For Shoes, It’s The Metric 1960s

By The Metric Maven

Bulldog Edition

In response to the We The People Petition to make the metric system the exclusive system of measurement in the US, the now former director of NIST, David Gallagher indicated that it is his policy on measurement to just “do your own thing.”  Standards are just so restrictive for the (former) director of NIST. One of the catch phrases of 1960s America was to “do your own thing.”  While in some contexts this may be admirable, when it comes to creating a consistent measuring of the world, it is generally not.

When I wrote my essay Brannock and Barleycorns, I thought it would be the last essay I would ever write on shoe size, after all there is a metric international standard called mondopoint, and there it is—for all to use.  Unless of course you live in the US and feel constrained and oppressed by logical “establishment standards.” Just as a quick review, mondopoint is a standard which uses the length of a human foot in millimeters as a  size designation.  According to Wikipedia:

The International Standard is ISO 9407:1991, “Shoe sizes—Mondopoint system of sizing and marking”,[2] which recommends a shoe-size system known as Mondopoint.

It is based on the mean foot length and width for which the shoe is suitable, measured in millimetres. A shoe size of 280/110 indicates a mean foot length of 280 millimetres (11 in) and width of 110 millimetres (4.3 in).

Because Mondopoint also takes the foot width into account, it allows for better fitting than most other systems. It is, therefore, used by NATO and other military services. Mondopoint is also used for ski boots.

I’ve never snow skied more than once, so I don’t normally look into the size of ski boots. One day I was corresponding with Peter Goodyear in Australia by email and mentioned that I had heard we use mondopoint for ski boots, so perhaps there is some hope in the next century or two to get this sizing of shoes introduced more generally. Here is what you find if you look at an Australian website for mondopoint:

There it is, nice integer shoe size numbers in millimeters as mondopoint was designed to produce, and as nature intended. All was well with the world until I began looking at US websites for ski boots. The first one has this:

Yes, the US “do your own thing,” measurement spirit invaded the mondopoint standard. The international standard, which is in millimeters, had been unilaterally changed to centimeters by US ski boot vendors. We must have numbers which are like inches, (i.e. pseudo-inches), and insert decimal points or we just feel too constrained by the unfamiliar. I’m sure NIST would approve of this, if they aren’t concerned their act of approval of anything metric might be too constraining and make people feel uptight. When wearing ski boots one doesn’t want to have a bad trip.

One US website feels overly-constrained to even be bothered with units. They boldly use centimeters without bothering to tell us they are now two steps away from the mondopoint standard:

One website even has a history of mondopoint for us to read. It is most enlightening:

So, mondopoint was developed by ski boot manufacturers?—as a universal measurement for ski boots and is designated in centimeters?  That’s not what the international standard indicates, as I understand it. Perhaps this is a Hollywood version of metric history. You know, like U-571, where it was the British that captured an enigma machine in WWII in reality, but we’ll just change it so that  the US did it instead for the movie version. Who would know the difference? Thank heavens the UK has become mostly metric. I’m sure I can trust them to get history—what?–wait—what’s this?:

No! not centimeters again! e tu UK? Then I run across a UK online ski forum with this question: “Can a Mondo Point 28 be marked as 328 mm?” Well, talk about a shoe on the wrong foot.

Why is it the only people who take metric seriously, and also speak English, appear to be the Australians. Is it because they are so far away from our bad influence? I believe much of the problem is that in the US, millimeter-only metric rulers are almost non-existent, and the desire for a pseudo-inch is so attractive, that we cannot think outside the centimeter. Without the extraneous comfort of an unnecessary decimal point or fraction to contemplate, we break out in a sweat considering the possibility that actual change might be encountered. Perhaps the biggest problem in the US when it concerns measurement, might be that we simply don’t view innumeracy as a serious personal deficiency, and perversely seem to celebrate this inability to understand magnitudes. The confusion of a factor of ten can really mess up a dimension. Perhaps this explains the origin of platform shoes?

8 thoughts on “For Shoes, It’s The Metric 1960s

  1. For ski boots, use of cm is not limited to just the US and UK. It’s in every country. Australia and throughout Europe included. It largely depends on the brand of the boot. I’ve seen one brand — Nodica, I think — that does label in mm properly.

    The 328mm measurement on the bottom of the boot that forum post is asking about is actually the length of the boot that is used for adjusting the binding on the skis. My own boots, size 330 (labelled “33.0”) are also stamped on the bottom with “380mm”, which is exactly the length I set my ski bindings to.

    • One more thing. Even though I wear size 330, my foot is really only 315mm long, and the size 320 boots that I’ve tried have been too small. So my experience is that mondopoint is not being used to correctly state the intended length of the foot at all.

      • As long as they’re consistent about it, it’s not too bad. The thing that drives me crazy is when I have to wear one size in one manufacturer and a different size in another. And sometimes it’s not even different manufacturers (Nike I’m talking about you!).

        • Agreed. While tolerances shouldn’t be as tight as, say, gasoline sales, whether I am buying by the mondo point, barleycorn, centimeter, or millimeter, I expect to get what is stated. Meaningless, to use a John Schweisthal term “trade descriptors,” make the number irrelevant regardless of the stated system. I hear the problem is just as bad with shirt collars and waist sizes. Probably the same holds true with bras. I’m not so pedantic that I measure. That’s what the fitting is for, after all.

  2. Who cares? Just like the Brits start their “storeys” at zero, and we start our stories at one, so too do foot measurements. It is a tradition and there is absolutely no reason to tamper with this. Interesting historical tidbit, the USUK shoe sizes are one of the last surviving venues of the barleycorn in measurement.

  3. I’d imagine that the ski boots are sized in cm since the skis are also sized in cm. You know how fragile “Americans” are with measurements. Don’t make them endure centimeters AND millimeters in one activity. But it’s OK to put fractions of a mile AND feet on road signs. :-b

    • Would you care to describe where you’ve seen distance signs giving mixed fractions of a mile AND feet? Not only have We never seen a sign like this, wehave honestly never heard of it until today. We’re sure you have examples?

      Usually, below 1/4 mi. (1320 feet), distances are given on US highways in increments of 500′. You will see 2000′ (or rarely 3/8 mi. which, at 1980′ is the same thing within any sensible tolerance), 1500′, 1000′, rarely 1/8 mi. (660′), and 500′. Feet distances are more common with construction or hazard warnings. Destinations are typically given down to 1/4 mi. except where legacy or geography interferes. A tenth of a mile is about 500′, anyone who completed seventh grade should know decimals down to eighths, and that makes 3/8 very nearly 0.4. Don’t get us started on how analog odometers could show down to eighths, but now touch screens and iPhone interfacing touch screens seem more important than actual automotive navigation.

  4. Maven and Others:

    You ought to look at the front cover of this-past Sunday’s NYTimes Magazine. On it is a protractor with a six-inch ruler with apparently a 100-mm ruler above it. However, although it’s labeled “MM” (mm, of course), it’s numbered in centimeters (1, 2, … , 10) instead of in millimeters (10, 20, … , 100).

    Who should we blame here? Well, of course the manufacturer is the primary culprit, but apparently the NYT is too as it is displaying something so simple but erroneously, especially in view of the fact that the associated cover study has to do with numeracy.

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