Material Matters: Why Shoe Sizes Don't Make Sense
Have you ever bought a pair of shoes online, 95 per cent sure they were the right size, only to find when they arrived that you could barely squeeze in your big toe? Of course you have. We all have. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. The simple fact is that shoe sizing is ridiculously, unnecessarily confusing. So why hasn’t it been simplified yet? Well, sizing conventions were established long before mass production, and long before global trade, so now we’re left with a labyrinth of antiquated conventions trying to co-exist – and doing a poor job of it. Maybe we can kick off the SF global sizing system one day, but in the meantime let’s just try and clear up some of the confusion by shining a light on how we ended up with this mess.
Shoemakers have been attempting to spread a standardised sizing method for hundreds of years. Back in the day, when old blokes with big hands sewed cowhide in candlelit workshops, they measured their work in units defined by stitches. People literally counted the number of times the thread weaved its way in and out of the leather along the length of the sole. That seems simple enough; however, different regions – Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Britain – each had their own standardised stitch length. Since people only bought shoes locally, it didn’t really matter if the stitch lengths varied from place to place. It wasn’t as though people were dispatching carrier pigeons to Scotland for a fresh pair of brogues. So these systems became ingrained in the shoemaking heritage of each area, passed down from master to apprentice.
Then in 1324, King Edward II decided to make life a little easier when it came to the weights and measurements of the masses. He decreed that three grains of barley were equal to an inch and twelve inches were a foot – logical, right? Thanks to the imperial system of measurement, the stitch length of the monarchy was set to one grain of barley. This means that each UK shoe size increases by one-third of an inch, beginning at size 1, which is eight and two-thirds inches – or 26 grains of barley. Half sizes were slowly brought into use, as the full size increment proved too crude and hipsters of the late Middle Ages attempted to distance themselves from references to gluten.
The UK sizing standard eventually spread across the world as the British Empire expanded throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, up until the US decided to break away. Well, kind of. The American unit of sizing is the same as the UK's, but in the States the starting point is one-twelfth of an inch lower. It isn’t really known exactly how or when this happened, so we might just have to chalk it up to another case of trans-Atlantic confusion. These days the US size is perhaps the most widely recognised, as American brands spread throughout the world in a modern-day empiric explosion, helped along by pop culture.
While the Commonwealth was slowing down its spreading of barleycorn, the Parisian stitch moved across Europe with Napoleon’s army, becoming what we now refer to as European sizing. Starting from nothing, each European size goes up in increments of a quarter inch. A lot of traditional shoemakers consider this to be the purest sizing, mainly due to historical excellence in the craft and a healthy dose of French self-importance. So if you’re looking to get into some grown man dress shoes, it’s often a good idea to go by the European size.
The Rest of the World
In more recent times, the logical simplicity of the metric system has been honoured with attempts to create metric-based shoe sizing, which has been picked up around Asia. In a metric sizing system, each size goes up by 5mm. It’s a good start, but once again regional discrepancies have come into effect. Japanese and Chinese sizing both use the same metric increment; the trouble is that they don’t use the same numbers to display sizes. The Japanese system gives each size as a measurement in centimetres, which results in half sizes. The Chinese system, on the other hand, attributes a new whole-numbered size to each increment. Then there’s the Korean system, which works much the same as Japanese, but gives the measurement in millimetres. So this leaves us with a Japanese 25 and 25.5 being equal to a Chinese 40 and 41, while in Korea the same shoes are sizes 250 and 255. Still with me?,
Good, because it doesn’t stop there. There’s also a Mexican sizing system, which is similar to the UK, but measures the foot rather than the shoe cavity. A Russian system developed post-USSR is a re-do of the European system. In Brazil they use the euro count but subtract two from the final result. Even the Brannock device (you know that sliding scale they measured your foot with as a kid?), which was designed to simplify things, actually made everything more complicated by attempting to introduce its own system in 1925. The closer we get to the present day, the more confusing the whole thing becomes.
Letters and Numbers
Width sizing, which is indicated by a letter suffix, is almost universal. The width is calculated in relation to the length of the shoe, but there are a few different formulas, so uniformity isn’t guaranteed. However, the letters used tend to indicate the same thing – F being regular, E for narrow and G for wide. Brands who don’t use the letter suffix tend to indicate widths with half sizes – so a 9.5 will just be a wider version of their size 9.
And to make matters even more complex, length and width are only two dimensions of the very dynamic flesh and bone structure that is the human foot. Other metrics like instep depth, arch height and even ankle girth are metrics that need to be considered for ideal fit of an individual foot. Of course, mass manufactured footwear is designed around a one-size-fits-most approach, which has been further proliferated by stretchy, sock-like uppers that were adopted en masse in the mid-2010s.
On that, many traditional shoemakers and cordwainers still practise the sometimes excruciatingly lost art of custom last making, which is essentially a made-to-measure service for customers to have the perfect fit. This makes sense for footwear that is designed to be passed down the generations, and not so much for product that often is barely used for a year. Smaller premium sneaker brands have previously dabbled with bespoke sizing, such as FEIT, but the considerable financial investment for both manufacturer and consumer leaves a challenging value proposition.
Try It On
Unfortunately there’s no magic solution to the sizing conundrum just yet. We’d say the best thing to do is buy your size according to a brand’s origins. For a brand based in England, buy UK; a brand from the States, buy US; a French brand, buy European etc. But even within a single brand you’ll find shoes that fit differently on account of last shapes, materials, construction methods and so on. So, if you want to be sure a pair of shoes will fit you correctly, our advice is to get up off your butt, go try them on, and support local retail.
Material Matters is our weekly tech section where we peek behind the mesh curtain and examine the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Hybrids, The Do's and Don'ts of Basketball Shoes and Jordan Brand.