Shoe Toe Box Space And The Proper Shoe Fit

The fitting mantra deconstructed: “there should be half an inch of space between the tip of your longest toe and the front of the shoe” –  why exactly that amount, and what is that space really for?

One of the most common shoe fitting tips is this: there should be half an inch of space between the tip of your longest toe and the front of the shoe. It’s on every shoe shopping and fitting website, ad nauseam:

Shoe fitting advice
It’s right up there with “eat your vegetables”.

And yet, 88% of American women wear shoes that are too small (and probably don’t eat their vegetables while they’re at it). I think at least part of the reason why is because the one justification people give for this rule doesn’t make any sense, and the real reason is never, ever mentioned.

The “Feet Change In Size” Justification

The one explanation I’ve seen bandied about is that our feet change in size throughout the day, so that half an inch is your fit insurance, meant to guarantee that your new shoes will still fit at Friday’s happy hour. However, I am here to tell you that half an inch is an enormous amount of space for that purpose. One inch fits three whole sizes, so half an inch is an entire size and a half. Of all the feet I’ve measured and re-measured, the biggest size change was about half a size. Half a size is 1/6 of an inch, or the width of 2-3 pennies:

The width of three pennies
And THAT took a day of running around Manhattan in sweltering July heat to accomplish. And possibly PMS.

So yeah, if you want to accommodate your feet lengthening over the course of a day, half an inch is an insane amount of space. Nobody’s feet change an entire size and a half, at least nobody I’ve ever measured.

so…no extra space necessary?

Before you think I’m advocating not bothering with extra toe box space at all, let me say that you do need some extra room in the toe box, but not all of that room is for your toes, despite what the phrase “toe box” may suggest. Most of it is actually for your shoe’s sake, although your toes still benefit.

Toe-Space And Shape-Space

The toe box is functionally divided into two parts: toe-space and shape-space. Those are not official shoe terms, I just made them up so I can talk about them as separate entities. If you know the real terms, please let me know.

Here’s what this looks like:

Toe-space and shape-space illustration
They don’t teach you to draw feet at FIT, which is really too bad. Toes are surprisingly hard to draw!

That 1/6 of an inch necessary for fit insurance should be a part of toe-space and it should extend a bit around the sides of your toes, as well as in front of them. You should have enough room to spread your toes out a bit and move them vertically inside the toe box – particularly because feet tend to swell in those directions a lot more than lengthwise. That’s a lot of “shoulds”, and I know the vast majority of fashion shoe shoppers don’t follow any of that. But really, at least try to find one shoe that fits you like that in each category of shoes you have to wear. A couple of pennies’ worth of space for your toes’ sake, for the days you know it will be extra hot out, or you’ll have to run around a lot, or it’s that time of the month.

Beyond that little bit, the vast majority of extra toe box space is for creating a nice looking shape for the shoe without cutting into your toes or making your foot look crooked. The amount of space necessary to achieve this goal will vary depending on the shape the designer is aiming for. Sometimes the shoe will need that half an inch we keep hearing about. Sometimes it will need a lot less space than that, and sometimes a lot more. A rounded toe shoe will need only a bit of shape-space, just enough to center the toe box point.

Round toe shoe illustration
Just a teeny little bit of extra room.

On the other hand, if the shape is exaggerated, the designer will need a lot more shape-space than half an inch to create a nice look without cutting into your toes’ real estate:

Extra pointy toe shoe illustration
Very handy for hiding sharp objects of your choice.

Just to be clear, shape-space is in addition to, and starts AFTER, the toe-space, which a lot of fashion shoe designers seem to forget, resulting in this:

Too small toebox illustration
It may look a bit exaggerated, but I was aiming to convey the way this feels at the end of the day. I think this is a pretty accurate representation of that.

Speaking of shoe shape. You know that other bit of advice you often see – “choose shoes with round or square toes to make sure your toes have enough wiggle room?” Yeah, that’s complete nonsense. You should be able to wear whatever shape shoe you want, provided that

a) the designer did their job and kept the pointy stuff in the shape-space without cutting into toe-space and
b) you buy your actual size. Have you measured your feet yet?

Not every brand will fit you, even if the designer did everything right. That is because people have toes of different length and shape and since it is impossible to get mass-produced shoes to fit the entire gamut, brands make assumptions about their customers’ toes and design accordingly. Different brands will make different assumptions, so you will still have to shop around to find the right fit for you.