A new study that examined the size of women’s high heels sheds new light on our human need for status.
For the study, researchers investigated thousands of shoe purchases made by women who move to different cities. What they found is that women adopt the local trends when moving to wealthier cities, but ignore them when moving to lower socioeconomic (SES) cities.
“In other words, women want to look like the rich girls, and different from the poor girls,” said Dr. Kurt Gray, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a co-author of the study.
To examine trends of conformity and individuality, Gray and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University and Yale University teamed with a large-online fashion retailer. They examined five years of shoe purchases — 16,236 in total — of 2,007 women who moved between one of 180 U.S. cities.
Because fashion choices are hard to quantify, they used a straightforward number: The size of high heels.
The analyses revealed 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 purchases, showing a desire to keep their individuality.
The team of researchers, who included Jeff Galak, Nina Strohminger, Igor Elbert, and Gray, label this phenomenon “trickle down conformity.” That’s 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,” Gray said.
The explanation for this lopsided conformity is the deep human urge for status, according to the researchers.
“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,” said Gray. “So it makes sense that they do the same with heel sizes.”
There is also reason to believe that this “aspirational fashion” is becoming more prevalent, according to the researchers.
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.
While the study examined only women, there is no reason to believe it applies only to them, the researchers noted.
“Men do the same thing when they purchase clothes, electronics, or cars,” said 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 past work of Gray and Strohminger 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,” said Gray.