A couple of recent shoe experiences have really brought home to me, again, how frustrating the issue of sizing is. I’ve previously posted about this in regards to clothing, this time it’s about the footwear.
Looking at it with an analytical eye, how hard can it be? In it’s basic form the average human foot has a single measurement of note, it’s length. This can be measured in metric or imperial measurements, and that is basically it. Now, I know theres someone already sitting there, hand raised, wanting to argue the point that we need to consider the width of the foot as well. Of course, we could, but very rarely do the makers of shoes consider this. How often do you get asked which width you need, or get offered a selection of widths? Almost never, because the makers make a standard one-width to fit all, or at least to fit most, and leave it at that.
So, we agree that the length of the foot is the measurement that will decide which shoe will fit us, and that should pretty much wrap up this post. Hell no, not in 2014, at the pinnacle of human evolution! No wonder we can’t solve global warming or come up with an alternative to dino-oil, we’re still stuck trying to reach an agreement on how to match shoes to our feet!
If I’m asked “what size shoes do you take?” my first instinct is to reply “In metric or imperial, in UK or US, or even Japanese measurements?”. Which is the question that has to be asked, as we have at least 4 different scales we can measure define our feet by. I’m usually a 42.5, a UK8, a US9 and a 26.5. Which makes absolutely no sense at all. Why would UK and US sizes be different? Because everything is larger “over there”? Or because the world is insane?
And where do all these arbitrary numbers originate from? Are my feet 8 somethings long? No, the UK and US shoe sizes are even more bizarre than that. The unit they measure in is called “barleycorns” (kids, I’m not making this up, reality was better than the funny name I thought up!) and a foots length is not measured as a certain number of barleycorns, which would make sense. No, the point zero is a size 12 shoe, which is defined as 12″ long, and from there the sizes work backwards in either full or half barleycorns, each of which are 1/3″ in length. So for a size 8, my foot might be 12″ minus 4 times 1/3″, which is 10 2/3″, which works out to 27cm, which isn’t that far off the 26.5cm I measure my foot to be.
Though the question is still out there of why the US size is one larger than the UK… The reason for that is that they start counting at 1, not zero, in a similar way to how the floors of a building are numbered.
Oh, while not wishing to muddy the water further, I’ll not mention that this only goes for mens sizes, it’s different for women and kids.
So how do the European metric sizes work? Well, again we have an oddly named and oddly sized unit of measurement. This time it’s a “Paris point” and comes in at 2/3 a centimetre. The shoe size is then the length of the last in Paris points. This does provide us an easy conversion from plain centimetres to shoe size, by multiplying the length of your foot by 1.5. This means my 26.5cm foot is a size 40, which would be a rough deal for a foot that is normally at least a 42! Then again, this would be a shoe fitting in the French way, where the toe is right up against the end. A more usual fitting would be adding in a centimetre of “air”, which would bring the size up to 41.5.
At this point you may be close to giving up on trying to follow this. Why must it be so complicated? Why can’t some innovative and clever people come up with a sane and understandable solution? Well, they have. From the land of the rising sun we have the Japanese system of shoe sizes and it works pretty much like this:
“How long is your foot?”, “26.5cm”, “Excellent, sir, you’ll be wanting a size 26.5 then”
Problem solved, everyone can understand it, it makes perfect logical sense and it will be no problem at all to efficiently match foot to shoe and conclude business. Then we can fix global warming, right?
No, of course not, it’s never that easy. Even though we have managed to get an exact measure for our feet (or to be more precise, our longest foot, as human feet are frequently not of identical length and shoe makers won’t let you buy two different sizes), the factories aren’t precise enough to actually produce shoes that have a scientifically accurate size.
Oh no, like for clothing, shoe sizes are ripe with voodoo and folklore. Consider the traditional British maker of Gentlemans shoes that is known to be about a size too large according to the stated size. Why? Apparently their lasts are from bygone times when men wore thick wool socks inside their shoes, so the sizes have accommodated the need for this.
Take the example of the Red Wing 877 boots I picked up recently. I almost passed them by as they are stamped as a size 7. Doffing my Sherlock guise I deduct that since they are made in the US, this means they are a US7, which translates to a UK6. Now I know I’m a UK8, so this will be far too small for me, yet a quick trial shows I can stuff my feet in. 2 sizes too small and yet I can, albeit a little painfully, insert my feet into them?
Looking at Red Wings size guide shows that US7 is Japanese 25, so they are 1.5cm shorter than my feet. Now I imagine squeezing my feet shorter by this amount (if you’re not quite following this, that’s a little over 1/2″, ok?) would be pretty painful. Makes me think that the old Chinese tradition of binding the feet of small girls has been adopted by workboot-wearing hipsters trying to break in the perfectly fitting leather boots.
And then it hits me… Urban lore says that when it comes to Red Wings, they size large, so you need to buy a size smaller than you usually take. Yes, you make make contact between your face and palm now, repeatedly. Why not just make your shoes to the right and proper size so people have some hope in hell of finding the right size footwear?
For anyone of an analytical or engineering mind this is just depressing and unnecessary. Perhaps in the dark ages it might have been acceptable, but if we can send space craft to Mars, it’s hardly too much to ask that we get the small matter of footwear well and truly sorted. I demand that action is taken to correct it!
As a small addition, I have calculated my own table of size conversions. UK to US is easy, but going from UK to Euro is not a sensible. According to where you look it up, there is a number added to the calculated European values, to make up for how much space you want for your toes. Some say 1cm, some say 1,5cm. So this needs to be added to the sizes, and this makes a total mockery of what was already a mess. Oh well.