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Is there a difference between men’s and women’s shoes?

A man and two women cross paths on stone steps, each wearing dress shoes.

When you go shoe shopping, your options are often split out into sections: men’s footwear, women’s footwear and children’s footwear. While it’s clear that size prevents most adults from wearing children’s shoes, this isn’t the case for adult shoes. So if you’re a woman who’s spotted a nice pair of shoes in the men’s section – or vice versa – is there any reason why you shouldn’t go ahead and buy them?

What is the difference between men’s and women’s shoes?

One difference between men’s and women’s shoes that’s easy to spot is style. While men’s shoes are generally flat-soled, with only a one or two inch platform heel added to dress shoes, women’s shoes often have higher heels, both for formal and casual wear. Women’s shoes often incorporate open-top designs – while men are usually restricted to sandals if they want their toes or the tops of their feet to feel the air, women can opt for ballet flats, espadrilles, sandals, pumps and more.

It’s also a common trend that women’s shoes are available in more colours. While some men’s shoes do incorporate bright shades, these are less common and many shoes only come in a range of neutral colours like black, navy blue, brown and white. Meanwhile, women’s shoes can seem like they come in every colour under the sun - as well as featuring more frills, bows, and decorative additions.

However, there are some areas where this isn’t the case and footwear is more or less unisex. For example, hiking boots have a very functional design regardless of whether they’re labelled men’s or women’s boots. Wellies and other purpose-driven footwear such as wetsuit boots, reinforced toe-cap shoes and riding boots are similar.

Are men’s and women’s shoe sizes the same?

Despite both being made for adults, men and women’s shoes use different sizing scales. This can make shopping confusing, so it’s worth making sure you’ve got the right size before you buy. In general, if you’re a woman buying men’s shoes, you should go down 1.5 sizes. So, if you’re a women's size 8, you’ll be a men’s size 6.5. Similarly, if you’re a man shopping for women’s shoes, you’ll want to go up 1.5 sizes, for example from a men’s size 8 to a women’s size 9.5.

Some shoes advertise themselves as unisex, so are designed to be worn by men and women alike. However, it’s important to note that they are almost always sized in men’s sizes – so don’t be fooled into thinking you don’t have to convert just because the shoe is designed for both sexes.

Once you’ve converted the sizing, you can get on with the purchase, right? Well, not necessarily. As a general rule, men’s shoes tend to be on the wider side and women’s shoes narrower, because men’s and women’s feet typically follow those patterns. However, we all know that everyone’s feet are built differently, so it may be that a man with narrow feet might fit women’s sizes better than men’s sizes. Of course this works the other way around as well – and there’s even more nuance to be had with shoes that are specifically designed for wider or narrower feet.

Can women wear men’s shoes?

In many cases, the biggest thing preventing us from shopping in sections for the opposite sex is our perception of it. This is especially true for in-store shops where the added pressure of other customers and sales assistants being there with you might put you off. However, buying shoes online lessens the pressure on you to do what is expected, allowing you to take a leap that might be better for your feet and their specific needs.

While some shoes are clearly designed with a specific type of wearer in mind, many are unisex in appearance. Think back to the last time you saw someone wearing trainers or smart dress shoes. Could you actually tell whether they were bought in the men’s or the women’s section, or did the thought not even register?

A lot of the time, it’s very difficult to tell whether a shoe was originally sold as a men’s or women’s shoe, and more importantly, it’s irrelevant. You should choose the shoe that best suits the size and shape of your foot, combined with your personal aesthetic preferences. If that means shopping in the other section, then that’s what you should do - because wearing ill-fitting shoes is no good for anyone.

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