Good fit is the single most important feature of a shoe, even so, a lot of people wear shoes that fits quite bad. It’s, to generalize a bit, usually because of a combination of a lack of knowledge about how a shoe should fit and due to the fact that Ready to Wear shoes are built to fit as many feet as possible. Here’s a walkthrough of common problems regarding fit that one usually see.
When industrialization and the McKay and Goodyear machines enabled the mass production of shoes a hundred years ago or so, shoes became cheaper and more available. Mass production means, however, that you make generic lasts which is designed so that they can work for many people’s feet as possible and are also adjusted to current aesthetic preferences. This complicates the chance to find shoes that are really good in fit. The next major revolutionary change occurred with the Internet, and the ability to buy shoes at a distance (some mail order existed long before, but it was only a fraction of today’s e-commerce business). Suddenly, customers had no opportunity to try the shoes before purchasing, and didn’t get help from a person who knows how a shoe should fit (although there has been a decline in this matter, where shoe shop staff often are poorly educated, and more focused on selling shoes than selling shoes that fit well). This has meant that more and more people walk around with shoes that are a bad fit.
The most common mistake is something we learn already in our childhood, when a shoe fit is measured by pressing the shoes front to know how much space you have in front of your shoes. It’s an extremely gross simplification of measuring the fit of a shoe, and in adulthood where the shoes are not growing anymore and toe shapes are very different it really is quite irrelevant, although it may be useful as some sort of guidance on a standard designed to last. But the measure that really matters when it comes to length is the distance of the heel to the ball (the shoe widest point). A shoe’s flex point, where it’s made to be bent, should be in the same place as the ball of the foot, where the foot is made to be bent. To put it simple, the widest point of the foot should be placed at the widest point of the shoe. How much space you have in front of the toe then depends on the type of shoe and its toe shape. A long narrow last with a pointed toe may have four to five centimeters, a blunt Budapester last just one centimeter, and both could still be the correct length-wise.
When it comes to width, it’s a problem that more and more manufacturers now only offer lasts in a single width, or have a limited number of models in other widths. Back in the days it was standard to have maybe five different widths even in RTW ranges (there are still some who are good, Allen Edmonds is one example, JM Weston another, Church’s is still fairly good, plus a few more, but they are exceptions), but the efficiency and the need to cut production costs have made the offerings of different widths smaller and smaller. This means that the chance to find a shoe that is correct in both length and width is smaller today. Another problem is that width often is measured (as mentioned before on this blog) the wrong way, when you use the measurement of how broad the foot is at the widest point, a two dimensional measurement. Sure, it can provide guidance, but the correct way is to measure the circumference of the foot’s widest point, this is where a lasts width is measured.
Based on the above we can in other words quickly conclude that the instruments used to both guide for net orders and in physical stores are inadequate. Most often one measures only the length, and if one also takes width it’s almost always only just how broad the foot is, not the girth. Just think how one often is measured in a shoe store, where the standard is to have a form of calipers to measure the foot length. That’s it. A cobbler can have a plate that measure both feet, and how broad they are. This can serve as initial guidance and then a skilled person can then determine how well the shoe fits once tried on, but a person who only has those measurements to go on does not have a lot on their feet (pun intended) to find a shoe that fits. However, with a Brannock instrument that measures the heel to ball length and a tape measure you can find out quite a lot about a foot.
Instep and arch is a little more complicated to explain, and satisfy, when it comes to RTW. The instep is basically the upper part of the foot between the ball and the ankle. One can have a high, low or normal instep, to simplify things a bit. Generally it aligns with the arch, those with a high instep also have a high arch, while a person with low instep has flat feet. It’s logic in a sense, the bones and muscles of a foot are in a certain way in everyone’s feet, and then it can be placed at different heights, but relations between them are usually the same.
The most common way to determine if the shoe’s instep is good for one’s feet are, especially when it comes to oxfords, that you look at how the laces are closed. If it’s a large or small gap between the lace opening. Now we are there again, certainly, it can give some guidance and an extreme in any direction is not good, but otherwise it’s quite irrelevant. As an example one can have a “moderate” gap of half a centimeter or something but the shoe is still pressing against the lower part of the instep and therefore it’s not right for that person’s feet. This goes together with where the shoe’s flex point is, in that example, it’s likely that the shoe’s flex point is further back than the foot.
If you have a very high instep a derby often works better than an oxford when it comes to fit. In fact, the various shoe types once been developed to satisfy two different foot types, Oxfords for people with lower instep and derbys for those with high insteps. Then with time we have developed cultural and aesthetical principles, such as the norm that oxfords are more formal than derbys.
An oxford and derby in the same last and the same size and width can fit differently. A monk shoe can differ, not to mention a loafer. And it can vary between different types of leather, between suede and smooth leather of course, but also different thickness of the smooth leather can affect and so on. As an example, cordovan leather i usually lasted looser than calf leather because it’s susceptible to being damaged by stretching, which makes the fit a little looser. But then cordovan does not stretch as much as calf, creating additional parameters to consider.
As for the arch, this is one of the main areas of concern when it comes to Ready to Wear shoes. It simply is difficult to make a last that fits a wide range of feet. Therefore manufacturers almost always choose the easy way, and leave some extra space at the arch of the foot so that those with lower instep and thus flatter feet are able to comfortably wear the shoes, with the result that it does not really becomes really good for anyone. For me who have a bit higher instep than normal it’s very common with the space inside the shoe at the arch, which generates a lot of unnecessary creasing. It’s not that it’s uncomfortable in a sense, but the leather creases unnecessarily and the foot is not given proper support. It’s most important with proper arch support for those who have a flat arch, but also for those who have a higher arch, it’s important with good support to avoid that the foot will start to drop.
When doing bespoke shoes the design of the arch is one of the most important and time-consuming in manufacturing, and this is usually what a customer that only have worn RTW before reacts most about when they first put on a pair of shoes made for one’s own feet.
One aspect worth mentioning is that the most important thing is of course to have a shoe that is comfortable and is comfortable to walk in. It’s number one when it comes to fit. Secondly it’s about having a shoe that does not have too much leather somewhere, which does not affect the comfort in the same way but has significance for how the shoe will age. Unnecessary space allows more creases and more strain on the leather. And they both can also correlate, one such example is when there is too much volume in the shoe at the ball, which means that there is an excess of leather that has no place else to go than the gather up and press down on the foot and make it pinch at the root of the big toe, as you can see in the picture above.
Next fit aspect to address is the shoe’s opening, in short the hole where you place the foot. It should be tightened evenly around the foot without gaps. Gaps do that there might be glitches, and again, unnecessary folds. However if the heel is loose it often has to do with whether the instep is right or not in the shoe, rather than if you have a narrow heel. And a shoe is always hard in the beginning, especially Goodyear welted and even more if it has double soles. It takes a while for the sole to soften and the shoe to be worn in properly, when that’s done heel slippage often disappear.
However, you can modify and adapt RTW shoes fit in several ways, to influence if not all at least several of the aspects above, even if it’s not always that you achieve perfection at least you improve things. It’s about insoles, arch supports, stretch shoes, heel and tongue pads and more.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that the feet change. The inlays are falling and making wider foot, the arch can fall, you go up in weight, the volume on your feet grow, and in addition, you will be generally more sensitive and susceptible to problems as you get older. Just because a last, size and model used to fit excellent, it doesn’t mean that it will always be that way.