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High heels: the new economic indicator?

High heels may be a contrarian indicator: The higher they go, the worse the US economy fares. So where are high heels headed now? Down.

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Harriet Rovniak, 10, tries on sky-high heels for fun in a department store in Natick, Mass., in August. An IBM survey of social media say heel heights are headed down, which could bode well for the economy.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File

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What do shoes say about the economy? Perhaps a lot.

In the 1920s, low-heeled flapper shoes gave way to high-heel pumps and platforms during the Great Depression.

 In the 1970s oil crisis, platforms came back en vogue as the low-heeled sandals of the late 1960s were cast aside.

 In the 1990s, the low, thick heels of the “grunge” period were replaced by “Sex and the City”-inspired stilettos just as the dot-com bubble burst.

 “Usually, in an economic downturn, heels go up and stay up — as consumers turn to a more flamboyant fashions as a means of fantasy and escape,” says Trevor Davis, a consumer product expert with International Business MachinesGlobal Business Services unit, in a press release.

 IBM conducted a study of social media posts and is predicting that women’s heel heights, which are currently in nosebleed territory, are poised to come back down to Earth.

 Perhaps the shift signals a change in the economic outlook, or maybe it’s a sign of resignation.

 “This time, something different is happening — perhaps a mood of long-term austerity is evolving among consumers sparking a desire to reduce ostentation in everyday settings,” Davis says.

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 IBM came to its conclusion by using special software to sort through social media posts about footwear trends. Several separate sorts were made, first broadly, and then narrowing down to bloggers who are passionate about footwear and have large followings. The result is one you won’t find in the shoe store. Right now, stores are still carrying sky-high heels, but the shift to flatter shoes is on the way.

In fact, discussions about increasing heel height peaked toward the end of 2009, and then declined after that. Between 2008 and 2009, the most influential bloggers wrote consistently about heels that ranged in height from five to eight inches, but by 2011 they were writing about the return of the kitten heel and the perfect flat from designers Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin.

 This is not to say that the sky-high heels are gone. Instead, Davis says, these soaring heels are discussed as glamwear and not for the office or a shopping trip.

 According to IBM, this study also underscores that manufacturers and retailers cannot think that they are the ones in control of where the trends head. Bloggers have become influential tastemakers in their own right.

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