Footware Comfort

Sandals and especially shoes have varied consifderably in comfort. In somde cases, coblers and shoe manufacturers following the latest fashion have given no attention to comfort. Even such a basic concept as sizing is a relatively recent development.


A variety of actors go into making a shoe comfortable. Comfort embraces the whole shoe and the interaction of all its parts, and is not determined by any single factor such as fit or design.


Size is an obvious factor. Shoe size must conform to foot size. But "size" is more than length and ball width. It also means heel width,arch fit, heel-to-ball, topline fit, box toe space, total volume space, etc. Proper fit means complete proportional fit.


Unless there is a reasonable match between shoe shape and foot shape, then fit, regardless of "proper size," is largely nullified. Hence the last, often overlooked in shoe comfort, is of vital importance.


An average pair of feet flexes at the ball about 7,000 times a day. Whatever the degree of "flex resistance" by the shoe is the degree to which a work overload is imposed on the foot at the expense of comfort. Shoe flexibility involves the outsole, insole, upper materials, and the construction of the shoe.

Design of Style

For some people certain styles are more comfortable than others, whether an oxford, pump, boot, sandal, slipon, etc. But style also involves heel heights and heel styles, and patterns, and these also bear an influence on shoe comfort. Obviously a fragile high heel sandal isn't going to be as comfortable as a loafer or oxford.


The heavier the shoe the more "foot-lift" work load on the foot, with consequent lessening of comfort. For example, a difference of only four ounces in the weight of a pair of shoes can make a difference of over one ton of foot-lift load daily. Foot-lift load affects foot fatigue and strain.

Inside-Shoe climate

According to qualified investigators (Satra, Natick Army Research Laboratories, Tanners Council Research Laboratory, etc.) inside-shoe climate is among the most important shoe comfort factors -- and, one of the most overlooked by shoemen. Inside shoe climate involves temperature, humidity, moisture, breathability, insulation; in short, the thermal conditions enveloping the foot.


A shoe upper material contributes to comfort in proportion to it's breathability; (2) conformably; (3) weight; (4)suppleness or softness.


How a shoe treads (this is influenced by the last, heel, sole, construction and design or style) obviously influences how the foot treads. If there is a foot imbalance resulting from improper shoe tread, the consequence is lessening of shoe comfort.

Underfoot Resilience

The feet bear a cumulative total of about 800 tons of impactive body weight daily in a series of about 7,000" step shocks." Under natural conditions (resilient soil, etc.) the foot is equipped to absorb such impact. But under the unnatural conditions of non-resilient ground surfaces common to us, it is not. Hence a measure of underfoot cushioning built into the shoe is essential to shoe comfort.

Shoe Measurement

Shoe sizing systems are a fairly recent innovation. But people were wearing shoes for footwear for at least 3,000 years before shoe sizing or foot measuring systems came into existence. How, then, were shoe sizes and shoe fit determined? In those many centuries past, shoes were made in either of two ways: custom-made by a shoemaker if you could afford it; or the individual made his own for himself or his family. There was also a third way -- buying second-hand shoes from a more affluent individual, or using hand-me-downs from within the family.

The home-made method was relatively simple. The foot was placed on a slab of leather and a sole cut from it. A piece of leather or cloth was laid over the top of the foot, cut to fit, then nailed or tacked to the sole. And by repeated experience some women learned to make some quite elegant cloth shoes by this simple method. Nobody thought in terms of sizes or widths. It was simply a form-fitting process.

The shoemaker followed pretty much the same basic method except for much more skill and sophistication. He started with a foot tracing (sometimes even a foot imprint in clay). But measurement of the foot "mass" was also important. And this he did with the "hand span" method, determining the girth at the ball, instep and elsewhere with various spans of his hand which he "translated" into a last. He probably also used a crude kind of size stick for other measurements.

But again, there were no sizes as such, only measurements. And each shoemaker had his own individual way of measuring, which he jealously guarded and which, of course, precluded any possibility of a general shoe measuring or sizing system applicable to all.

Once the last was made for an adult, the shoemaker kept it in his possession, which assured repeat business from the same customer. Also, this craftsman was able to make shoes of finer quality than the home-made kind because of his shoemaking skills as well as his artistry in styling.

Did the shoes fit well? Yes, and perhaps inevitably because these were custom-made to each foot. Nevertheless, many points of modern fitting finesse were absent -- factors like tread, collar fit, heel and arch fit, vamp fit, etc. And no special styling problems to contend with.

Shoe Widths--A Recent And American Innovation

Today we take our shoe widths for granted. We assume that they've always been with us, and also that they're common in the world. Both assumptions are wrong. Widths were first proposed and introduced in 1880, when Edwin S. Simpson of New York prepared the first standardized last measurement chart. Until that time there was no system of widths -- and, in fact, shoes were rarely made on widths at all. But it still took another seven years, in 1887, before there was any national adoption by the Retail Boot & Shoe Dealers' National Association. Yet, even with that national official sanction it still took many additional years before shoe widths were incorporated in the inventories of manufacturers and retailers. In the early 1900s, a substantial share of shoes continued to be made and sold on only one width, or only two (slim and fat). It wasn't until the early 1920s that manufacturers and retailers began carrying a full range retailers began carrying a full range retailers began carrying a full range of widths. Thus, shoe widths are actually little more than a half century old.

Some American-made shoes were made on as many as 15 different widths (AAAAAA to EEEEEE). No country in the world came close to this selection. In fact, most of the world's shoes are made on only one width.

Even in the West European countries a selection of more than two widths is unusual in the average store. And virtually nowhere other than in the U. S. can the combination last be found with special proportions between ball and heel width. Thus, shoe widths are an American innovation -- and the rest of the world still had a long way to go to catch up with our selection of widths and the precise foot or shoe fit they provide customers.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: September 23, 2000
Last updated: September 23, 2000