Why shoe sizes are a mess

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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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23 Comments

  • Antoine Becaglia (@AntoineBecaglia) 04/04/2014 at 16:22

    And me thinking “statistics” and “measurements” were a precise science!

    Reply
  • Mikkel 07/04/2014 at 10:22

    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.
    Brilliant.

    Reply
    • Well Dressed Dad 07/04/2014 at 10:30

      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!

      Reply
  • Iconic footwear: Clarks Wallabees, everything for everyone! | Well Dressed Dad 11/04/2014 at 13:02

    […] Why shoe sizes are a mess […]

    Reply
  • miko 11/06/2014 at 18:41

    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…………

    Reply
  • TommyAlanRaines 28/07/2015 at 18:31

    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.

    Reply
    • Well Dressed Dad 28/07/2015 at 18:48

      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 🙂

      Reply
  • Bill McCord 15/10/2015 at 16:14

    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.

    https://s.yimg.com/fz/api/res/1.2/psN8paixnXv1zRzq.BFliQ–/YXBwaWQ9c3JjaGRkO2g9NDMwO3E9OTU7dz02NDY-/http://www.sneakerfreaker.com/content/uploads/2013/07/brannock-device.jpg

    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 !

    Reply
  • Stefan 26/12/2015 at 20:46

    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.
    Sincerely
    Stefan.

    Reply
    • Well Dressed Dad 27/12/2015 at 16:50

      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 🙂

      Reply
  • Steve 25/06/2016 at 23:57

    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!

    Reply
  • TommyAlanRaines 26/06/2016 at 17:03

    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.

    Reply
  • Rob 14/10/2016 at 21:32

    I bought a pair of boots from Norwegian brand Swims recently. I’m a UK 9 but had to go down to a “UK 7” in Swims. Ridiculous.

    Reply
    • nick 20/10/2016 at 16:10

      That sounds beyond crazy! What could they have been thinking of?

      Reply
      • Rob 20/10/2016 at 16:27

        Who knows. They’re quite a generous “7” as well! What do they put in the water over there?

        Reply
        • nick 20/10/2016 at 16:29

          Only natural goodness, I assure you! If you’d like to drop me a mail with some more details I’ll see if I can find out what they were thinking of.

          Reply
  • Big Foot 11/05/2017 at 13:21

    I take a size UK13 and it’s a nightmare. Some say 47, some say 48 some even say 49. I know for certain that a euro size 47 is not a 13, it’s not even a 12. In doing a bit of research I’m afraid you missed out on something. When calculating Euro shoe sizes. the size is based on the last size not on the foot size. To get the correct size for your foot you have to add between 1 to 2cm to the calculation.

    e.g. Size 12 = 12inches = 30.48cm
    (30.48 + 1.5) * 1.5 = 47.92

    Therefore a UK size 12 is much closer to a Euro 48 than a 46 which my feet would agree with.

    My personal size guide is
    UK Inches cm Actual Rounded
    5 9.90 25.15 39.22 39
    6 10.20 25.91 40.36 40
    7 10.50 26.67 41.51 42
    8 10.80 27.43 42.65 43
    9 11.10 28.19 43.79 44
    10 11.40 28.96 44.93 45
    11 11.70 29.72 46.08 46
    12 12.00 30.48 47.22 47
    13 12.33 31.32 48.48 48
    14 12.66 32.16 49.73 50

    Reply
    • nick 11/05/2017 at 18:51

      Interesting! Your table doesn’t seem to make sense for my UK8/Euro 42, 26.5cm feet though?

      Reply
      • Dave 12/05/2017 at 10:02

        That appears to be the problem with the euro sizing. The base sizing doesn’t take into consideration what you have between your feet and your shoes. I believe this is why they say to add between 1 and 2 cm to the last size when making the calculation. If you check out shoe companies like puma and adidas their size 13 are shown as 48 2/3. I just know it’s a nightmare for me because there are limited shoes available. It makes it a whole lot worse when no one can decide on the same conversion factors. And don’t get me started on which companies make them true to size and which make them half a size smaller (Nike).

        Reply
        • nick 12/05/2017 at 10:09

          Dave, I’m thinking that your comments fit very well into the whole reason I originally wrote this article! Feet, shoes, how hard can it possibly be? Impossibly so, apparently. I can only imagine how difficult it is for you to find shoes of such a rare sizing, and then have to deal with the stupidity of those that can’t even measure properly.

          Reply
          • Dave 12/05/2017 at 10:42

            Nick, it was a good article, well written and I obviously share your frustration. It’s such a relief when I find a pair of shoes that are big enough and comfy enough. My toes are actually ruined because of poorly fitting shoes and poor availability when I was younger (about a 12 then). A company called Mountain Warehouse do a couple of 13’s and they are a great fit, maybe even a little too big, but I’d rather wear a thicker pair of socks than be in discomfort. I can understand how UK size came about (12″ for a size 12 minus a barleycorn for each size) even if it is very old fashioned (so is a cricket pitch) but surely the way forward has to be the simple idea of size in cm with 1/2 cm increments. I think ski boots might be sized this way. Happy hunting.

  • I 26/05/2017 at 00:19

    Nick and you guys, I have landed here trying to find out about the problem, is it my foot or is it the standard in chaos 🙂
    until about 5 years ago I used to buy shoes without problems, I was UK 13 EU 48, now UK 15 does not fit me!!!
    I have been trying for 5 months to find shoes that fit me without success.
    I have tried sizes: UK 13, 13.5, 14, 15, 16 and non of them fit me (All Small), according to this standard I think I need size UK 19 if it exists.
    The problem with big size started when I was 15 years old, I had to go to a factory hundreds of miles away, I have ordered 3 pairs made to size, the manager was so nice to me that I have paid for only one pair, the same happened to me 7 years later in another factory EU size 48, I guess I was lucky.
    Now I have to buy available ugly shoes, or tight shoes that causes my big toe to deform.
    Last week I bought size UK 15 on the internet, When tried it was too tight, measured in UK centimeters (you are OK to laugh and point finger) it was 30 CM UK long (there might be some other centimeters or inches on the loose), 5 years ago I bought size 15 shoes and it was too big but were really comfortable so had them for sometime.
    At work We have similar problems with Multimedia Projector Lumens, now days you buy 60000 Lumens projector only to find out that it is actually just 2500 Lumens , but manufacturer own point of view is different to agreed standards.
    If you check your food products, you buy 324g package of something, It says 4 servings :-), then the calorie declaration is per 100g , not straight forward to the normal person, it is a quiz for an experienced maths lecturer of course if he or she manages to do the maths, Governments standardization agencies are in deep hibernation or are busy in their holidays, then suddenly obesity is major problem!!! and is on the news and no one have yet figured out why!!!

    Back to Shoe: I suggest that a tape measure that has standard old known centimeters from the 60s must be stretched to length beside every photographed shoe on sale 🙂

    Reply
    • nick 26/05/2017 at 08:01

      I feel your pain! That is a terrible story indeed. The problem of using a tape measure on shoes is that you really need to measure the inside, a task that is a little tricky with the common or garden tape measure. We are in agreement though about there needing to be a proper standard and it actually being used! Have you tried NPS Shoes in Northampton?

      Reply

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