We All Know Our Shoe Size? … Or Do We?

In the hustle and bustle of the retail world, it seems a rarity that somebody might actually take the time to explain something to you, the customer. While many issues are self-explanatory – a shirt either fits or doesn’t, the pants are the color you wanted or aren’t – some things, like shoe sizing, require a deeper knowledge base.

In fact, so many misconceptions surround proper-fitting footwear that it’s hard to imagine how anyone ever gets the right pair of shoes!

We all know about shoe sizesâÂ?¦ or do we? Shoes not only come in lengths, but also several different widths. If you have a narrower than average foot, or a wider than average foot, you’ve probably already noticed that shoes aren’t fitting you perfectly. Many people know to look for “narrows” or “wides” but few people are aware of the width scale.

It’s a scale, but it can’t be sung as well as “do re mi!” As Julie Andrews sang in “The Sound of Music:” let’s start at the very beginning. For women, a standard, regular, or average shoe width is labeled “B” or “M,” for medium. For men, the medium will be labeled “D.” The width scale for shoes will vary accordingly between men and women, always two letters apart, except that the letters only span from A through E and then numbers are employed.

For example, a women’s wide is a “D” but a men’s wide becomes a “2E.” Likewise, a women’s narrow is a “2A,” while a men’s narrow is a “B.” Some shoemakers even go to a double-narrow, a slim, (women: 4A, men: 2A) or out to an extra-wide (women: 2E, men 4E). A select few brands will make a triple-wide (women: 4E, men 6E). With all of these letters and numbers, it is no wonder the shoe companies have switched over to generic “N,” “M,” and “W” to show narrow, medium, and wide widths, respectively. Brands differ on how to show an extra-wide, with some marking the boxes “EW” while others are labeled “WW.”

What about the funny little metal stick in the shoe department? Ah, yes, the Brannock Device. Invented by Charles Brannock in 1926, the Brannock Device is the most ubiquitous item for shoe stores. Independent retailers train employees how to use the sliding metal attachments for accurate measuring, but what if you’re stuck in a large department all on your own?

What’s your sign? First, check to make sure that you are using the Brannock device made for the gender of the shoe you intend to purchase. That is, if you intend to buy men’s shoes for yourself, use the men’s device. The clearest different between the men’s and women’s Brannock devices is that the women’s device has a purple or maroon hue to the length scale printed on the device. The men’s device will simply have a black background, while the women’s device should actually read “Women’s Brannock Device.” Be careful as sometimes there is also a children’s device in large department stores.

How long is your foot? Next, the device will be clearly labeled “right heel” or “left heel” at each end of the device. It is best to measure both feet to be certain that you get an accurate sizing. Put one foot in the appropriate heel cup and stand up straight, placing weight on the device. If you have a friend along, ask the friend to read the size number that is nearest to your longest toe. If you are by yourself, you might try leaning forward until you can read the number. It is best to go up a half size if you’re in doubt.

You can measure your arch! As luck would have it, the Brannock Device also has some silly looking attachments, one of which is designed to measure your arch length, or the place on the bottom of your foot that, for most people, needs the most attention. Slide the triangle-shaped nub to the widest part of your foot, usually this point coincides with the joint of your big toe. The triangle portion will point to its left at a number, and this number will be your arch length. If your arch length is significantly different from your foot length, you will want to consider buying arch supports (in the size your arch length indicated) or speaking to a podiatrist about orthodics.

Don’t forget the width! The other slide, a long bar-like piece, is meant to measure the width of your foot. Push it up snug against your foot and then locate the number size your foot length has measured to on the side of the bar. Even if you’ve bypassed measuring your arch, you can use the arch slide to make sure that your foot is aligned properly for an accurate width measurement. Follow the line from your number straight down to a letter, which will indicate your width. Refer back to the width scale for help.
The Big Debate. If you are between widths, you may want to try both pairs for comparison. Remember too that your instep, or the top part of your foot similar to the back of your hand, may be a deciding factor in your ultimate size. If you have a high instep (the shape of your foot is such that from your toes to your ankle there is a quick and steep rise on the top of your foot) you may be more comfortable in a wider size or in a shoe that adjusts.

The same goes for being between lengths, trying both and comparing is one of the best ways to determine what is right for you. Most people enjoy a finger’s length of space at the end of a closed-toe shoe, and for sandals it is best to view your foot sideways in a mirror to be sure your toes and heel are aligned properly.

Trust your soles! As the country song goes, “men don’t change and shoes don’t stretch.” Ok, well some shoes stretch, but it is important to realize that a shoe will never stretch lengthwise (or up a size), and even the softest leather shoe cannot be stretched an entire width outward. Always feel free to ask a salesperson for help in determining your size, but remember, the final say should come from your foot. As they say in competitive footwear retail, “If the shoe fits, buy it in every color!”

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