The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has investigated thousands of shoe purchases made by women who move to different cities. The results show that women adopt the local trends when moving to wealthier cities but ignore them when moving to lower socioeconomic (SES) cities.
This means if you move to say, LA, you see all the glamour and adopt that style. Pretty soon your wardrobe is full with daring sky high heels, platforms and designer shoes. But, if you move from LA to a poorer city, in most cases you still keep the glamour look and don’t change your hot high heels for cheaper ones.
“In other words, women want to look like the rich girls, and different from the poor girls,” said Kurt Gray, an assistant professor of psychology in UNC College of Arts and Sciences and study co-author.
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.
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. This is 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. This is 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.”
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.”