There are many elements to something as beautifully ‘simple’ as a shoe. So many elements in fact, that most people don’t realize it. Turns out, the shoe isn’t as ‘simple’ as most people think. Laid out here in this guide, are all the parts of a shoe that you probably didn’t even know existed. You may know the sole and the tongue (which we still discuss), but do you know about the quarter? The medial? These terms are all explained in this guide. We’re pretty confident you’ll be able to call yourself a fully fledged expert on shoe parts after you’ve read up.
A pair of shoes can be thought about in two halves – the upper and a lower section. The upper half consists primarily of the toe cap, quarter and shoe vamp. Within these elements are the toe cap, top line, insole and throat. Whilst the lower section consists of the shank, heel and the sole of a shoe. These elements are primarily made from rubber, plastics, wood, leather, and canvas. If you’re interested in shoes and finding out more about them, this is the guide for you!
This page is intended as a shoe glossary of sorts – a guide to all shoe terms to break down the anatomy of this common yet unstudied article of human clothing.
Vamps are on the upper section of shoes and cover the metatarsal area of the foot. That’s pretty much the whole area of the top of the foot, if you’re confused. The vamp usually consists of multiple pieces of material to create cosmetic patters – these change for different brands and styles of shoes. Vamp can be made from a single piece of leather with a v shape cut out next to the eyelets, this type of shoe is typically more expensive than the multi-piece vamps which are more commonly used. You can find vamps in all different styles, maybe even with printed patterns on them if you like to make a statement with your shoes.
Just in front of the vamp you’ll find the toe cap. This provides a more functional role by protecting your toes! We wouldn’t want any harm to come to our toes, would we? Stubbing one is bad enough, let alone dropping something heavy on them. Toe caps also enable the shoe to better hold its shape, making them last longer. As shoes can be really expensive, that’s good news for people who don’t want to go shoe shopping every other week. By looking for a sturdy toe cap, you can feel pretty confident that you’ll have these shoes for a while. Shoes typically used in higher risk jobs often use steel toe caps. You’ve probably seen many workmen wearing them before. They are even a mandatory requirement in some settings, and thought of as part of a uniform.
At the rear of the shoe, behind the toe cap and vamp is the quarter. This section envelops the eyelets, top line (which sits at the rim of the quarter) and the heel cap. An area that is usually made of leather in formal shoes. If the vamp overlaps the quarter it is an Oxford style shoe. Or if the quarter overlaps the vamp we have a Derby shoe. In most shoes the quarter and the vamp will be two separate pieces of material, usually leather. However, they may be the same piece of material if the shoe is ‘whole cut’. The quarter of the shoe is usually reinforced with a strong material to support the back of the foot.
The quarter even has more than one part to it; the counter. The counter is the part that reinforces the heel area, and this is what takes the majority of wear and tear as you wear your shoes. Not only is it another part that strengthens the shoe, it also helps to keep your shoes in tip top shape. There’s nothing quite worse than a misshapen shoe, am I right?
Things might sound like they’re getting a little weird now, but I promise I’m not making this up. The feather is the part of the shoe where the upper’s edge meets the sole. There’s literally a name for everything in the weird and wonderful world of shoes.
Sitting beneath the eyelets is the tongue – a section of material that protects the foot from water and spreads the weight of the shoe more evenly across the foot. Just about everybody knows what the tongue is on a shoe. This is more than likely because we’ve all owned a pair of shoes where the tongue tends to get stuck in an annoying place when we try to put them on. As well as sealing the shoe, the tongue also prevents the feet from the abrasive shoe laces. It is an area designers have a greater focus on in shoes that make a bold statement. You might find that the tongue comes in all kinds of different colors and styles. There are even some training shoes where you can flip the tongue over to create a different look each time you wear them. Some designers like to get creative with this part of a shoe.
There are two predominant styles of eyelets, derby tie (also known as Gibson) and Oxford style. With Derby tie, the shoe opens to the same width at the top and bottom of the eyelets and the eyelets are sewn to the top of the vamp. On the more common Oxford style, the eyelets are sewn to the to the underside of the vamp, which prevents the forward section of the vamp from opening fully. Many eyelets are in a neutral color, such as gold, silver, and black. However, sometimes you’ll find them in a bright color, or a color that contrasts the shoe entirely. This can create interest and be a lot of fun to wear.
The sole is the lowest part of a shoe and has contact with the ground. It can be made from a wide selection of materials although most commonly it is made from rubber, polyurethane, leather, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC) compounds. Using leather in the sole increases breathability but is not the most durable, which is why it isn’t so popular. It can also be vulnerable to moisture and water damage. Rubber is pretty popular due to the protection it offers against the elements, but it doesn’t look as formal as other materials.
The breast is the forward facing part of the heel, located just under the sole. That’s right, shoes have breasts too.
All shoes have a lining. The lining of a shoe is usually chosen to improve comfort, and can even increase the life of your shoes.
Inside the sole there can be a shank (especially common in hiking boots), which is completely enveloped and provides support for the shoe and wearer by creating a stabilising mount that has zero contact with the upper half go the shoe. Before modern compounds were introduced, steel was often used in this role but it is becoming increasingly common for less heat conductive materials and equally strong to be used.
Attached to the sole and at the bottom of a shoe rests the heel. The heel is designed to suit the upper section of the shoe and ironically the part that touches the ground is called the top piece. It is common for formal shoes to have detachable heel piece for easy replacement.
Some of parts of a shoe differ from the formal style based on what the role of the shoe is.
- Athletic shoes have soles that have more contact with the ground and will not have a raised heel – this is to increase friction, a factor important to many sports. They will also have a better grip, to prevent slipping while running, playing sports, and exercising.
- Boots tend to have soles with maximized tread for increased grip – a shoe often worn by militaries around the world. They will often have an extended upper that reaches further up the leg.
You won’t usually find much else on the heel of a shoe, but this can depend on the style and designer on the shoe. On Louboutin shoes, for instance, the soles and heels are famously bright red. This is the trademark of the designer, and people have even coined the term ‘red bottoms’ as a nickname for Louboutin shoes. They are usually women’s high heeled shoes, or that is how they are famously thought of. Louboutin also creates more casual footwear with red bottoms.
If you are getting lost in conversation with ‘sneakerheads’ about the technicalities of shoe design, here are the most common terms that they will be using to show off their knowledge. You might already know of some of them.
Low tops are shoes where the topline is at ankle level. This cut has become increasingly less used in high level sports – due to athletes looking for greater ankle support. Low tops resemble dress shoes in this respect but generally have more scope bolder styles as you probably won’t be wearing them to the office. This hybrid between dress and style makes them perfect for weekend use. This style works with both shorts and trousers in a way that dress shoes certainly don’t! There are many brands that design great low top shoes, from Fred Perry to Converse. You can wear them a variety of different ways, so they’re a good style of shoes to have.
High tops are iconic from their roots in basketball and have become increasingly common in other sports too. The visual difference between these and high tops is that the topline is cut well above the ankle – giving support where it’s needed in sports that involve a lot of sharp direction changes. These are some of the most in-demand styles on the planet with people prepared to wait all night to get their hands on a pair. Although commonly worn in many different sports, they are also viewed as a popular fashion shoe. You will see people wearing these shoes every single day, whether they’re going to the supermarket or out with friends. You can wear them with jeans, skirts, even to add a little something casual to two piece suits – they really can be styled all kinds of wears. Some people even enjoying wearing them to lift weights in the gym, as they offer better balance and support when doing exercises like weighted squats and lunges. Just bear in mind that if you plan on running for long periods of time, they aren’t the best to go for. Something with a softer sole and a little more bounce is usually better.
Fun fact! Instead of just referring to the outside of a shoe. The ‘proper’ name for this area is known as the ‘lateral’. In fact, some people don’t realize just how important this area is in some types of shoes. Tennis shoes, for example, need great lateral support to work well on the court.
The inner coating to the lateral is known as the medial. Pretty much all of the parts your foot touches except the sole of your foot. It is defined as the side of a shoe your foot arch is present on. This means that when you’re wearing a pair of shoes, both medial sides face each other.
A rarely talked about part of a shoe. The foxing is a piece of specialised plastic that reinforces the point of attachment between the sole and the upper. Usually this section is melted onto the shoe and left to set, called the ‘vulcanization’ process. Sounds very ‘Star Trek’ doesn’t it?
The collar encloses the wearer’s ankle. It is an area designed for comfort most commonly made from foam, giving it a more cushioned feel. The type of foam used depends on the role of the shoe. One of two types is used – either open or closed cell foam. Both are plastic compounds but with different properties. Open cell is intuitive to what it sounds like – the cells are open to entry of water and air – similar to the sponge in your sink… Closed cell is also what you’d think – pads of foam that do not allow entry or exit of water an air. A good pair of sneakers will use a closed cell memory foam. That being said, some shoes do not have a cushioned collar at all, like traditional Converse shoes.
This guide is intended to be the most comprehensive guide to every single part of a shoe. Do you think we’ve done a good job? If you feel the list is not completely exhaustive, please leave a comment below or hit me up via email (found on the Contact Us page). We’d love to hear what you think and any suggestions you may have!