Why shoe sizes are a mess

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.

size length

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?

size inches

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.

size cm

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:

size foot measure

“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.

size 7 red wing

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.

size red wings

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.

conversion table

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12 Responses to “Why shoe sizes are a mess”

  1. Mikkel

    Add to that, the German military shoe system whic is the internal shoe size in mm. Of course the east german military system is similar, but a value of 10 greater. A west/current german military shoe would be 275 and the east german 285.

    • Well Dressed Dad

      Yet more craziness! Thanks Mikkel. One would think that the army at least would be sensible about this, but you have proven that this is clearly not the case. Wonderful!

  2. miko

    Its worse….
    I’m a size 9 in Nike standard sneakers, size 8.5 in Cole Haan normal shones, and an infuriating size 8!!! in Cole Haan Lunargrand shoes because they are “cut big”

    Within the same brand, these idiots refuse to be size consistent…………

  3. TommyAlanRaines

    I have noticed that US shoe sizes are actually very crazy. Since I was 18 I have been a 10.5 D and now my athletic shoes are an 11 D. Now with Western boots I have always had to get a 10 to 10.5 depends on the boot maker, however recently I have noticed with some boot makers I now have to go any where from 9.5 D to 11 D and also with some regular shoes from a 10 to almost 11.5 D. I have also noticed that some of the shoe makers have smaller shoes sizes for much larger feet; for example a guy who is an actual 12 then he may be 10 to 11. I have notice the same thing with waist size for pants and jeans, one company may say the jeans is a 34 when it may actually be a 32 or even a 36.

    And some shoe/boot companies can have multiple size based on the style or image of the footwear. Example there is a Boot maker who can have different sizes based on square toe or rounded – the rounded is a 10.5 were the square is a 10.

    So before purchasing any footwear try them on and try different styles if you can from one company because the size could be up or down. The so called universal sizing does not mean anything any more its more a general size info now.

    • Well Dressed Dad

      Glad to hear I’m not the only guy to be infuriated by this insanely random and sloppy sizing work! I can sort of understand trouser makes adopting the vanity sizing principle (though, do guys really care as much as the women about what size jeans they are wearing? I think not!), but vanity sizing for footwear seems plain silly. And given that shoe sizes are quite plainly and clearly defined, how hard is it to actually mark shoes with the correct size? Sometimes it makes you wonder if we’re living in the dark ages 🙂

  4. Bill McCord

    Dr. Munson realized in the early 1900’s that the fit of a boot was very important to the military. http://www.askandyaboutclothes.com/forum/showthread.php?191885-Tell-me-about-Munson-lasts
    Munson determined that the heel must be 2 widths narrower than the overall width measured at the ball of the foot. i.e. If you have long toes then you would wear a different size than someone with short toes because the ball of your foot should sit at the widest part of the shoe.
    To properly measure a foot you need one of these in the U.S.

    The basic overall length does not give you the size rather the location of the ball of your foot to the back of your foot. You read the number next to the ball of your foot and then read the width from the side slider that correlates to the number measured from the ball of your foot.

    So if you sit at a size 15 at the ball of your foot and the width measures B, then your properly fitting shoe would be a 15 B with a AA heel according to Munson. When the military left the Munson last design and went to the Geometric last, basically a box, shoe fits went to *($@*(.

    Example, I measure 15 AA and a Nike 15D fits just fine [sizes in stores]. But the Nike web side doesn’t show D it only shows NARROW,REGULAR, WIDE and EXTRA WIDE. The retail stores only have D and 4E or EEEE !

  5. Stefan

    I’m about to purchase a pair of Chelsea rancher red wings.. And I’m where you were when you wrote this.

    I’m usually EU46 but they said red wings was large so ordered a pair of 11,5 locally I’m Sweden, they should approx be EU45 but they were to damned small returned them and now I’m looking to order from abroad.

    They suggested that I ordered US12 that should. Be like EU47 But. My feet are 29,6 & 29,9cm long and from what I understand US 13 IS, 30,6CM in length?

    You got any hot tips for me? Cause I’m confused like hell and would prefer not to have to return shoes abroad.

    Happy Holidays.

    • Well Dressed Dad

      A problem indeed, and made even more so by having to order from abroad. Are you sure about the sizing conversions you’re doing? I can’t imagine US11.5 is 45 and US12 is 47. Sounds like you might be mixing up UK and US sizing, where the UK size is one less than US, so a UK11 is the same size as US12. This can easily catch out the unwary and when you add that into the mix of “yes, these shoes are large/small for their size, so you really want to size up/down, or lose your will to live trying to ‘break in'” a pair of shoes that are provably the wrong size for your poor feet. It might be wise to talk to one of the (few) Red Wing stockists in Sweden (Malmö, I think), or go direct at Red Wing in Amsterdam, Berlin or London. Then again, maybe you need a weekend break, so you should go an try them on, always the safest bet 🙂

  6. Steve

    Argh…another frustrating subject. I live in the U.S. but our sizes mean nothing to my foot (typically, that is). I should wear a US 10 or 10.5 wide, but since some makers upsize or downsize their footwear my size of reality means nothing. I was so excited when I figured out a “real” European size 44 fits perfect…but the conversion with U.S. made or designed shoes doesn’t always work out. I was reading someone’s blog where they used a Converse All-Star shoe as their baseline, and I’ve found that’s a pretty good way to do it. As in, “I wear a Converse All-Star size 10.5, and so the Red Wing boot in size 10.5 that I tried on fits the same” kinda description. Thanks for another great post!

  7. TommyAlanRaines

    Some thing I have notice recently with some shoes. I was looking a few 10.5 D’s and on the size info inside the shoe it also said 28.5 CM well actually that makes the shoe 11.24/5 inches. so that for flat or curved size?
    I learned that some shoemakers design and make shoes based on the curvature of the foot and this can cause a confusion in listing the actually size because the retailers like Sears go by Brannock’s baseline size information and also learned from some research that some shoe companies for example like New Balance may custom order a shoe measuring device to their specs, thus also causing more confusion when it comes to buying shoes from another company. You almost have to buy your own Brannock device to have an accurate base line.
    Brannock does indeed make their device with shoe companies own calibrations in custom orders, however when this does happen the sales person in the shoe retail store for the brand like New Balance, Nike etc for the most part does not know this fact. So you could walk into New Balance and be sized right at 11D and then walk into a Skechers store and be a 10D all because of them using different specs. However that skechers 10D might also have the 28 to 28.5 CM in the sizing information.
    Some shoe companies 10.5 is also an 11, They take an actual 11 and place 2 different labels on it, so they can cut down on the physically amount of shoes they make.

    Now do this- take a fabric measuring tape and measure from your longest toe to just past the beginning curve of your heel, and make sure you follow the curves of your foot, you might find out that your 10.75 inches flat is a 28 to 28.5CM curved. What they are doing is designing with the ball and other curves of the foot and if you look at a foot last its actually shaped very closely to the an actual foot. The show designer/maker is not using a L of the square which is all flat to create measurements and this does create allot of shoe measuring confusion and some will be confused from reading this! ha. So basically when a last is made it actually take into account the actual shape of the foot and not how the foot is when it’s pressed on a flat surface.


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