instead is a stealthier choice.

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(Image credit: @champagnemani)

Ground an airy, delicate dress with sporty sneakers and crew socks.

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(Image credit: @aishafarida)

Instead of leaning too far into the academic aesthetic by wearing loafers with a pleated skirt, technical sneakers like this pair from Salomon make the outfit feel mismatched in an intentional way.

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(Image credit: @modedamour)

We find it easier to think about combining different genres of dressing. Here, she married a vacation-ready wrap skirt to a pair of loafers from her work wardrobe—two genres that normally don't see any crossover.

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(Image credit: @filis_pina)

Pay attention to silhouettes too. Chunky sneakers balance out a super-streamlined maxi dress better than other kinds of flat shoes would.

Next up: It's Cutting Season—10 Dated Sandals We're Retiring and Their Chic Replacements

Editor

Anna is an editor on the fashion team at Who What Wear and has been at the company for over five years, having begun her career in the Los Angeles office before relocating to New York, where she's currently based. Having always been passionate about pursuing a career in fashion, she built up her experience interning at the likes of Michael Kors, A.L.C., and College Fashionista before joining the team as a post-graduate. Anna has penned a number of interviews with Who What Wear's cover stars, including A-listers Megan Fox, Issa Rae, and Emma Chamberlain. She's earned a reputation for scouting new and emerging brands from across the globe and championing them to our audience of millions. While fashion is her main wheelhouse, Anna led the launch of WWW Travels, a new lifestyle vertical that highlights all things travel through a fashion-person lens. She is passionate about shopping vintage, whether it be at a favorite local outpost or an on-the-road discovery, and has amassed a wardrobe full of unique finds. When she's not writing, you can find her shooting street imagery on her film camera, attempting to learn a fourth or fifth language, or planning her next trip across the globe.