Fashion seems to embrace two opposite goals–fitting in with the crowd and standing out from it. Now new research reveals that the choice to fit in or stand out depends on who exactly the crowd is — and the size of their high heels. That is, women adjust their fashion to look similar to the rich but different from the poor.
Kurt Gray, a co-author at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his colleagues investigated thousands of shoe purchases made by women who move to different cities, showing 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 Gray, an assistant professor of psychology in UNC College of Arts and Sciences.
To examine trends of conformity and individuality, Gray and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University and Yale University 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 U.S. cities. Because fashion choices are hard to quantify, they used a straightforward number: the size of high heels.
Their 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 purchase–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,” because fashion preferences trickle down from the top but seldom up from the bottom. As Gray explained, “Walmart watches the styles on the runways in Milan, but Milan never watches the styles at Walmart.”
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,” 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 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.
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,” 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 the past work of Gray and Strohminger, which 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.
With their current study, Gray and colleagues reveal that fashion industry isn’t only about making money, but letting people look like they belong with money.