Relaxed fitand wide fits available. Four and eight inches used to be called one hand or two hands, with four inches being width of a hand and an inch the length between the end of your thumb and the middle crease. A hand or hand-width was the common measure for horses, so it was convenient to use it for shoes as well.
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In Australasia it's standard to add two sizes for women - see here European 34 Mondopoint foot The English system is thirds of an inch, starting roughly at four or eight inches for children or adults. Four and eight inches used to be called one hand or two hands, with four inches being width of a hand and an inch the length between the end of your thumb and the middle crease.
A hand or hand-width was the common measure for horses, so it was convenient to use it for shoes as well. At this point the system becomes more hi-tec, because cobblers would use a bit of stick, more or less designed for the purpose of measuring shoes rather than feet. A shoe should be about one size larger then the foot it surrounds, so the measuring stick would be marked with a child's size one one hand and a third of an inch, rather than the round number of one hand or four inches exactly.
This "starting roughly" was altered at some point by colonists in the USA - of which more below. The system measures foot length and is unisex, but womens' shoes tend to be narrower at the heel than mens'. A man wearing women's shoes would be well advised to try a few pairs on first transvestite mail-order is a difficult business as court shoes are traditionally worn tight and likewise a woman wearing a boy's shoe might find it more comfortable with a couple of pads glued-in to the sides.
For some loose-fitting styles, unisex designs are possible and work well. I don't understand the internal logic of the american system, but it may be related to the different foot widths that people of different nationalities have: It may also be that the first mass-production of shoes coincided with a great increase in gender differences; that it was inconceivable to the suppliers that a man would wear a womens' shoe or vica versa.
Whatever the cause, people in the USA ended-up with two length measurements - one for women, one for men, and neither the same as the unisex starting point in the UK.
If anyone would like to help me clarify the different systems better - particularly by adding logic to the size systems to make them memorable, please get in touch. Suzanne writes " In Australia, women's shoes have been 2 sizes higher than the men's shoe for shoes of equal length for at least the last 30 years my lifetime. My mother says they changed sometime in the 60s or 70s. So a man's size 5 is the same length as a woman's size 7. I have never seen shoes sold in a retail environment that weren't sized this way, with the exception of Doc marten's, which of course are a British sized shoe.
European countries use a metric system. Because the centimetre is larger than the difference you would want between two sizes of shoe, the system is to use two thirds of a centre metre. This is sometimes called a Paris Point. People have been frustrated by shoe sizes for many years.
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