How Do High Heels Indicate Economic Instability?

Libby Kane

When we think economics, we think high heels.

Okay, maybe not.

But someone does. An analysis of billions of social media posts by IBM over the past four years found that sky-high heels are on their way out and that kitten heels and flats are beginning to come back in style.

Examining the trends alongside economic patterns led researchers to theorize that a shakier economic situation correlates with the popularity of similarly shaky high heels.

The study’s press release claims, “A look back at the last 100 years of shoe fashion trends reveals that heel heights soared during the most prominent recessions in U.S. history.” To back up this assertion, they cite the low flapper heels of the Roaring Twenties, the tottering pumps of the Great Depression and the turn-of-the-century stiletto craze after the dot-com bust.

History Isn’t Repeating Itself

But our current situation doesn’t follow the higher-is-poorer pattern.  Even though we’re still in an economic recession, lower heels are predicted to gain popularity, and researchers speculate that “perhaps a mood of long term austerity is evolving among consumers, sparking a desire to reduce ostentation in everyday settings.”

The idea of an accessory as an economic indicator isn’t a new one. First was the hemline theory, developed by George Taylor, which theorized that women wore shorter skirts during good economic times to show off silk stockings, but longer hemlines during rougher times to hide their bare legs. Then there was the lipstick theory, made popular by Estée Lauder Chairman Leonard Lauder, who noticed that there was an increase in lipstick sales post-9/11. He speculated that during hard times, women look to small indulgences such as lipstick for comfort.

Are These Theories More Sensationalist Than Useful?

It’s all very interesting, but we can’t help wonder how much weight these patterns carry.

Here’s an idea: The current trend is toward lower heels not because our economy is recovering, or because women are eschewing ostentation, but because women are tired and marketers are restless. There are only so many heels you can sell before your customer gets bored, and this has been one long recession.

And has anyone noticed that all of these “indicators” are the most stereotypically frivolous, feminine things to be found? Lipstick, skirts, stilettos—we’ll save everyone the trouble and predict the next great economic indicator right now: eyelash curlers.

More Reading

For more on the state of the economy (both American and global), sign up for our weekly newsletter The Market.
If makeup is right up your alley, check out our guide to safe, non-toxic cosmetics.

  • SmartAssetTeam

    What a silly and strange idea! It seems to me that smaller heels might be more popular during this recession because more women work now than during previous ones.  And any woman who has tried to wear super high heels through a work day knows that there is a real price to pay for this.  That’s my guess, anyway.  

  • Jeannie

     I wouldn’t say that these theories are particularly sexist, the fact is that women’s fashion changes more frequently than men’s. It would be much more difficult to track these trends in relation to, say, suit fabric or blue jean style.
    I have also heard of a theory involving how the size of shoulder pads indicate the economic situation of women. I just don’t remember the details…

  • Jennifer Roland

    Or maybe women are tired of sore feet! I never jumped on the high heel bandwagon because they hurt — a lot.