Shoe sizing is confusing. You’re a size 10 in one shoe, a 10.5 in another and, somehow, a 9 in another shoe. How? Getting the right size is a balancing act of a dozen pedial factors, each one of which is simultaneously hyper-specific and frustratingly vague. With expert advice from the professionals at high-end retailer Leffot, boot maker Viberg and sneaker mecca Stadium Goods, we gathered the best advice to guide you to the right shoe size.
Remember, No Shoe is Made For You (None!)
Unless you’re shelling out stacks of bills on a pair of bespoke shoes, no store-bought shoe was made to fit your particular foot to its exact specifications. Shoes are shaped around a last, a sculpture that represents the shape of a foot. While bespoke shoes are made using a last that’s made specifically for the commissioning customer, ready-to-wear shoes are made on generic lasts that are shaped to fit a wide swath of people. This means that no pair of shoes will fit your feet perfectly.
However, you can get close enough. With that said, it’s paramount to know which factors are more important to get right and which factors are secondary.
Survey the Shoes You Already Own
Before you even get consider a new pair of shoes, take a look at your current rotation. Perhaps the best piece of advice on shoe sizing is to reference the shoes you already own and take note of the sizes you wear in each style and each brand. Coming to the store equipped with this information is helpful for the salesperson guiding you toward the correct size for the style you’re considering.
Guy Ferguson, the brand director of Viberg, puts it succinctly, “If we reference these more universal standards with brands that are more widely recognized and worn, then we’re already accounting for a customer’s preference for how they like their shoes to fit.”
At the Store
What to Pay Attention To
The width and the flex point are major points to get correct. Every shoe has a natural point where it is made to flex and it’s the widest point of the shoe. You need to make sure that the widest point of your foot fits width-wise and that it lines up with the flex point.
The instep is also worth considering, depending on the type of shoe. If your instep is high, many loafers or laceless shoes might not work since they lack the adjustable fit of laced shoes.
Materials also play a major role in sizing. Different materials will break in and stretch differently.
“A leather upper would break-in differently from a canvas upper or a mesh upper or a knitted upper,” says Fresco Wilson, store manager for premier sneaker shop Stadium Goods. “Each sneaker company has a knitted shoe, but each knit fits and stretches differently.”
How you will use the shoe can also dictate how you want to size. “It’s helpful to know what you’re actually going to be using the shoe for,” Wilson says. “Think about how you’ll be wearing them. Feet swell, and because I’m on my feet all day, I want to size my shoe so that it’s comfortable from beginning to end.” Whether buying shoes for the office, for the trail or for the basketball court, context matters.
Any health issues that affect your feet are absolutely worth noting. Ignoring problems like bunions or plantar fasciitis can exacerbate an already painful experience. If you need to wear a specific insole (like that of Dr. Scholl’s or a doctor-prescribed insole), bring it with you to the store to try with the shoes. New shoes can be fun, but not at the expense of your health.
The sales person’s expertise is extremely valuable. Rely on them and ask them as many questions as you can. It’s their job to try on the shoes and know how they fit. They can tell you how it fits and how it’ll break in compared to the shoes you already have.
What to Ignore
Heel slippage can be annoying, but it’s not necessarily a deal-breaker. It can be if the shoes in question are your marathon sneakers, but for shoes you’ll wear when commuting by car to a job where you sit at a desk, probably not. Again, context matters. Also, for certain leather boots, heel slippage decreases as the style breaks in.
The toe box is the front of the shoe where your toes take up space. While it’s important to have enough space for your toes to spread naturally, the shape of the toe box will dictate how much space there will be between the end of your toes and the end of the shoe. Pointier shoes will have more space while more rounded shoes will have less space. It’s a design choice on the part of the shoemaker and neither is wrong. So, if you’re doing the thumb test that some people do when checking to see if their toes have enough space, consider the shape of the toe box.
Ignore your Brannock Device size. Or at least, take it with a grain of salt. The Brannock Device is that metal contraption old-school shoe stores use to size your feet. It’s helpful to know what your Brannock size is, but it’s best to use it only as a single reference point along with the various sizes you wear in a variety of brands. The vast majority of shoe brands chose not to use the Brannock Device to guide their sizing system, anyway. “We don’t even have one of those,” says Ferguson.
With that said, you should also get out of the mindset that you are a single size across all shoes.
Does it Feel Comfortable?
Perhaps the greatest thing you can rely on when sizing for shoes is your own intuition. When a salesperson asks you “How does it feel?”, that really is the ultimate question. Is the shoe comfortable? There are harder rules when it comes to shoe sizing, but so much more of the process is subjective. Since no shoe was made specifically for your individual feet, the best you can do is to approximate.
The way a shoe should fit varies from person to person. Some will like their shoes to fit more snug while others like a bit of a roomier shoe. As long as it feels good to you and won’t have you hobbling back to the office from your afternoon coffee, you should be fine.
“Comfort is most important,” says Leffot founder Steven Taffel. “If the shoe’s not comfortable, you’re not going to wear them. I like to say that there are two sizes to a shoe. There’s the size your feet measure and then there’s the size you actually feel comfortable in. They’re not always the same thing.”
Try At Least Three Sizes
Go with the size you think you are. Then, go a half size up and a half size down. Comparing multiple sizes will give you a better sense of when a shoe in one size feels good and when that same shoe in another size feels great.
If you can’t decide between two sizes, consider the materials and how they will stretch over time. “The upper leather is going to loosen up,” notes Ferguson. “But the other thing is that you’re walking on a leather insole. Your foot will sink into it. The more you wear that, you’ll gain volume. Even the tiniest bit is perceptible.”
Sizing can vary so much not only from brand to brand but even within a single brand. You might be surprised to find that you’re a whole size (or more!) larger or smaller in the same brand.
If You Shop Online
Research. Since you can’t try on the shoes in person, you’ll have to do as much of the leg work before clicking ‘Complete My Order.’ Check out shoe reviews via the product page, or sites like StyleForum and YouTube.
Ask questions. If a website has some kind of customer support, use it. Ask how the shoe fits compared to another model. Tell them about the particularities of your feet like whether they’re wider, narrower or have a high instep. As much information as you can get from a real person with experience is key.
Check the return policy and buy multiple sizes. Once you’ve done the research and asked questions, hopefully, you feel confident enough to add to your cart. If the return policy allows and you’re able to buy multiple sizes, do that. It’s hard to know if the shoe fits if you don’t have another size to compare it to.
Sometimes, You Lose
You might like how a pair of shoes looks, but it might not fit correctly no matter how many sizes you try. There are countless shoes that I would love to have on my feet if only they would have me. You can have a pair of trousers or a jacket altered by a tailor to fit you better. You can make a shirt work and embrace an oversized look. But shoes are a different story. Try to make it work and the consequences could hurt. So, take it on the chin because there are plenty of shoes on the market.
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