You Do Not Have a Shoe Sizethirty-five years standing over a bad assumption
At some point in my thirties, I went from learning new things about life to learning new things and feeling dumb for not knowing them yet. An exhaustive list would be too embarrassing to blog, even for me. But here’s one I want to out there:
You do not have “a shoe size”. You have shoes in sizes that hopefully fit.
I was fortunate. Growing up, my mother kept me in the sneakers of my choice, size thirteen black Adidas Samba Classics, as long as I could make them last a few years. I have owned size thirteen black Adidas Samba Classics continuously for at least twenty years now.
Thirteen thus became “my size”. As if that number were some inalterable body property. As if that number were a law upon all shoes.
In college I bought dress shoes for interviews. I bought a couple pairs of boots, too. All in size thirteen. I wore them long enough to resole at least once.
Later on, I began buying running shoes. Pounded them ‘til they fell apart. All thirteens again.
None of the above really fit me very well. But the question never arose in my mind. They were the right size. That was the end of it.
It wasn’t ‘til my mid thirties that a conscientious salesman, hearing “my size”, insisted on measuring my feet, and did it properly.
Most people’s feet aren’t exactly the same.
My longest foot is a tad less than 11½″ long.
That doesn’t mean US size 13 in every shoe.
My feet are decidedly narrow for their length.
A few shoe companies make shoes for that.
Up until that point, lacing nearly every shoe I’d owned meant pulling the eyelets so close that the sides touched and the front bulged. I often had enough lace left over to wrap my ankles.
Workable, but not ideal. When that happens, the lacing doesn’t actually put the foot under tension. As a result, it can slide side to side. It may also rise and fall at the instep, within a sizable void under the laces. Like a sandal.
What’s worse, in shoes with heels, the feet tend to slide forward, cramming the toes and slipping at the back. The top front parts of the shoes—the “vamps”—are meant to wedge feet in place over the insteps. Too wide, they don’t catch. The result is essentially a small leather tube slide, sealed off at the exit. A foot slides down and crashes into the toe box, making the shoe seem “too small”, i.e. too short.
I once wore western “cowboy” boots on the street in the winter in Moscow. You can imagine how often I chose to do so again.
Shoes in narrow widths—in the US, “A”, “B”, and “C”, combined with lengths like “size 10B”, “size 11A”, and so on—can solve these problems. But unless you know they’re problems in the first place, they’re unlikely to call themselves out.
People with wide feet have their own kinds of problems. But they often get the message just by trying shoes on. Their feet simply won’t fit in shoes built too narrow, or they’ll suffer sores and blisters as they stretch them out from within. This also tends to wear shoes out prematurely, so wide-footed people end up shopping more often. That means more chances to take the right hints.
As a result, it’s now fairly common at US retail to find shoes in wide “E” or extra-wide “EE” or “F” widths, in addition to the standard “D” medium. In certain kinds of shoes, like work boots, “standard” may in fact be wide. “Size 10” may mean “10E” instead of “10D”.
Online, we’re seeing a trend toward wider toe boxes. Square-toe western boots are all the rage, and wider-toed running and “heritage” styles are moving. This is business, not just style. Not long-lost wisdom about what’s foot “natural”.
Beyond not being able to get their feet in, the one fit problem near-guaranteed to cause complaint is crammed toes. As long as people accept the broad, bulbous toe look—a fashion point susceptible to marketing—widening the fronts means fewer squished toes, fewer returns, and less reverse logistics spending. Sales incentives and guess-at-home sizing breed roomy shoes, much like American football breeds 300+-pound linemen.
When shoes were made by local makers to measure, and everyday shoe heels tended more tall, fitting width was better understood. That knowledge, for both buyers and sellers, survived into the industrial era.
Long-running shoemakers of the old school, like Allen Edmonds and Red Wing in the USA, still stock a great many “lasts”, or shoe molds, in length-width combinations. But that got optimized away for modern mass production. The big international athletic brands don’t even market widths now, only length sizes. And those sizes tend to differ from older shoes’. Hence a common heuristic, based on measurement with the US-standard Brannock device:
There’s no substitute for actually trying shoes on. But this often works as rough guide for shopping online, if you’re willing to tolerate a size exchange. There is also “bracket ordering”—sending for adjacent sizes all at once, planning to try on and return all but one. Ideally before your credit card bill date.
When different widths are available, there’s a new dimension. You might also try-buy or bracket up and down a width.
Don’t make conclusions about your feet and start replacing footwear based on something you read on some lawyer’s blog. Get your feet measured at a store by someone competent. Your best bet is a store that sells shoes in widths, so the salespeople actually know how to measure it.
If you can’t go to a store, Brannock devices can be had online. They aren’t super cheap. For one-off sessions, you can measure your feet in inches with a ruler and convert with a table I put online. Watch a YouTube video or two on how to use a Brannock device, then approximate.
If your feet measure narrow, hope is not lost.
If your length comes in at or below about 10⅔″, look for classic shoes offered in men’s and women’s sizes. Athletic shoe companies don’t typically offer widths…except when they offer both men’s and women’s sizes. The standard width for women’s is usually the same as narrow for men: “B” in the jargon. The “lasts”, or shoemaking molds, aren’t gendered, just numbered. Just beware of subtle build differences. Sometimes the women’s is more fast fashion, and cheaper. Other times it’s built just the same.
If your feet are long enough to put you out of women’s range, you’ll want to look for models offered in men’s narrow specifically. The keywords for filters when shopping online will be the traditional “A”, “B”, and “C”, plus “N” for “narrow” and occasionally “S” for “slim”. A page on the maker’s website will often tell you that “Narrow” really just means “B” for them.
I’ve shared my list of brands with men’s narrow sizes online, as a starting point. The standouts for casual are New Balance, SAS, and Birkenstock. Athletic options include New Balance and Brooks. For high-end dress and casual shoes there’s Allen Edmonds, Alden, and Rancourt, with a substantial used market for Allen Edmonds on eBay. For work there’s Red Wing, though I’ve needed insoles and socks for my short arches. Thorogoods or Chippewas don’t mention narrow on their websites, but used to make them. They’ll show up on eBay sometimes.
This is not becoming a shoe blog. But I hope my interest here is clear: The more skinny-footed tall guys rediscover that shoes can serve our feet better, the more shoe companies will have incentive to oblige.
There is always more to learn.
Your thoughts and feedback are always welcome by e-mail.
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