Trickle-Down Fashion: It’s All About Me. Or You.

Conformity and individuality are two sides of the same coin, and the side you prefer depends on where you started and where you’re ending up.

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As human beings, we’re constantly trying to find a balance between individuality and conformity. At first glance, it seems pretty easy: If forced to choose one over the other, most of us would instinctively opt for individuality. Conformity is seen as a deadly trap inhabited by mindless drones (just think of the negative images of conformity in history and popular culture, from the failures of communism to Star Trek’s Borg Collective). Eleanor Roosevelt summed up this attitude quite nicely, boldly pronouncing that, “When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else…you surrender your own integrity. You become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” But is conformity really all that bad? Or for that matter, is individuality all that great? With few exceptions, no matter how much we bad-mouth conformity, we all want to be accepted by others. That generally involves doing things to conform, whether it’s wearing certain clothes, listening to certain music, eating certain foods, or something else. And while being an individual is a fine goal, the truth is that too much of it will get you labeled as weird or a freak, and being an outcast is a steep price to pay for being a true one-of-a-kind.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

The fact is that you can’t have individuality without conformity. And sometimes it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Teenagers, for example, valiantly experiment with all sorts of ways of expressing their individuality only to end up looking and sounding an awful lot like their friends. For adults, what often drives the question of individuality versus conformity is the same thing that drives so much of life: money. Kurt Gray, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, calls this phenomenon “trickle-down conformity.” And one of the best places to see it in action is in the world of fashion.

The Height of Fashion

To see how trickle-down conformity works, Gray and his colleagues did a fascinating experiment, measuring the height of women’s heels as they moved from one part of the country to another. It turns out that heel height varies greatly, ranging from a low of under 1.97 inches in Kansas, Nebraska, and Maine, up to nearly 3 inches in Puerto Rico. They got their data from a major online fashion retailer that tracked shoe purchases by women who moved between any two of 180 U.S. cities. They found that when women moved to a zip code with higher socioeconomic status (SES) than the one they started in, their heels tended to conform to the height of the women already living there. Pretty clear evidence of conformity in action. However, when women moved to a lower SES zip code, their new shoes tended to be the same height as the ones they wore before moving—clear evidence of individuality in action. So what accounts for this one-sided approach to fashion? According to Gray, “From the beginning of time, people have thirsted for respect and social standing, and have aligned themselves with the powerful and distanced themselves from the powerless,” he said in a university press release. “So it makes sense that they do the same with heel sizes.”

Stop Sneering: Men do it too.

Although it’s tempting to make fun of women for being slaves to fashion (at least some of the time), like it or not, men do the very same thing with other types of purchases, such as electronics or cars. “When you move from Wichita to LA, you look around and sell your Chevy for a BMW,” says Gray, “but when you move from Los Angeles to Wichita, Kansas, you look around, and then just keep the BMW.” The rationale for both women and men is roughly the same: When you’re talking about the rich crowd, conformity is okay. But when you’re talking about the poor crowd, individuality is a definitely the way to go.