Shoe lasts are not perfect images of a person's feet; a last maker makes certain allowances or differences to a person's measurements to make a last fit. In this post, I look at the toe allowance, also called toe recede; that's the extra space in front of your toes to the tip of the last. It's often just called (the) allowance due to its prominence.
Obviously, it matters. But what do the experts say about it?
The "thumb rule", and why it can be misleading
If there's one advice about good fitting shoes that almost everyone knows, it's the thumb rule. It says you should check the distance between your longest toe, and the tip of the shoe. It should be about the width of your thumb. That sounds easy enough.
However, there are a few problems with the thumb rule when you think about it; some more serious than others:
- It's ambiguous: Some sources say you should use the width of your thumb, others say your should use the width of your thumb nail. An example of the latter are the recommendations by podiatrist Dr. DiPalm. I don't know about you, but my thumb is wider than my thumb nail. Which one is it?
- It differs between people: Obviously, some people have wider thumbs than others. For instance, it's probably save to assume that men have wider thumbs than women, on average. Who's thumb should one use?
- It's difficult to apply properly: Most people have no help when trying on shoes. To get their thumb close to their toes, they need to sit down or kneel. This will reduce the weight on their feet, and make them shorter. Consequently, one may get the impression that there's enough free space in front of one's toes while, in fact, there's not.
- It requires specialized knowledge: Last makers often shape the tip of a last according to fashion and style, and change the allowance accordingly. For instance, Western boots with very pointy tips usually have a rather large amount of free space; boots made for the military, in contrast, have a rather low amount of free space. Also, the height of the heel influences the toe allowance, too. The lower the heel, the larger the allowance. Most customers, however, do not know about such differences, and they should not know it.
It's possible to work around these problems, of course. A good shoe dealer will offer professional support, for instance. However, even professional shoe fitters seldom have a good overview of all the different lasts. With many shoe makers in supply, it's even harder.
But what is the alternative?
I suggest that checking the shoe size is often sufficient, if you know the greatest length of your feet. For in contrast to what you may find elsewhere (for instance, at Wikipedia), shoe sizes in the UK, US and EU systems do seem to have a meaning – it's about equal to your foot length plus a recommended toe allowance. In other words, shoes sizes indicate the shortest length of a last. If so, getting a correctly-sized shoes does not make sure that they fit – due to the differences caused by the different lasts and widths –, but it will make sure that the toe allowance is just right.
And as you'll see, many experts seem to agree even if they are not aware of it.
What the experts say… (part 1)
Measurement device makers
When talking about shoe sizes, the most obvious source for information are measuring device makers. The most prominent devises – at least in the U.S. – are probably the Ritz stick and Brannock. But there are many other makers all around the world. If toe allowance is build into the main shoe sizing systems (UK, US, and EU), their makers need to decide what value is to be added to one's foot length.
As we'll see below, the first devises were merely converting your foot length into a shoe size scale. A professional shoe fitter had to add a value manually. This was inconvenient, of course, and prone to errors. Consequently, today's devises have a nominal allowance included.
While there's hardly any public data available, it's easy to derive the value if you've got a device handy. A usual measuring tape and a couple of mathematical formulas are all you need. Consider, for instance, the short notice about mens shoe sizes on Brannock's page about its history:
The size system is linear. For example, a Men's size 1 is 7-2/3 inches. Each additional size is 1/3 inch longer.
This is sufficient to work backwards to determine what nominal allowance Brannock uses. You only need to insert the data into a linear equation, and subtract the resulting formula from the standard formula for US mens sizes. The difference is exactly 2 UK/US units (2/3 inch or 16.9mm).
The same value is also used by Allen Edmonds' shoe sizing chart. And although anecdotes are not reliable source of information, my experience so far confirmed the result. Aside from the mentioned devises, I've also got measured at Crockett & Jones in London. The result was the same.
In other words, many – if not all – of these devises seem to be calibrated to use 2 UK/US units as extra space in front of your toes.
Professional shoe fitters
What guidelines are offered by professional shoe fitters? Here's what's said by Tyrrell and Carter (2008, p.77):
The simplest form of measuring device is a size stick. […] It normally indicates foot size only and it is necessary to convert the measurement to shoes size by adding an allowance. The amount to be added depends on whether it's used weight-on or weigth-off and can be from 1.5 to 3 sizes.
Since your feet become longer the more weight they have to carry, the total allowance decreases when standing upright. In other words, the authors recommend 1.5 UK/US units as the shortest allowance (1/2 inch or 12.7mm).
Another recommendation can be found at the sites of the Shoe Service Institute of America. Using the experience of the National Shoe Retailers Association, the Pedorthic Footwear Association and the American Orthopedic Foot & Ankle Society, they write:
Stand during the fitting process and check that there is adequate space (3/8 to 1/2 inch) for your longest toe at the end of each shoe.
Again, 1/2 inch (1.5 UK/US units) or slightly less is recommended.
This is hardly new. In an older manual about "Professional shoe fitting", published by the National Shoe Retailers Association for the Professional Shoe Fitters Society (both in the U.S.), we find the following numbers:
There is no fixed rule for space amount because the shoe's style must be considered. On an average, however, between 1/2 and 5/8 of an inch.
What about working professionals? Murray's Shoes and Pedorthics is in the business since 1875 and the company is still family-owned. They write:
The first step upon standing is to check the overall length of the shoe in relation to the foot inside. There is no scientific space between end of toe and end of shoe, but the rule of thumb is between 3/8” and 5/8.” We take into consideration foot expansion upon weightbearing.
In other words: 1/2 inch (plus/minus 1/8), or about 1.5 UK/US units. Overall, these sources seem highly consistent.
Companies producing measuring devises and professional shoe fitters are not the only experts. In the second part on expert recommendations about toe allowance, I'll look at podiatrists, and shoe makers.
Meanwhile, the small difference in opinion is noteworthy. While most device makers seem to use 2 units as a nominal allowance, shoe fitters seem to agree on 1.5 units, on average. Interestingly, if there's such a thing as a “tool of the trade” for shoe fitters, it would be a measuring device.
Given the difference, it's hardly surprising you can find shoe fitters saying that measuring devises are just a guide. For instance, the "Society of Shoe Fitters" in the UK writes:
A fitting gauge is merely a guide. Fitting Gauges all vary in calibration. Sizes and fittings vary dependent on style, country of origin, manufacturer etc. There is no standardization of shoe sizing in the UK that is why a qualified shoe fitter is so important to interpret the correct shoe for the shape of the foot. What it says on the Fitting Gauge may not be the size or fitting you actually require, it is only a starting point.
However, it's not necessarily the fault of device makers. What's the point of using tool that doesn't follow the guidelines of your own trade? Of course, one might say that it's impossible to build a correct tool for fitting a shoe. That makes sense, since shoes size is only one of many factors influencing fit.
However, is there really no standard for shoe sizes? Or do shoe fitters (and consumers) just misuse it?
As we'll see in the second part, there's a good reason to assume that last and shoe makers do not throw a dice when they label a shoe with a certain size.
Tyrrell, Wendy, and Gwenda Carter (2008): “Therapeutic Footwear: A Comprehensive Guide”, Elsevier Health Sciences