Feet are expanding. Why can't shoes keep up?

Fashion and its victims.
May 10 2002 11:06 AM

Bigfoot

The relentless march upward of the American shoe size.

Illustrations by Nina Frenkel

Want to reduce a shoe salesperson to helpless laughter? Walk into a shoe store, pick out the sexy stiletto of the moment, and ask, "Do you carry this in 11 narrow?"

I've been living and reliving this unhappy scenario since I was big enough to care about shoes. Maybe my frustrated longing for strappy sandals and kitten heels started with the brace—a hideous metal bar with boots bolted to it at bone-torturing angles—I was forced to sleep in as a pigeon-toed youngster. Maybe it was the corresponding daytime wardrobe my keepers inflicted on me: orthopedic clodhoppers that could have been designed by Frankenstein's boot-maker. By the time my feet straightened out, they'd expanded past the department-store size cutoff—which was and for the most part remains size 10—straight into barn-stomping, bunion-friendly territory.

I'm not alone here in the land of the big-footed. In fact, I've got more company all the time. Not only are Americans getting fatter, we're getting bigger and taller, and our feet are keeping pace. Podiatric historian William Rossi says that this enlarging trend has been going on for about 150 years. At the beginning of the 20th century, the average American woman wore a 3.5 or a 4; by the 1940s she was strapping on a 5.5. According to The Professional Shoe Fitting Manual, the average American adult female's shoe size in the 1960s was a 5.5 or a 6; in the '70s, it climbed to about 7.5; and in the '80s, it reached 8 or 8.5. No stats have been added yet for the '90s, but you can do the math: By now, the average women's size could hover somewhere in the 9s. Besides, due to regular wear and tear, foot ligaments and joints stretch—which means that over the course of a lifetime, shoe size tends to increase by about one size. And this isn't just a feminine phenomenon; according to Army records, the average shoe size worn by male recruits has gone up from about a 6 to about a 9.5 since the American Revolution.

Accordingly, bigger sizes sell out faster than they did 25 years ago, says the National Shoe Retailers Association. The best-selling sizes at Manolo Blahnik—the Holy Grail of the shoe-obsessed—are 7.5 to 8, and 41s and 42s (American sizes 11-12, roughly) are increasingly popular. For 20 percent more than the usual retail price—which, at around $500, is not chump change to begin with—you can special-order Carrie Bradshaw's latest obsession in sizes up to 42.5 (about a 12.5).

Only a few companies, however, take pains to cater to the long-footed; apparently they've never heard my mother's theory that big feet are aristocratic. My husband fears that one day I'll leave him for Stuart Weitzman or Donald Pliner, two enlightened designers whose eponymous companies offer decently trendy (and correspondingly pricey) styles in larger as well as narrower sizes (Weitzman goes up to 12-AAA in some styles; Pliner does 12-M's). Get much past a 12, though, and you have to elbow aside the cross-dressers at a store like Washington, D.C.'s Dream Dresser, which carries women's footwear in sizes as large as 15, thanks to a kind of house-label arrangement with a handful of manufacturers.

Illustrations by Nina Frenkel

A tour of my local mall—the delightful Towson Town Center, outside Baltimore—demonstrated that a lot of manufacturers seem to think that anybody who wears above a size 10 yearns only for yet another pair of sensible black flats or (shudder) "walking shoes." At Hecht's, the only 11s on offer were a pair of Aerosole pumps. (Don't tempt me!) Nine West did better, providing six or seven pairs of stylin' 11s—no narrows, though, and don't even try asking for a 12, as one high-schooler found when she came in, only to be turned away. She said that she and several of her friends often wear men's shoes because they can't find cheap shoes that are big enough. Nordstrom built its reputation in part on catering to a wide range of shoe sizes. But when I asked for a nice pair of summer slides, the salesman there looked as shocked as if I'd asked him to perform sexual favors on the showroom floor.

The average mall-crawler's one thing; what about all those leggy models with long limbs and feet to match? Roman Young, an agent at Elite Model Management in Manhattan, confirms that the average shoe size for models has climbed to a 9 or a 10, matching their statuesque height (the average is 5 feet 9 inches or 5 feet 10 inches). I felt a little better when he told me that even high-paid lovelies face foot discrimination; if a model wears a size 11 or 12 shoe, she may find herself cooling her heels instead of strutting them on the catwalk. Young recalls a Gucci show a while back where the models were hired on the basis of who could squeeze, Cinderella-like, into a certain shoe: "You had the most beautiful girls in the world trying to cram their feet into this handmade boot that was like a size 8."

Barbara Thornton, Harvard MBA and founder and president of DesignerShoes.com (a Web site "for women who leave a larger footprint"), has a personal stake in all this; she wears an 11.5, as does her daughter. Like most of the shoe folks I talked to, she won't give out sales numbers, which are considered proprietary information. She will say that size 12 is the company's bread-and-butter size, what's known in the trade as a "heart" size (meaning heart of the business), while sizes 13-M and 8 double-wide have become its main growth areas. The company even stocks some 13-WWs and 14-M's.

Thornton sees the limited availability of larger sizes as a political issue. Department stores and brand names drive what's available, she says, and they want to minimize their on-hand inventory—shoe boxes take up a lot of store space, which is why the selection online, at places like DesignerShoes.com and Nordstrom.com, tends to be better. And manufacturers don't like to shell out to make new last prototypes. For regular stores, the standard 5 to 10 size range becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; they don't stock many so-called plus sizes, so big-footed people learn not to endure the humiliation of shopping there, which means that the stores can say there's no demand. Adding insult to unavailability, a lot of retailers apparently cling to the idea that the big-shoe buyer is either a fashion-blind biddy with corns or a hard-luck case who can barely afford the box her knockoff Nikes come in.

Meanwhile, the Pliners and Weitzmans of the world give the larger-footed hope, not to mention stylish if not exactly budget-conscious footwear. (Both run about $150 a pair.) For those who worry about the never-ending expansion of our soles, William Rossi has this bit of encouragement to offer: In the year 2300, we probably won't be clomping around in size 18 Manolos. We'll keep getting bigger "probably for another century, and then it will turn off. ... There's a point at which Nature says, 'Enough.' "

As if we didn't already know that bigger isn't necessarily better.

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