What Do High Heels Say About Conformity?

When women move to another city, do they buy shoes of a different height? That depends on the income of their new city, a study found. Leonard McLane/Getty Images

It may not surprise you to know that heel heights vary by U.S. state — they're higher in flashier states like Florida, lower in more conservative places like Kansas. But what happens when the Florida girl moves to Kansas? Does she start buying lower heels? That's what some researchers at the University of North Carolina (UNC) – Chapel Hill wanted to find out.

They surveyed five years of shoe purchases from an online retailer made by 2,007 women who had moved at least once during that period to one of 182 U.S. cities. The researchers then tabulated the median income of those cities using 2010 U.S. Census data. And they found out something interesting.

Stilletos by State: Which states buy the highest heels?

When the women moved to cities with higher median incomes (like to New York or Los Angeles), they tended to start buying heels in heights that matched the trend of their new city. But when they moved to cities with lower median incomes, they stuck with the heel height from the place they had come from, rather than buying the new norm. The influence of destination change, say the study authors, is most pronounced when the income difference between the two places is large and least important when there is little or no difference in income between the place a woman came from and where she relocated to.

The researchers label this practice "trickle-down conformity." People want to look like the rest of their neighbors when they move to a high-income area but want to maintain their uniqueness when they move to a lower-income area. "Wal-Mart watches the styles on the runways in Milan, but Milan never watches the styles at Wal-Mart," study co-author Kurt Gray, a UNC-Chapel Hill psychology professor, explains in a press release.

Of course, some fashion houses do incorporate street looks into their clothing, but it's usually from high-income cities, like New York and London. "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."

Although the researchers only looked at women's shoes, Gray believes the same type of results would show if they looked at men's purchases of clothes, electronics or cars.