Stylish Comfortable Shoes: Center The Toebox

A shoe can make your foot look crooked by placing the end point of the toebox in the wrong spot.

At some point we as a society decided that this is elegant and pretty:

Turned out foot position
My dance teacher used to call this the “pretty foot” position.

Aaand this is awkward and clunky:

Pigeon toed foot position
My dance teacher had some choice terms for this too, I just can’t publish those.

Being pigeon-toed can apparently help you run faster and it’s a common (often criticized) modeling pose, but in general daily life it is not a desired effect. I like to blame the French for this, because:

Louis XIV foot closeup
Louis XIV. Just look at that turnout!

For shoemaking, this means that making your customers look pigeon-toed is something to avoid. The way to avoid that is by making sure the tip of the shoe is pointing in the same direction as the toes by placing it in the middle of the toebox, or at least close to it. If you place it closer to the big toe instead, the wearer will look like she’s pigeon-toed no matter what she does. It’s a fairly precise placement – you only have to miss the center by a little bit to make the shoe look “off”.

The fashion footwear market is pretty good at this, but I do have one example of a fashion shoe messing this up:

Centered vs Uncentered toe point on fashion shoe
The factory actually attempted to tell me that these two pairs are exactly the same.

The shoes above are the same size. Both models are standing with their feet pointed straight (toe direction indicated by the red arrows). However, the shoes are pointing in vastly different directions (indicated by the aqua arrows). The pair on the left is fairly closely aligned with the toes, while the pair on the right is a good 15 degrees off.

Shopping Tip: put the shoes on, stand up and look down at your feet. If the shoes’ toes are not pointing in the same direction as your toes, the shoes themselves may look nice, but you feet won’t look nice in them.

This kind of egregious misalignment seems fairly rare in fashion footwear. In fact, the fashion market is prone to falling into the opposite extreme of cutting into the toe-space to achieve the pretty look without making the foot look longer than it is (because big feet are yucky, right?):

Toebox too small
Just cut those extra toes off. Cinderella’s sisters did it, why can’t you?

Thereby making their shoes incredibly painful for toe-havers everywhere and justifying podiatrists’ disdain for fashion footwear as a whole. It’s a big problem and I’ll rant about that separately, I promise.

On the other hand, the comfort market has a tendency to do this:

Comfort shoe uncentered point
I found this beauty on a list of 12 Of The Ugliest Comfort Shoes Ever 

Yes, most people have longer big toes than pinkie toes and sure, that shape follows the general curve of most people’s feet, but generally speaking, the foot does not occupy the entire volume of the shoe – if your foot does, your shoe is too small for you. That is definitely true for this particular shoe, because the foot that would need this much toebox room would look like this:

Toes to fit extra-long toebox
There are individuals out there whose toes start almost at the ankle. They generally aren’t members of homo sapiens though.

This is the sort of thing that makes millions of women avoid “comfort footwear” at all costs. Maybe more people would consider buying comfort shoes if they didn’t make their feet look like they’re a)pigeon-toed and b)have really, really long toes. It’s a thought.

This illustrates a larger problem. There are two extremes in the shoe world: the “comfort” camp, which feels they don’t have to be beautiful because they’re comfortable, and the “fashion” camp, which feels they don’t have to be comfortable because they’re beautiful. Neither extreme is willing to make concessions to the other side because they believe that they are serving their target audience’s real needs. “They’ll wear it anyway as long as we make it hot enough”, says the fashion camp. I’m sure the comfort camp has a similar approach, just replacing “hot” with “comfy”.

Making a stylish, comfortable shoe takes a lot of knowledge and hard work – more than making a shoe that is just comfortable or just beautiful. It requires collaboration between the design team, the factory, and the supply chain. In order to see the extra effort as a worthwhile investment, shoe companies need to believe that their customers actually care. Many of them believe that women just say they do, but when they go shopping they buy something else because it’s a little bit prettier or $10 cheaper.

This approach worked for a while, but I believe it’s changing. Some comfort brands, such as Easy Spirit, Aerosoles and Naturalizer, are reaching younger, more fashion-conscious customers and some fashion brands are increasingly concerned with comfort, such as Tieks and Cole Haan (even though they lost access to Nike Air technology, they’re replacing it with other comfort-focused technology instead of going back to traditional fashion construction).

There are still plenty of brands on both ends of the spectrum that resist accommodating their “opposite”. The single minded focus on their strength is working for them, for now, but the tide is turning against that approach and the companies that don’t keep up will pay the price down the line.