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These Shoes are Made for Walking . . . and for Economic Forecasting?

By: Malaika Mosele

It’s not a shock that fashion trends can be gravely affected by the economy; what the average consumer can and can’t afford is reflected in day-to-day trends. What is a shock is that this relationship can actually go both ways. The High Heel Index, coined by Trevor Davis, a consumer products expert at IBM, suggests that the height of heels is its own economic predictor.

“The index worked by analyzing social media and other online sources for influencer and consumer references to shoes and boots where there was either a specific height of heel mentioned, like ‘four inches’ or a phrase that could be equated easily to a height,” Davis reveals.

“We then correlated that with a variety of indicators of economic performance to get the index.”

His hypothesis argues that heels actually get higher during economic declines. Why? Because consumers are using fashion as a way to escape their own economic realities. This trend can easily be seen in our own trend patterns over the last 20 years. Before the economic recession, the ballet flat was the celebrity pick. It was the off-the-runway shoe for models like Kate Moss. Then, during the recession in 2008, heels rose to seven inches. It’s impossible to forget the Lita platform boot from Jeffrey Campbell; you either had them or wanted to have them.

Photo-Illustration: The Cut

Kitten heels came shortly after when the economy had flattened out. The height of heels was steady in the years following with only the style of shoe changing. We saw wedges and block heels become the it-shoe as people began prioritizing comfort. Then, COVID-19 happened.

“Historically, following periods of social hardship or economic downturn, it is typical to see a social reaction against these shared experiences,” said Celenie Seidel, senior womenswear editor at Farfetch, in an interview. “It is feasible that in the wake of 2020’s global pandemic, we will see people striving to have fun with fashion again.” She wasn’t wrong.

The pandemic threw us into another bout of economic instability, but even while locked in our houses, the height of our heels grew. Now it’s not only our heels that are high, but our boots, sandals, and loafers, too. It’s a platform shoe world out there! If you are on the internet, you’ve seen Versace’s Medusa Aevitas Platform Pumps (or their various dupes) everywhere. It’s no surprise that this 15.5 inch shoe became popular at the heel (pun intended) of another economic decline. In a time when it’s even harder to express oneself due to masks and social distancing, people are finding escape and expression through extravagant and experimental fashion.

Heels aren’t the only fashion-based indicator. In the past researchers have used hemlines and lipstick as well. The Hemline Index suggests that skirts get shorter in good economic times and longer in declines. Similarly, The Lipstick Index argues that lipstick sales increase in economic recessions because women substitute lipstick for more expensive purchases like dresses and shoes. These indexes aren’t just an indicator of the way we react to financial situations, but how humans use fashion as escapism. Although some think of trends, like heel height or skirt length, as fleeting or superficial, they are a good reminder that fashion is, and always will be: a reflection of the world around us.


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