How well do you really know your shoes? After all, there’s way more to your standard pair of sneakers, boots, or travel walking shoes than what meets the eye. While shoes might seem deceptively simple at first glance, there’s actually a lot that goes into the design, manufacturing, and structure of your favorite pair of kicks.
If you don’t know your aglets from your uppers, don’t worry—we’ve got you covered with our guide to shoe terminology. Read on for our breakdown of everything from Footwear 101 to more technical terms.
Toe to Toe: What Makes Up the Front of the Shoe?
Let’s take it from the top—the toes, to be more precise. Whether this part of the shoe is covered up by a decorative toe cap or left open for a peep-toe look, it plays a significant part in both the aesthetic of the shoe and in how it feels on your feet. Case in point, everybody hates getting one of those dreaded pinky toe blisters when breaking in a new pair of shoes.
Though toes might be the smallest of your extremities, there’s still plenty of ground to cover when getting more acquainted with shoe terminology.
The toe box is the part of a shoe where the toes and the front of the foot sit. This feature is usually seen in closed-toed shoes as its main purpose is to cover the wearer’s foot and shield it from the elements—a much-needed protective layer if you’re out and about all day.
Generally, you will most likely see toe boxes designed to fit the shape of the wearer’s foot.1 They’re usually relatively wide and straight to prevent any crowding or squishing. However, some toe boxes, particularly those designed for women’s shoes like pumps or stilettos, tend to taper in towards the toe, creating a dramatic, high-fashion look that can be less comfortable on the feet.
Trouble in the toe box can lead to serious discomfort and even chronic issues later down the line, including:
- Bunions – This is a bony bump on the side of your foot just below the big toe, caused by a buildup of pressure on the toe.
- Hammertoes – This is a toe that’s permanently bent downwards, typically the toe next to your big toe.
- Blisters – These raw, chafed spots are caused by material rubbing and pressing excessively against the same spot for a long period of time.
- Problems with the legs, the lower body, or your gait – Issues can form that include anything from chronic pain or inflammation to an unsteady, wobbly manner of walking.
- Ingrown toenails – Painful and uncomfortable, this is when the toenail grows into the skin instead of upwards, most commonly found on the big toe.
How do you avoid these types of toe pain? Look for a shoe design or style with a wider toe box versus a more pointed, narrow one and ensure your toes don’t feel squished together or cramped. Here are a few of our toe-friendly faves that feature generous toe boxes:
Ever wondered what that little bit of rubber, leather, or even metal at the tip of your shoe was for? Toe caps are a layer covering the toe box’s exterior. While these are usually decorative, toe caps can also help to strengthen the shoe and protect the toes (think of the “steel toe” in “steel toed boots”—those are toe caps).
What’s Up With Uppers: Exploring the Body of the Shoe
Did you know that there’s a name for the top part of your shoe? The upper refers to the body of the shoe, everything from the ankle down to where the sole begins.
But there’s more to the upper than meets the eye. It actually consists of several intricately made pieces that work together to create your favorite piece of footwear. Here’s a quick breakdown on some of the parts of the upper:
Collars aren’t just for the neck—your shoes have collars too. In footwear, the collar refers to the opening of the shoe where you’d slide your foot into. When you’re actually wearing the shoe, the opening encircles your ankle, hence the name collar.
It might seem like a totally inconsequential part of the shoe, but the collar can actually play a major role in the comfort of your shoe and the health of your foot. The collar helps to provide stability and support around the ankle. A more rigid collar provides a little more structure, while a more flexible one allows for more movement. While either can be a great pick, it’s important to try both styles out and consider what your feet need most.
Ever wondered why some shoes stayed snugly in place through tons of motion while others seem to almost slip off your feet just from walking around? This is all due to the vamp of your shoe.
If you’ve ever wondered, “what is a vamp on a shoe?,” it’s the part of the shoe that starts at the toe and stretches all the way back to wherever the shoe’s upper ends, which can be anywhere from directly underneath the toe box to above your knee depending on the shoe style.2
Wondering what kind of shoe vamp is right for you? Here’s a quick breakdown of high vamps vs. low vamps:
- High vamps are shoes whose upper level covers most of or all of the foot up to the ankle. This doesn’t necessarily have to mean that it entirely covers the foot—shoes with straps that cross the feet like strappy sandals or Mary Janes are considered high vamp. High vamp styles are great picks for their stability thanks to their more structured shoe design, but can sometimes make the leg appear shorter. Some high vamp styles include:
- The Cecily Ankle Boot
- The Penelope Slip On Sneaker
- Low vamps are shoes with an upper level that stops after the toe box, leaving the rest of the foot exposed, like pumps, ballet flats, or even knee high boots. This doesn’t provide the same level of support as a high vamp shoe, but does elongate the leg, making them a good option for occasions when you want to turn heads but also don’t plan on walking as much. Low vamp styles include:
- The Adalena Heel
- The Amorie Flat
Finding a Sole Mate: Diving Into the Sole of the Shoe
For a part of the shoe that you rarely see, the sole plays one of the most significant roles in foot comfort. A well-constructed sole can be the difference between a healthy, happy foot after a full day of movement or an achy, inflamed one.
The sole is made up of three layers: the outer sole, the midsole, and the insole. Together, they form a sandwiched layer at the bottom of your shoe that provides all of the shape and support that your foot needs.
The outer sole is the part of the sole that touches the ground and is the only part that’s visible when you’re wearing the shoe. Typically made of material like rubber, cork, or foam, the outsole might feature elements like treads or non-skid designs depending on the type of shoe.
We now understand what outer soles are, but what are midsoles, exactly? The middle layer of the sole (think of it as the meat in your shoe sandwich), the midsole is what provides much of the shoe’s extra cushioning and shock absorption. While all shoes need some degree of padding, this is especially important in anything that’ll be worn for high-intensity movement like sneakers—you’ll want something that can adequately absorb the force and pressure that comes from running or jumping.
The midsole is usually made of a foam material called EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) that gives shoes a spongy, cushioned feel without adding too much extra weight or bulk. Occasionally, the midsole might also have gel inserts or air pockets to provide an extra layer of bounciness to your step.
The insole is the layer that directly touches your feet. As such, it’s important that it’s shaped in a way that cradles and stabilizes your feet to avoid causing discomfort and irritation in the short term or chronic foot or lower body pain in the long term. Some shoes have a molded footbed designed to hug the curves of your feet’s arches while others have a flatter, less sculpted shape.
One great option if you’ve got a beloved pair of shoes with less than supportive insoles is adding an orthotic insert. Orthotics can turn even the most uncomfortable shoes into arch-friendly, supportive footwear. Here are a few of our faves:
- The Relief Insole for everyday soothing comfort
- The Active Insole for when you know you’ll be on the move
- The Slim Fit Insole for dressier shoes like heels or flats
Learn From the Experts on Shoes with Vionic
There’s more to shoes than most people realize—who could’ve guessed that so much goes into the toe box alone? You don’t need to be an expert on footwear to know that prioritizing well-made, well-balanced shoes will keep your feet feeling happy and healthy no matter where your journeys take you.
At Vionic, we’re all about creating shoes designed with your feet in mind. There’s a reason why so many of our products are trusted by the American Podiatric Medical Association—we put foot health and comfort at the top of our lists. Check out our collection today to explore affordable, stylish shoes that’ll have your feet looking as great as they feel.
- Stimpert, Desiree. “Shoe Glossary; The Toe Box and Why It’s Important to Get It Right.” LiveAbout. Updated 22 December, 2017. https://www.liveabout.com/shoe-glossary-toe-box-2989622
- “Shoe Vamps: What Are They and Why Do They Matter?” Style IngeNEWity. 5 April, 2018. https://www.styleingenewity.com/lookbook/2018/4/5/shoe-vamps-what-are-they-and-why-do-they-matter