What do you consider when picking out a new pair of shoes? Perhaps you’re interested in comfort, in which case, the appearance doesn’t matter to you. Maybe you’ve never even considered the differences between men’s and women’s shoes, maybe you just like to wear whatever fits best. But it’s likely that you at least consider color, shape, size, and fit, depending on the shoe department you’re looking in. Besides shoe sizes, which are different for men and women, the only major difference seems to be appearance, right?
Before the 1800s, women’s and men’s shoes were actually very similar in style, the only major physical differences seen between classes. Heels weren’t necessarily specific to men or women, and prior to 1850, left and right feet were not something shoemakers distinguished. It wasn’t until the 20th century, when more shoe technology was introduced, which allowed more creativity and detail in design.
Fast forward to today, where we not only see shoes with unique coloring and design, but specific fits depending on size and width of feet. Perhaps the most obvious example is running shoes, which can appear the same between sexes, despite major differences in composition. According to Livestrong, the biggest differentiator between men’s and women’s shoes, is width. Women’s shoes are built with a slightly wider forefoot and toe area plus a narrower heel. Men’s shoes, on the other hand, tend to exist wider, with larger sizes than women’s shoes. You might see two shoes that appear the same for men and women, which actually have completely different midsole materials, heel support, and other fit factors which ultimately impact the comfort and weight of the shoe.
Width is one major difference between men’s and women’s shoes, but weight also impacts a shoe’s design. Women tend to weigh less than men, (on average, women have 15% less muscle than men) which impacts the design and structure of a mid-sole, particularly in shoes for high-impact use like running. The mid-sole in a women’s running shoe is designed to accommodate 15% less of an impact, making the shoe a little lighter over all.
The same can be applied to most sport shoes, chalking the differences up to weight and width of the foot. In soccer, women with narrower feet benefit from cleats made specifically for women because the heels tend to fit more snug which allows a better fit, better stability, and agility, meaning less injuries. For that reason, it’s not uncommon to find women who wear men’s cleats, and men who wear women’s, depending on the width of foot.
Everyday shoes are slightly different — for one, they need to cater to multiple purposes and needs. A “workday” shoe could be anything from dress flats, to heels, to comfortable close toed sneakers, or even clogs. There’s less room for the gender argument to fall on physical differences between men and women, because the shoe is not exclusively intended for comfort and performance aiding.
At one point in the early 20th century, shoes started to really appeal to people as more than just a practical item of apparel that could be worn to protect the foot from the outer elements. After World War II, women’s shoes saw a shift, as they became a mode for accentuating the curves and arch of a woman’s foot. Shoes were evolving with the fashion landscape that they were slowly becoming a part of. In the last few decades of the 20th century, as women became more active in workplaces and offices, their shoes became evolved to reflect that — heels and wedges were more popular for this reason in the 1970s, while Oxfords and Loafers remained popular as men’s shoes.
As shoe tools and technology continued to advance, shoemakers evolved to shoe companies, and soon, marketing departments became responsible for creating an image to represent the company that would help their shoes stand out from the crowd. Companies like Nike and adidas quickly pioneered shoes for athletes and everyday wear, while maintaining comfort. The same principles from running and athletic shoes can sometimes be applied to everyday shoes for men and women, which encourages some men to shop women’s, and vice a versa, especially if they’re looking for a more comfortable fit. The only major roadblock here, for some, is sizing, which can get tricky. If a woman wants to wear a men’s shoe, she’ll have to go down about 1.5 sizes, which is fine, if the shoe actually fits. Typically, unless the shoes are built unisex, each shoe will be built with width and weight in mind, which can sometimes cause different types of fits even for everyday wear.
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