Nearby wealth may spur women to swap their heels

woman in black heels

A new study measured the height of women’s heels to show that those who move to wealthier cities edit their fashion choices to fit in, but don’t do so if they move to a less affluent area.

The findings suggest how fashion seems to embrace two opposite goals—fitting in with the crowd and standing out from it.

To examine trends of conformity and individuality, the researchers teamed up with a large-online fashion retailer. They examined five years of shoe purchases—16,236 in total—of 2007 women who moved between one of 180 US cities. Because fashion choices are hard to quantify, they used a straightforward number: the size of high heels.

The work reveals that heel sizes changed when women moved, but not uniformly. When women moved to higher SES zip codes such as New York City or Los Angeles, the heel size closely matched the heel size that other women in that zip code had bought—showing a desire for conformity. But when women moved to lower SES zip codes, the heel size closely matched the heel size of their own past purchase—showing a desire to keep their individuality.

“Men do the same thing when they purchase clothes, electronics, or cars.”

The team of researchers label this phenomenon “trickle down conformity,” because fashion preferences trickle down from the top but seldom up from the bottom. “Walmart watches the styles on the runways in Milan, but Milan never watches the styles at Walmart,” explains Kurt Gray, assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The explanation for this lopsided conformity is the deep human urge for status. “From the beginning of time, people have thirsted for respect and social standing, and have aligned themselves with the powerful and distanced themselves from the powerless,” says Gray. “So it makes sense that they do the same with heel sizes.”

There is also reason to believe that this “aspirational fashion” is getting more prevalent. Inequality is increasing in America, and research reveals that the bigger the gap between rich and poor, the more people want to look rich. Such aspirations fuel the fortunes of fashion sites that provide high-status goods for low prices.

[‘Big data’ tracks influence among fashion designers]

This study examined only women, but there is no reason to believe it applies only to them. “Men do the same thing when they purchase clothes, electronics, or cars,” says Gray, “When you move from Wichita to LA, you look around and sell your Chevy for a BMW, but when you move from Los Angeles to Wichita, Kansas, you look around, and then just keep the BMW.”

This research builds off the past work of Gray and coauthor Nina Strohminger, published in PLOS ONE, that examined what color combinations make outfits the most fashionable. “We often think of fashion as something frivolous, but it’s an industry worth $1.7 trillion annually, and clothing often helps define ourselves,” says Gray.

Collaborators on the research are from Carnegie Mellon University and Yale.

Source: UNC-Chapel Hill

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Source: Futurity