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High Heels and Elevated Status

New research finds women who relocate to a wealthier area adopt the fashion styles of their new location.


(Photo: Minoru Karamatsu/Flickr)

Do you prefer to fit in, or to stand out? For most of us, the answer is “It depends.” In some situations, we want to assert our uniqueness; in others, we do our best to blend in.

It’s hard to pinpoint what nudges us in one direction or the other, but new research suggests one factor that plays a bigger role than we might realize: status.

If we’re moving up in the world, we tend to conform with our new, higher-class peers. If we find ourselves in less-desirable circumstances, we’re more likely to hang on to our old preferences.

A research team led by Jeff Galak of Carnegie Mellon University finds evidence of this dual dynamic using a unique measurement: the size of women’s heels.

“Women conform to new local norms (in terms of average heel size) when moving to relatively higher status locations,” the researchers report, “but mostly ignore new local norms when moving to relatively lower status locations.”

Consider Cinderella, who gladly switched to glass slippers, although she was used to wearing flats.

The clear implication, they write in the journal PLoS One, is that people tend to “conform upward more than downward.”

Galak and his colleagues used data from “an online retailer of luxury clothing brands.” They examined 1,850 customers who had apparently moved to a new city, in that they “had at least five transactions in one location, followed by at least five transactions in a new location.”

The researchers noted the average education level and median household income of both locations, and calculated an average heel size purchased by women in each. They then determined the extent to which the women who moved chose to conform with the local style.

They found that women who moved to a new location with a significantly higher median income level “will largely assimilate to the preferences of their new location.” If heels higher than they are used to wearing are considered chic, they’ll increase their own heel size (albeit not necessarily all the way up to local standards).

In contrast, for those moving to a lower-income area, the researchers found “heel height is far less influenced” by what the locals are wearing.

“When an individual moves to a higher-status location, their behavior strongly reflects the norms of that destination,” the researchers write. “However, when an individual moves to a lower (or similar) status location, they mostly do not assimilate to those new norms, and instead remain relatively consistent in their preferences.”

So those stilettos are indeed making a statement — but exactly what it is depends upon the context. The same presumably goes for a number of other high-visibility purchases.

As study co-author Kurt Gray, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, noted in a press statement, driving a BMW might be a way to stand out in Wichita, while it’s only conforming behavior in the nicer neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Your choice to drive one means two different things in the two different cities.

“People balance conformity and consistency in new environments based on upward vs. downward socioeconomic transitions,” Galak and his colleagues conclude. Individual style can be sacrificed to the more important goal of fitting in to a new, high-status environment.

Consider Cinderella, who gladly switched to (presumably high-heeled) glass slippers, although she was used to wearing flats. Hey, every woman at the palace would be wearing them. And she was highly interested in upward mobility.