In Flux

Embracing transitions and change

Stiletto Heels and the Economy

Can heel height predict the future?

I admit it. I like shoes. And I’ve noticed that many women seem to like them as well. For the last few years I’ve also noticed (hard not to) that the height of women’s heels (especially those with added platforms) seemed to be moving into nosebleed territory.

For those of you thinking this is too frivolous a topic to discuss here, I have a defense. I write about change and transition, and as an IBM study of social media and fashion blogs reveals, the height of women’s heels is indeed an indicator of changes in the economy and, I suspect, other things as well.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I need to explain how my recent focus on shoes came about. Sometimes I meet a friend for lunch in midtown Manhattan at the restaurant of a popular department store. A renovation done in the last few years created an entire floor of shoes, strategically placed in front of the restaurant. So unless you’re totally oblivious, significantly distracted, or have deliberately put blinders on, you can’t help but see shoes all the way to the restaurant. And I always stop to look.

Time after time I’ve found I’m quietly laughing to myself, even uttering words of exclamation (“Wow!” “Whoa!” “What!” “You’ve got to be kidding!”) under my breath at what I’m seeing. At times, I’ve exchanged knowing glances with another women who I’m certain is wondering the same thing I am.

We’re talking 6- to 7-inch skinny, skinny heels, maybe even higher, and most amazing of all are those shoes with the added platform. I’ve seen women attempting to walk in, or shall I say, on these tall appendages on the streets of New York City (not that easy to walk on even in flat shoes) unnaturally pitched forward in order to just stay balanced. Stop for a moment and think about that imagery.

Historically, there definitely seems to be a correlation between heel size and the state of the economy: the height of women’s shoes has been shown to increase during periods of crisis. The Great Depression, the 1970s oil crisis, and the 1990s dot-com saw low-heeled shoes dramatically replaced by high heels and platform shoes—although the heel height seems to have reached new heights this time around (peaking in 2008-2009). Trevor Davis, a consumer product expert with IBM’s Global Services has suggested that during hard economic times “consumers turn to a more flamboyant fashion as a means of fantasy and escape.”

For certain, fantasizing can make you feel better, for at least a little bit of the time. But is that enough of an explanation for why women gravitate to higher heels during bad economic times? And when you get down to it, think about this, the exorbitant cost of the fantasy during rough economic times just doesn’t make sense, just doesn’t calibrate with what you might expect; that reason and practicality might prevail—unless of course, money isn’t an issue.

Before I even began researching the phenomenon of heel height and economic trends, I intuitively felt that there had to be a strong correlation between stiletto heels, (the term “stiletto” refers to a small dagger with a slim blade that tapers) whose scant physical surface minimizes the ground beneath your feet, and the unstable, unpredictable times we’re living through.

I feel that women’s “teeter-tottering” on spikes must be a metaphor for this uncertainty and insecurity; perhaps a way to symbolize the shaky ground we’re all treading upon. After all, most of us can’t deny that we’ve witnessed the shake up, shake down, break-up, and ultimate dissolution of so many fundamental, once “rock solid” societal institutions in recent years—not just the economy.

By the way, the shoe trend for fall 2012 includes chunky heels, classic pumps, loafers, flat shoes, and yes, the stiletto heel is still alive and well. Some writers on the subject are suggesting that the trend downward suggests an improving economy, while others wonder if the shift is women’s reaction to ostentation.

There’s no doubt that the height of women’s heels is a valid indicator of the economy, but are heels a reliable predictor of the future? What do you think?

Abigail Brenner, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice. She is the author of Transitions: How Women Embrace Change and Celebrate Life and other books.

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