Shoe Fitting

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Proper shoe fitting requires an understanding of the biomechanics of the foot and each of the basic design characteristics of shoes. The design characteristics of shoes include the materials of which the shoe is made, the last of the shoe, width, heel-to-ball measurement, and heel-to-toe measurements. Proper fitting creates a marriage between the individual characteristics of the foot and each of the design characteristic of the shoe. Specialists who fit shoes are called pedorthists. A pedorthist can help match the right shoe with the right activity, and as the saying goes, if the shoe fits, wear it.


The science of shoe fitting, called pedorthics, is centuries old. The first documented history of shoe fitting dates back to 1324 AD when King Edward II of England decreed that three barleycorns would constitute an inch. He also stated that one barley corn (1/3") would represent one full shoe size. This custom of sizing varied so much that numerous arguments ensued and most cobblers went back to the tradition of custom fitting each and every shoe. The expense of custom shoes was out of reach for most commoners. For the vast majority of the population, shoes consisted of two layers of leather, one thick for the sole and another thin for the top of the shoe. The two layers were sewn together for a 'custom' fit.

How do you measure feet?  Feet have been measured for years by something called a Brannock Device. The Brannock Device is used to measure three basic dimensionsBrannock_device of the foot: (1) heel to the ball (HB) of the foot, (2) heel to the tip of the toes (HT) and (3) width. Each of the measurements obtained using a Brannock Device are used in combination to custom fit the shoe. The most important measurement is the heel to the ball of the foot. The HB measurement most closely resembles how the shoe is designed to function. Although the heel-to-toe (HT) measurement may ultimately decide the fit of the shoe, the HB measurement is what makes a shoe feel good and function well. The HB measurement defines the position of the arch, the length of the shank, and the location in the sole where the shoe will bend with each step. If the HB measurement is incorrect, the shoe and the foot will never function in harmony, instead, they'll fight each other with each and every step.

Most feet will swell approximately one shoe size (5%) over the course of a day. It's wise to measure your feet after you've been on them for several hours. One measurement that The Brannock Device doesn't measure is volume within the shoe. As your feet swell, they begin to take up more and more volume within the shoe. Therefore, try to remember to shop for shoes later in the day.

Although we've worn shoes for thousands of years, our current sizing methods are a mere century old. In 1880, the first uniform shoe sizing method was introduced by Edwin B. Simpson of New York. Simpson's method defined each incremental shoe size as 1/3" and each half size as 1/6". In addition to a standardized length size, Simpson defined the heel-to-ball measurement and the first proportional relationship between length and width of the shoe. The measurement of the width of the shoe increased in increments of 1/4" per increase in shoe size. Going from an A width to a B would increase the circumferential measurement of the foot by 1/4". In the same light, going from a size 7 to a size 8 would also increase the inner dimension of the shoe volume by 1/4".

Even though sizing and custom shoe fitting has become a science, many stores still struggle with conversions between American (inches) and European (metric) sizing. Shoe sizes also vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. Most importantly, remember that sizing is simply a reference.

General steps for fitting shoes (in-store):

1. Shop for shoes at the end of the day - your feet will be slightly swollen so that the fit will allow for swelling in the future.
2. Use the one finger test - once fitted, you should be able to fit one finger between the shoe and the foot at the back of the heel and at the top of the arch.
3. Don't forget to bring the socks or hose you normally wear when shoe shopping.
4. If the shoe is right in the length but just a shade sloppy in the width, use a tongue pad to tighten up the shoe.

Steps for specialty fitting - hard to fit feet of medical conditions that require special care:

1. Seek out the help of a trained pedorthist. The training and expertise of a pedorthist is money well spent.
2. Always insist on measurement with a Brannock Device.
3. Fit the foot, not the problem. For instance, when fitting feet with bunions, fit the shoe to the foot. Then modify the shoe to accommodate the bunion. This can be accomplished by spot stretching the shoe or adding a dart of material to 'pocket' the bunion.
4. Look for shoes with a rigid shank. The shank of the shoe carries mechanical force out to the ball of the foot and significantly improves foot function.
5. Avoid synthetic material. Buy leather when possible.


References are pending.

Author(s) and date

Dr. Jeffrey OsterThis article was written by medical advisor Jeffrey A. Oster, DPM.

Competing Interests - None

Cite this article as: Oster, Jeffrey. Shoe Fitting.

Most recent article update: January 14, 2021.

Creative Commons License  Shoe Fitting by is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.