Brannock Sizing: Why Don’t All Shoes Fit True to Size
Most people who have done a bit of research about shoes online have read a post saying a shoe is “true to size” or a “half size down/up”. However one thing I’ve noticed is that what that true size is seems to change from group to group. Sneakerheads will often use an Air Jordan 1, others might use the Allen Edmonds 5 last underpinning the Strand, 5th Avenue, and Park Avenue. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people, neither of these shoes would fall under a person’s “true” size.
Your actual “true” size is based on the Brannock sizing device. That’s the metal thing with all the lines that cheap shoe stores seem to have 100 of, and expensive shoe stores seem to have just one.
Before the American Civil War, just about every article of clothing was custom sized, including shoes. Nobody was a size 9, narrow or wide, instead they would build something for your specific foot. During the Civil War, the need to create a lot of clothes in standardized sizing grew dramatically. World War I only accelerated that trend.
During this time, if you wanted to know what shoe size you were the store brought out a big chunk of wood with various outlines that you would put your foot on. That would lead to an educated guess. In 1926, a man named Charles Brannock created the first adjustable device to measure feet not just in length – with sizes running from 1 to 13, but also width from AAA to EEE.
Brannock designed the machine so that most men would be a D width. While later versions gave women their own sizes in length, the widths stayed standardized. Today, a women’s B is the same width as a men’s B after adjusting for length difference.
It’s worth noting that your Brannock size is not the only way to measure feet, even within the United States. Particularly in highly focused shoes in sports you’ll see a variety of other measurements, but they are generally fairly sport specific and I won’t bore you with them here.
The benefit of brannock sizing was mostly to save salesmen from running back and forth with different sizes. It’s helpful but not ground breaking. However, in the age of shopping on the internet, having sizing as a guide is absolutely critical. Especially when some brands still charge money for returns.
The benefits also help shoe companies at least partially standardize their products as they enter a new market. France and the United States use different measuring systems, however a French company can easily find the correct Brannock for their existing product. After a quick sticker change they are ready to sell to the U.S. customers.
If the Brannock sizing is so clear, why do people say you should “size down” or “size up?” Shouldn’t the size be the size, no matter which shoe it is? Unfortunately, the Brannock only measures two things – the longest part of the foot and the widest part of the foot. Feet are three dimensional that can have variance in height, toe width, heel width, and arch location. There is a near infinite other number of variables.
If your foot is 11 inches long you’ll be a size 11. It doesn’t matter if your foot is wider than it is long or as narrow as twig, 11 inches long means size 11. However, if you go shopping for a pair of shoes with blocks of wood, you wouldn’t fit into a size 16.
To account for various foot shapes, manufacturers make a variety of lasts. They can be wider or more narrow in the heel, can have different types of insteps, and more. Some lasts, such as the Alden Indy‘s TruBalance, share a similar total length and maximum width with other lasts, but are significantly larger in other areas meaning that most people will need to size down if they don’t want to slide around in the shoe.
To make matters worse, some manufacturers will modify their sizing based on expected use of the shoe. For example, Nike makes most of their shoes in a B width. It started from when they made running shoes, where people like a tight grip on their foot.
Due to this more-narrow design, most people need to wear a larger shoe size in Nikes and some athletic shoes to accommodate the width of their foot, even if there is extra length in the front, leading to many having sneakers and dress shoes in substantially different sizes.
Others go the opposite direction. In LL Bean’s Bean Boots they size them assuming you’re wearing really heavy socks. The boot fits a full size larger than what is on the label.
Alternatively, you might have the same shoe but made in different materials that will ultimately end up as different sizes. This can be seen in Rancourt’s loafers that can come in Chromexel, where you are generally suggested to go a half size down due to the stretching, or those same loafers in Shell Cordovan, where you are generally suggested to go true to your Brannock size.
There is no such thing as “true to size,” even using brannock sizing. Everyone’s feet are different shapes, and every manufacturer uses different lasts. Just because some guy on reddit tells you a shoe is the same size as a Jordan 1, or that you always size down in Iron Rangers, doesn’t mean that is the case for you.
If it is at all possible to try a shoe on before you buy, you’ll likely save yourself a lot of wasted time. If you can’t find that exact shoe, you can often find something that will be very similar. Sure that Cigar Shell Alden is wait listed for 3 years, but you can try on the calf version anywhere. The guy who is selling Fragment Jordan 1s on StockX won’t let you try them on. But last GR mid release is probably still sitting on shelves.
Ultimately, shoe size, just like anyone else’s experience, is a guide – but nothing more.