Shoe Glossary: Outsole

Every Outsole is Different

Bottom view of hiking shoes.
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The outsole, also known as the sole, is the bottommost part of a shoe that comes in direct contact with the ground. The outsole can be made out of a variety of materials, including leather and rubber. Certain types of outsoles provide more traction than others by using specific materials or designs.

It all depends on the style and intended purpose of the shoe. For example, a ballroom dancer might prefer a shoe with a smooth leather sole that makes it easier to glide and turn on the dance floor, while a hiker needs a shoe with a thick, durable and waterproof outsole. Most shoes have soles made out of natural rubber, polyurethane or PVC compounds.

Shoes are designed with durable outsoles to be as long-lasting as possible, but it will wear out over time. In fact, the outsole is typically the part of a shoe that wears out first, but most shoes can easily be resoled at a shoe repair shop.

History of the Outsole

The first shoes were made out of natural materials, so the outsoles were very thin. Native Americans crafted soft-soled moccasins made out of animal hides. In the Middle Ages, soles were made out of sturdier materials like leather and braided jute. The craft of shoemaking evolved to feature exclusively leather soles that were sewn onto shoes beginning in the 1600s, which remains the standard in fine leather dress shoes to this day.

Shoes were handmade up until the Industrial Revolution, and leather soles were painstakingly stitched onto shoes. The process was very time-consuming, as leather is durable, but not very malleable. By the end of the 1800s, shoemaking had become almost entirely mechanized and much less time-consuming.

Types of Outsoles:

The outsoles for dress shoes for both men's and women's dress shoes are made out of high-quality leather and rubber. Casual, everyday shoes or work shoes have outsoles that are made from materials like natural rubber or polyurethane.

The outsole can be comprised of the same material or different types. For example, an all-leather sole is a standard feature of the dress shoe, but it doesn't offer the most traction. Some dress shoes have a leather outsole in the front and a practical rubber sole in the heel for greater traction and durability.

The shoe's purpose also plays into the materials used in the outsole. Athletic shoes are designed with various types of outsoles depending on how the shoe will be used. Shoes used for soccer, football, track, baseball, and golf are embedded with cleats or spikes to provide traction. Other athletic shoes, like basketball shoes, wrestling shoes, and climbing shoes are outfitted with rubber soles for greater grip. Cycling requires a sturdy, rigid shoes, so cycling shoes are often very stiff.

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