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Stiletto or kitten? Watch the heels
The 1920s notion of a "hemline index, " in which the economist George Taylor posited that skirt lengths rise and fall in relation to the economy, suggests that fashion is socially determined. In a modern twist, a report about the direction of high heels, issued by IBM, proposes that fashion can now be determined through social media.
To promote its software and consulting services, IBM announced that its computer analysis of "billions of social media posts" pointed to a downward trend in heel heights. This was surprising, the company said, because heels usually go up during an economic downturn.
While an intriguing thesis, it bears some fact-checking.
First, IBM's case: By mapping the most influential participants in online conversations about shoes, the company was then able to eavesdrop on a dozen key bloggers. It found that the median heel heights mentioned on those sites dropped to two inches this year from seven inches in 2009.
But did women really wear seven-inch heels in 2009? Is that physically possible?
Trevor Davis, who led the IBM survey, argued: "The absolute number is not really what is of great interest here. It is the relevant movement. "
"Usually, in an economic downturn, heels go up and stay up - as consumers turn to more flamboyant fashions as a means of fantasy and escape, " said Davis.
There is, indeed, anecdotal evidence of a decline in heel height, but mixed opinions about whether that has anything to do with the economy. Colleen Sherin, the senior fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, wasn't buying it. Yes, flats are going to be big for spring, but so are wedges.
"I know that people like to take an economic read from heel heights, skirt lengths and selling red lipsticks, " she said, "but it is just the cycle of fashion. "
Elizabeth Semmelhack, the senior curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, has proposed that heels grow higher in a bad economy, citing the introduction of platforms during the Great Depression and their reappearance during the oil crisis in the 1970s and again during the dot-com bust. But even that was a "casual observation, " not gospel, she said.
Valerie Steele, the chief curator at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said the evidence does not hold up, even if people are talking about it online.
"You can have absolutely vertiginous heels and, at the same time, sell billions of ballet flats, " Ms. Steele said. "It all goes back to that Mark Twain quote: 'Lies, damned lies and statistics. ' "
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