Vanity sizing shoes

[Re: title; Of course I don’t believe shoes are being vanity sized; “vanity sizing” is the term consumers use to mean sizing evolution so I mean this in the latter context. See also, Sizing is a variety problem.]

Kate’s earlier comment gives me the perfect opportunity to bring up something that’s been on my mind:

As for shoes, I refuse to buy poorly-fitting shoes (I have a narrow foot) so when I get something I like I buy a couple of pairs so I can keep wearing them when the first one wears out. (And I alternate identical pairs so they will last longer.) Though a woman, I’ve worn the exact same style of shoes almost every day for the past five years.

This weekend, I spent some time chatting with a woman who buys lots of shoes. She says the size of her foot has remained static but that recently, she has to buy 20 pairs (over the web) just to find two pairs that fit.

Now it may just be me, but I am finding that a size 4 is no longer a size 4. Some of the size 4 shoes out there fit my sister’s size 5 feet. Not only that, I have shoes in a size 5 from years ago (I take good care of my shoes, have a great cobbler, and replace soles when needed) and they fit fine.

[She also mentioned that women are having foot surgery so they can wear the latest narrow profile shoes. And people thought foot binding was barbaric; have we failed to progress at all? ]

I hadn’t noticed a problem with shoe sizing until last year (I don’t buy many shoes) and I’ve been wearing an eight for the past thirty plus years. Those Keene’s I got last year were definitely running large. A pair of running shoes I bought were also a half size smaller than what I normally take.

The evolution in shoe sizing doesn’t surprise me much; I’ve expected as much. Twenty years ago, the average shoe size was a five or six. These days, it’s an eight or eight and a half. Normalizing to the population, it would only make sense that shoe sizes evolve to the median as have clothing sizes.

Anyone else notice a difference in shoe sizing?

Please refer to the other articles in this series which offer substantive supporting material. Add to the discussion rather than backtracking to topics discussed elsewhere. It is likely that the exceptions you’ve thought of have been dissected in depth. For your convenience, links open in a new window or tab.

The Myth of Vanity Sizing
Fit and Sizing Entropy
Push manufacturing; subverting the fit feedback loop
Sizing evolution
Shrinkage and fit
Alternatives in Women’s sizing
Tyranny of tiny sizes?
The history of women’s sizing pt 1
The history of women’s sizing pt 2
The history of women’s sizing pt 3
Sizing is a variety problem
The birth of size 10?
Vanity sizing shoes
Tyranny of tiny sizes pt.2
Vanity sizing: generational edition
Vanity sizing: generational edition pt.2
Vanity sizing: the consumer spending edition

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  1. Christy B. says:

    I have plenty of 9.5s and 10s, but lately I’ve only been buying and fitting into size 9 shoes. I thought that I had been buying my older shoes too big, but now I will go try them on and see how they fit compared to the new ones!

  2. Esther says:

    I am wondering if the shoe size problem is less an evolution of sizing and more a quality control. In other words, where are these shoes being made and are there proper quality audits to make sure the shoes are to spec?

  3. oliviacw says:

    I can’t tell. I have large, wide feet, with short toes, so the actual shoe size I can wear varies by style – how accomodating they are to those features. And many shoes just are not made in a width that works for me.

    I think my “true” size is a 9.5D (9.5W), but I’ve worn everything from a 9WW, 9W, 9.5W, 9.5 regular, to a 10. Many 10s on me have lots of extra toe space in front, but my foot fits the bed and box width without pushing forward, so it works as long as my toes aren’t actually exposed. This is actually the only way I can find pointy-toed shoes that fit in a “normal” width. While, if the toes are exposed, I often end up in a 9 so that there isn’t an extra inch of exposed toe bed beyond the end of my foot – and a round or squared shoe is essential, then.

    In other words, I don’t care what the size says, I’ll buy anything that fits. (Which is why I rarely buy shoes online – the odds are too high that I’d have to return them.)

  4. At least for Europe I can not see that.

    I have kind of complicatet feet (very large at front, narrow at heel and an extrasesitive skin that starts bleeding easily if the shoe does not fit really, really well… guess that buying shoes over the internet seens completely absurd to me. :o) and I have always been between sizes.

    I need one size more that I did ten years ago, but this was a slow process. Due to the fact that I put on lot of weight and to the fact that feet normally grow over your whole life. Not much, but growing one size, usually between 30 and 45 is absolutely normal.

    But what I know from the European market is: every country uses different sizes. (Like in RTW-clothing…) So I’m 39 in Germany, 39 or 40 in France, or, if they use the other system it’s between 5 and 6,5. European size. If shoes are coming from the states, the “5” there of course is not the same as the European “5”, so if a shop has importet shoes and the shop owner doesn’t re-lable them, the customers are in trouble…

    So I guess the described effect is just due to the fact, that sizes are nothing than arbitrary numbers and with markets become more and more international, we (as clients) will have to adapt to the fact, that size varies with the producer. (Or buy shoes at expensive stores where they have enough time and money to re-lable…)

  5. Kaaren Hoback says:

    Warning- rant coming! I wore a size 5 in my youth now my foot is wider. A size 5.5 M is my current size.I do not need the extra length- it is the only way I can get the width needed.

    I used to have a closet full of shoes, now I have 4 pair and NO boots.

    I am feeling very deprived. Nordstrom’s has A as in one pair for under a $100 but most shoes offered in my size run over $150-250.

    How could the average go from size 5 to extinct in so few decades?

  6. Oxanna says:

    Shoe sizes are a strange monster to me. Vintage shoe sizes, as you know, are generally very small – usually under a size 8, and they fit narrow and small as well. Whether this is just because they survived, or because they were more common, I’m not sure. Either way, I haven’t noticed any significant sizing difference in my (admittedly short) lifetime.

    We’ve grown taller as well as wider through the years, and I think shoe size would grow with that. Also, I’m going to guess that the increase of different ethnicities within the past 50-100 years could have an impact on sizing, what with different body types.

  7. Marnie says:

    I’ve definitely noticed a change in shoe sizes. 15 years ago I always wore a size 11, and they were few and far between. (I tended to wear men’s shoes instead of the ugly and/or boring shoes available in my size.) These days there are plenty of 11s on the shelves, but they’re too big – I’m now a 10, or sometimes a 9.5.

    I sympathize with those of you who now find themselves outside of the common size range. I know how difficult it is. I have to say, though, that I’m really enjoying being able to go into whatever shoe store I want and buy shoes. (I haven’t given up my men’s shoes either. They make some really interesting shoes for men, and they’re almost always really comfy.)

  8. Marie-Christine says:

    Vintage shoes are smaller and narrower in part because people, and women in particular, used to think that tight was a good fit. How many of you older people have had the old sales pitch based on ‘support’? When people wore girdles, corns on your feet were normal.
    I have big, wide feet (basically average men’s size rather than women’s), and I’ve heard a lot of moaning about how ‘sneakers ruined people’s feet’, and how you couldn’t wear small elegant little shoes after your feet were allowed to ‘splay out like a gorilla’s’. Sigh.
    Lest you think this is entirely a past phenomenon, let me add that I’ve been observing French women’s feet with fascination recently, especially sandals as you can really see how grossly undersized most of them are, barely containing a scant majority of the foot affected. I’d say even more French women wear the wrong size shoe than American women wear the wrong size bra…

  9. Susan says:

    OH PLEASE TELL ME THIS IS TRUE! I wear a size 11.5, which they don’t make any more (go figure). An 11 is too small and a 12 is too big, so I make do. This means I can get a 10.5? They make those!

    All kidding aside, I wandered in Payless last week and tried on a size 12 and it really was bigger than normal, so I popped on an 11 and it fit pretty well. I convinced myself my feet were shrinking.

  10. Alyssa says:

    I’ve been reading this blog for a few months, but I haven’t commented until now…

    I for one will say that I’ve noticed a difference in shoe sizes in the last year or so. From the time I was about 15 I’ve been a size 8. I’m now 23, and I can regularly wear a 7 or 7.5, depending on the brand and style. I figure it must be a change in sizing standards, as I thought feet were supposed to get bigger as one ages.

  11. Carla says:

    No, I have not noticed a real difference in shoe sizing, but I HAVE noticed a huge difference in what is available. I wear a 6W or a 6½M. For the past three or so years these sizes have become more and more scarce. I commented to my husband that I was finding little in my size range. A few weeks later there was an article in the fashion section of the Dallas Morning News about how small sizes in shoes and other clothes are becoming difficult to find. How nice. I already had a terrible time finding shoes which fit and feel good and now my selection is even smaller?

  12. Anna says:

    If you are having trouble finding a size 6, just guess how hard it is to find a size 5 nowdays! I used to LOVE to go shoe & clothing shopping. Now it’s turned into a nightmare to try & find something to fit a smaller woman. And I’m not teeny tiny either!

    Aren’t the manufacturers listening to all the complaints about this outsizing?

  13. Jennifer Bronwynn Copp says:

    I have the same complaints. I am 36 and remember in High School being able to find size 5 shoes for the prom. 10 years after that I went to a shoe store in the mall and the young worker in the store told me that size 5 shoes don’t exist and never have! I tried to prove she was wrong but she would have none of it.

    I also phoned a couple of common catalog companies that ALWAYS had size 5 and 5 1/2 (I am somewhere in-between) and asked why they had stopped offering size 5, 5 1/2 and 6 shoes. They told me that it was because it wasn’t worth it financially to produce these shoes in mass quantities. So it seems like a factory issue. To keep prices down shoe orders from the store to the manufacturer are place in even higher quantities and small and large shoes sizes are not financially feasible to produce. It is not as if small and large feet went extinct, it is a money and mass box store type issue.

    The only recourse is to complain and petition your favorite companies to add back these sizes (even at higher prices).

  14. Rebecca says:

    In the 1990’s I wore a size 10 then a size 11 (since 10.5 isn’t a real size apparently) The size 10 shoes touched the tips of my toes.

    Now if I buy an 11 I more or less walk right out of it and can fit into alot of size 10’s.

    Also I think width is becoming vanity sized. My grandfather’s old shoe store foot measure from the 1960’s says my foot is a medium. Yet if I buy an off-the-rack medium shoe it’s ridiculously wide on my foot and ludicrous for my narrow heel.

  15. WoofWoof says:

    Yesterday I went shoe shopping and as usual as of late, I could barely fit my feet into most size 5 shoes. So today I googled “vanity sizing shoes” and found this blog. I am glad that I found it, as I no longer have to wonder whether I am shrinking or going insane. This blog is getting bookmarked!

    I feel most of you guy’s frustration; just a decade ago, I could still wear sizes up to 5.5. Now, a size 5 is too big most of the time. And as a shoe fanatic, that bothers me twice as much as perhaps those of you who see shoes in a functional manner.

    Maybe this little tip will help someone: What I do if a shoe that I buy fits just a little big is to add a comfort insole designed for the ball of the fit, and that usually helps keep my feet inside the shoes.

  16. Juno says:

    I used to wear a women’s 12, and a European 43 (more or less, there’s always some variation) and now I don’t know what I wear. I’ve been having some foot trouble this summer, and ordered a selection of 13s to see if I had just been wearing my shoes too tight.

    One pair of flats was fully a size too small (that brand I think runs that way); one was too narrow to get on my foot, but also too long; and one sorta fit, but was too loose in the heel.
    The point toed heels actually fit pretty well in the foot, but the instep strap was so loose I could fit four fingers under it.
    The sandals were so narrow they distorted my foot to even try them on, the sneakers rattled around on my feet, and the sporty mary janes as well.

    Obviously part of this is that 13s are not my size – I suspect I am a 12.5 these days which would be great if there was any such thing. But not one of these 7 pairs of shoes came close to being the same size as each other much less the right size for me.

    And it has seemed to have gotten more prevalent this last year. For larger feet there really wasn’t much available until the last 6 or 7 years and that’s changing now. I had one shop tell me that the standard women’s lasts only go up to a 10.5 and so anything above that has been developed piecemeal from mens lasts and individual circumstance. No consistent grading or development.

  17. Feral says:

    Ok… thought I was losing my mind – I’ve worn a 7.5 (US) since high school – now, 10 years after graduating from college I’m now a 7 or smaller?? My foot hasn’t changed… oh and even though I am taller, and larger in all dimensions, my clothing size has stayed the same, because of vanity sizing, clothing has grown right along with me… what a freaking joke the women’s fashion industry is…

  18. Denise Woodson Ofria says:

    Does the price range affect sizing? In the last 10 years, my available funds have shrunk, but my shoe size has increased by 2 sizes.

  19. LizPf says:

    I have always had very wide, short feet.

    For years, I wore a 6 1/2 D (or a 36 wide Birkenstock). It was very difficult to find shoes that fit — fortunately, I have no interest in fashionable shoes.

    Two pregnancies and quite a few years later, and my feet have grown a bit. My old 6 1/2 D’s are a bit tight; in new shoes I’m a 7 EE. I’m lucky that my town has an old-fashioned shoe store with clerks who know how to fit shoes, and they carry a wide range of sizes. It is still difficult to find shoes that fit, but I can usually find something appropriate.

    I believe all my size change is due to me, and not sizing evolution. I have always bought good shoes*, and try to buy from stores that have fitters. So my views are of only a tiny part of the shoe industry. Things could be very different in the mass market shoe business.

    * My father, who wore 7 1/2 EEE shoes, taught me to always buy well-fitting shoes, despite the cost. My mom, who was full-figured, taught me to always buy well fitting bras, again despite the cost — and she taught me how to judge good fit. Because of this advice, I am much perkier than my age-mates and have no foot problems.

  20. Sally says:

    I brought this up to my mom just today since my boyfriend bought me size 6 Betsey Johnson’s…and noticed I only seem to take size 6 now…I am 19 and when I was 13-17 I usually wore a size 6.5 xD
    I already can’t fit into the size 00’s or XS’s! >.> At least obesity can’t effect shoe size and luckily I buy high-scale shoes so hopefully…hopefully I don’t have to worry about shoes not fitting either!!! >.>

  21. Laura F. says:

    I make and sell slippers on a small-time scale and the issue of shoe sizing in the U.S. causes more headaches than it should (I custom make the slippers, and just going by measurements is not enough, I’ve had a size 7 customer and a size 9 customer both present me with the exact same foot measurements–there is more to sizing than just length and width, apparently!) Sizing for “youth” ages is even more confusing than adults. I’ve been trying to figure out what the heck is wrong with U.S. shoe sizing for 2 years, and I think that Kathleen is right about sizing evolution. For one thing, the most accurate chart I’ve found online is in a wikipedia article about shoe sizing systems, and it indicates that in the U.S. there developed a separate sizing system for athletic shoes–I am suspecting that the mysterious shifting sizes you all are observing comes from the athletic shoes’ popularity causing a natural evolution toward that sizing scale. Additionally, there was at one time or another two different sizing ranges for “youth,” one for boys and one for girls (much like it is for men and women’s sizes), but based on my customer data and trips to the kids’ shoe sections of several stores, it looks like most shoe manufacturer’s are moving away from that gender-differentiated size range for youth (but I inevitably get confused if someone tells me “girl’s size 3”.) The best solution I have found to ensure I make my product to the right size is to get the customer’s European size (I’ve found this especially important with the youth size ranges, since it helps me eliminate the confusion over whether it is a “girls” size or not). Most shoes have tags inside where the Eur. size is listed alongside the supposed U.S. size. I would recommend you look at your shoe tags, see which Eur. size is most common in your collection, and use that to get you in the right ballpark when you shop! As one commenter mentioned, I too have heard from my international customers that sizes differ slightly from country to country using the Euro sizing system, but I find it eliminates the majority of sizing problems for me.

  22. Ellen Sheets says:

    As I grew up, I wore a 10 (max size at Payless). Then an 11 (again, the max size at Payless at that time).

    I wore a womens’ 12 20 years ago, in Payless and expensive San Francisco $100/pair shoes.

    I gained weight, the 12s became too small, and so I made shoes for myself.

    I lost weight, my hand made shoes (leather lace up ankle boots) began to swim on me. 12s in Earth Spirit women’s shoes fit.

    I bought a pair of genuine cowboy lace up boots (leather, from a tack shop) in men’s 11. They were snug. Previously I had worn men’s 10, but they were specialized equipment, I figured.

    I went to Payless after 18 years and the 13s fit loosley, the 12s fit snugly.

    I lost more weight, and the 12s are getting better.

    I bought pointe shoes in ladies’ 12 (biggest there are) and had to put an elastic gusset in the back – a wee bit too tight. Then I made my own pointe shoes out of plastic and epoxy (what an adventure!). If men didn’t wear pointe shoes, I wouldn’t be able to either.

    Then my daughter started stealing all my shoes, so I am as shoe-less as I was when I started.

    I think sizes have crept some in women’s, but not in men’s. I wear an 11 in regular men’s shoes, and about a 12 in women’s.

  23. Frances says:

    I have the same size feet (9 1/4 ins. Shoe size 9.5/41 EU) since I turned 11. I still wear two pairs of shoes from then.

    This is across a wide range of weight: 98 lbs to 235 lbs. I have measurements that go back to when I was 16; aside from my hand and feet measurements which I lined up to see how much change happened, they are exactly the same length and width, hands and feet. Where I’ve broken bones, the only change is in shape – the length is the same. It seems weird that I did that now that I see this, lol. Guess I was a curious weird child who turned into a curious weird adult?

    In the last 20 years, I noticed changes. I could wear size 7.5 US up to size 10 US. I’m not sure if it’s anything to do with “poor quality” products or quality control, especially after seeing your post, “Cut Away the Lines”.
    Is it possible that shoe patterns grow as each person cuts it then passes it on to the next?

    I’ve learned that shoe lasts aren’t made the like they used to be, now plastic machine lathed lasts are used instead, (which some shoe makers say makes a difference.). It also makes me wonder if the reason shoes fit different now is because some companies don’t use lasts, just flat pattern making. Does this make a difference for shoe fit? Or does flat pattern making versus last pattern making not make any difference?

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