What's the Difference Between Men's and Women's Sizing?
When shopping for just about any type of footwear every store and online shop will separate their products by two categories first:
Men’s and Women’s.
For a lot of fashion wear this can make sense. However, what is it about a pair of work boots, or boots in general that makes it any more geared towards a male or female? Really it just comes down to sizing, however men’s and women’s feet are not that drastically different from each other.
So Why Do Men and Women Have Different Footwear Sizing?
For thousands of years there were two options when it came to footwear. Have them made to fit the individual's feet, or make do with selecting from a few preset sizes, and go through the painstaking process of stretching the boots out until they are bearable.
Somewhere around the end of the 13th century, some form of footwear standardization was sought after.
This came in the form of barleycorn. That is right, barley, the little grain used for beer, health foods, and animal feed. Each shoe size would equate to the length of the head of one barleycorn which was close to one third of an inch.
The first modern sizing system for footwear arrived in 1913 in the form of the ‘Ritz Stick’, a sort of ruler with a heel plate to measure length. Then in the 1920’s a shoe salesman by the name of Charles F. Brannock noticed a problem when trying to fit customers in his father’s store, which catered mostly to women. The Ritz Stick did not offer a way to measure the width of a foot, making sizing difficult for those with wider, or as is the case for most women, narrower than average feet.
In 1925 Charles developed the foot measuring device we still use to this day. The Brannock device was capable of measuring both the length of the foot and arch, as well as the width, offering much more accurate sizing for customers.
It wasn't until nearly 70 years later that these devices were modified to include “women’s sizing”, simply by shrinking the scale by about 1.5 sizes in length and width.
This means that up until that point, both men and women wore footwear made on the same sizing systems, and on the same lasts, and the Brannock device was even first designed with women’s sizing in mind.
As with just about everything else in the clothing industry the difference between men’s sizing and women’s sizing appeared as completely arbitrary changes for the sake of marketing purposes.
What’s The Difference Between Men’s and Women’s Feet?
Contrary to popular belief that women have more narrow heels and in turn require completely different lasts, the most notable differences between both women’s and men’s feet in terms of sizing are that women’s feet are proportionally smaller than men’s. This is why a standard women’s 8 is about 1.5 sizes smaller than a men’s 8 and is normally made on a more narrow B width last, as opposed to a D width which is the standard men’s “regular” width, and two widths wider than B.
Aside from the obvious differences in size, women tend to have taller insteps and typically benefit more from a more supportive footwear due to having a wider Q-angle The Q-angle, also known as the quadriceps angle, is the angle formed between the quadriceps muscles and the patella tendon. The wider Q-angle is due to women generally having wider hips than men.
For many manufacturers of footwear, different widths options aren’t available which makes standardizing different scales of men’s and women’s sizing a necessity, though it typically makes finding a properly fitting boot very difficult, especially for women.
How Can Women Get Properly Fitting Boots?
The best sizing option for most people, but especially women given their limited options, is footwear that offers unisex sizing. Unisex sizing is typically based off the traditional sizing system, which has been standardized as “men’s” sizing in the last fifty or so years. The main advantage of unisex sizing is that they typically offer sizes anywhere from size 3 (That is, 9 barleycorns long) and all the way up to around size 15, as well as offering over a dozen different width options. This makes for hundreds of different size options, as well as making it so that there is no need for separated men’s and women’s sizing.
There are not many footwear companies that offer unisex sizing, and most of them are within the handmade footwear industry.
The only way to get any better fit than that, would be to find a company that offers fully custom made lasts, though these can cost well over a couple thousand dollars and typically have around a twelve month wait for a pair of boots.
There are many hardworking women out there that simply want a durable pair of boots that are not going to kill their feet due to poor sizing options, and lack of support.
Instead of going with a mass produced boot company that simply takes an existing men’s style and then goes through the typical “Pink it and shrink it” process for developing women’s boots. That is, making the same boot with some pretty colors in a smaller size, and cutting out some of heavier materials, making for a less durable boot. A quality, handmade leather work boot with zero compromises, and a focus on quality and fit over style is going to be the best fit for women.
That doesn’t mean you can’t have a pair of boots that look as good as they feel however.