Buying ready-to-wear footwear is simple: find a pair you like, purchase a pair in your size and wonder why it doesn’t fit. Seemingly arbitrary, there is a crazy logic behind the numbers assigned to different shoe sizes. Unfortunately, there are also multiple sizing systems, between counties and between shoemakers. The situation is akin to a movable feast of numbers and letters that confuses the average punter and contributes to untold financial loss when the wrong-sized shoes are purchased.
International Sizing Systems
Shoe sizes can refer to the dimensions of the shoe but also the foot. They provide us with a ballpark guide as to how the shoe may fit. Unfortunately, no international sizing system exists, or at least one anyone pays any attention to.
The U.K. System
In Australia, we have adopted the U.K. sizing system for men’s leather footwear. U.K. shoe sizes are measured in barleycorns of about 1⁄3 inch for full sizes and 1⁄6 for half sizes and are graded on the length of the last. This seemingly arbitrary system – first developed by Edward II in the 14th century – seems at odds with Britain’s move away from the old Imperial system of measurement. But it may not come as a surprise when you learn that America had a bit to do with the use of this system today.
The U.S. System
An ‘explicit’ sizing system was not widely adopted before the 19th century. While many shoemakers still used barleycorn as units of measure, not all followed the 1/3 inch rule. Indeed, shoemakers often graded by 1/4 of an inch, while many other shoemakers had their own unique grading system. With the advent of the industrial revolution, a systemized approach was needed. That system came in 1880 when New Yorker Edwin System turned old King Edward’s II method into a new system that, for the first time, incorporated measurement of the length, ball, width, and instep into the shoe size. A similar system was subsequently adopted by the U.K. and is used today.
The significant difference between the U.K. and U.S. systems is their starting point: whereas the U.K. starts measuring from size zero, the U.S. starts from size one. This wouldn’t be such a problem in Australia if it weren’t for the fact that we have adopted one system for leather shoes (U.K.) and the other for sneakers (U.S.). The result is that many Australian men don’t know what their actual size is. Too often they are buying their sneaker size in dress shoes, with the inevitable result.
Europe Sizing System
The Europe’ continental’ system (also known as the ‘Paris Point’) is another sizing system you may come across in Australia. Under this system, shoe sizes refer to the length of the foot plus two centimeters (so, essentially, the last), expressed in ‘Paris Points’. Each unit of measure equals about 2/3 of a centimeter, or 0.2625 inches (for our imperial-loving American friends). The major problem with European sizes is that they don’t always seem to correspond correctly with U.S./U.K. sizes. On the other hand, the size markers are unisex, and it uses the metric system. If this humble author had to choose one sizing system to adopt broadly, he would select this one based on its utility and widespread use.
What’s the Mondopoint?
There was one attempt to fix this mess. In the 1970s, The International Standards Organisation (ISO) attempted to create a universal sizing system. The Mondopoint system is calculated by measuring the length and width of your foot in millimeters. No ‘barleycorns’ or confusing imperial measurements, thank you! Unfortunately, while it has had some success in the arena of sports shoes, its notable absence from dress shoe nomenclature speaks volumes to its success or their lack of. United, we could have been. Divided, we remain.
International shoe sizing systems are confusing. Yet despite their seemingly arbitrary nature and the crazy logic behind our shoe size numbers, there exists an imperfect method to find shoes for one’s feet.
In 1920, Inventor Charles Brannock developed a simple means to measure the length, width, and arch of one’s foot. The system is linear. In the U.S. a man’s size begins at size 1, or 7-2/3 inches. Each additional size increases by 1/3 inch (neatly corresponding to the UK/US sizing system). Width is separated by 3/16 of an inch with letters of the alphabet denoting the narrowest to the broadest foot width: AAA, A.A., A, B, C, D, E, E.E., and EEE, where AAA represents the narrowest, D represents standard width, and EEE the widest foot width.
The Logical Solution
At this point, you could ask with perfect utility, ‘Why not simply go into a store and try on a pair of shoes!?’. Indeed, if you live within proximity of a boutique or shoemaker, then that is a sound approach. But in Australia, like many other countries I suspect, there is a limited supply of conveyors. Also, these conveyors aren’t particularly keen on punters trying on too much of their stock: unlike clothing, once creased, shoes are no longer ‘new.’ Like it or hate it, the inter-web is now used by shoe enthusiasts and the curious alike to search for, research, and ultimately purchase welted ready-to-wear footwear. The Brannock Device, therefore, allows people an imperfect way to research how a shoe may fit with a fraction of accuracy.
The Brannock-Online Approach
The method used to understand how shoes fit is pretty straight forward. Online interest groups such as Subreddit r/goodyearwelt, Style Forum and Ask Andy contain discussion boards where members can enter their Brannock shoe size and provide a description of how a particular last fits.
By finding someone with a similar foot size and fit as your own, in theory, it provides an indication as to how a particular shoe may fit. In practice, it is not so perfect. A ‘Great fit’ is subjective. Everyone’s feet are different. People make mistakes. Mistakes can be compounded by ‘ego-listing,’ the practice of listing more shoes one does not own by Brannock matching their size to other (wish-list) lasts.
Then there is customer expectation. Customers new to welted footwear don’t know what to expect and often confuse the usual ‘break-in’ period with a poorly fitted or wrong-sized shoe. Others simply have wild expectations, through ignorance or the willful suspension of reality, and don’t understand why $450 shoes don’t fit as a bespoke shoe should? Still, others don’t buy for their feet. As a result, wide-footed and high-arched gentleman buy closed-lacing shoes; punters with narrow feet still buy service boots. The result, in many cases, is that the shoes don’t fit properly, and customer expectation is not met. This isn’t necessarily the shoemakers’ fault, but the truth of the matter is that ready-to-wear shoes and certain styles aren’t designed to meet everyone’s expectations.
The Last Consideration
As any qualified and reputable last maker will tell you, the key to a good last is treating each foot individually. This is great news if you can afford bespoke. Not so great news if you’re buying ready-to-wear footwear. The problem is that the human foot is highly individual. Your right foot will not be identical to your left foot. Your medial and longitudinal arches and anterior transverse arches, which affect the way our feet move but also the height of the arch itself, are so unique to you that even siblings’ feet can look completely different. How your arches are shaped will affect the profile of your feet and how shoes fit you.
The same goes for the shape of your heels, toes, metatarsal bones, and the other 21 bones, 33 joints, and the hundreds of muscles, tendons, and ligaments that reside below the ankles. As you might appreciate, a shoemaker of quality footwear wants to create a shoe that is unique, aesthetically pleasing and fits comfortably. When it is no longer about individual feet, you will appreciate that this is a task not easily achieved to a high degree of accuracy.
Articles and Guides
The Ultimate Guide To How Boots Should Fit. Streetwise
2019 Manufacturer Last Sizing Thread. r/goodyearwelt
Tips For Buying Dress Shoes. Trimly
Open and Closed Laced Men’s Dress Shoes. RMRS
Understanding The Fit Of A Shoe. The Shoe Snob.
In Depth – RTW & Fit. & Feet Shapes From Around The World. Shoe Gazing.
Welted Shoes Australia. WSA FB Group
“Publius” is the pseudonym of a person, or persons, who contribute to the Welted Shoes Australia blog.