The Hemline Index: Fashion Theory or Farcical?

Woman wearing a midi skirt on a beach
Ella Pilson

The Hemline Index was a theory proposed in the book ‘The Economics of Fashion’ (1928) by Paul Nystrom. This western spectacle suggests that stock prices move in the same direction as the hemlines of women’s dresses, getting shorter in times of economic prosperity and longer in times of recession. Thus, there’s a mutual interaction between women’s fashion and the stock market. Ella Pilson discusses. 

The Hemline Index is calculated by measuring hem length as a percentage of the length from floor to waistline. The shorter the hemline, the higher the index.

This did have some credibility in the 20th century with the 1920s flapper short dresses being a stark contrast to the long skirts worn during the Great Depression in America. Or later, mini-skirts in the 1960s being swapped out following the 1970s recession and oil crises for maxi skirts. The same with the 2008 economic recession which saw the revival of the longer bohemian skirt or own strand of punk fashion known as ‘Indie Sleeze’.

Longer pencil skirts remained popular even during the 1950s boom

Recent studies have directly refuted this theory. For example, there were 1920s flappers who still wore knee-length skirts and longer pencil skirts remained popular even during the 1950s boom. There are also other reasons than simply the state of the economy at play. Producers typically charged more for their textiles in prosperous times, meaning designers would create shorter skirts to cut the costs.

Nevertheless, some still find this theory enticing. Marjolein van Baardwijk and Philip Hans Franses’ quantitive analysis showed this negative correlation. Hemline data from 1921 to 2009 found that positive economic conditions were followed by short skirts within the next three to four years. Whatever the case, this shows the conflict in setting an aesthetic to economic hardship.

The Hemline Index has not even been just a phenomenon linked to skirts but other beauty items too, such as the ‘lipstick’ or ‘manicure’ index. These suggest that women buy more lipstick or nail art during recession. Or the ‘heel height index’, suggests women wear high heels rather than pumps or platforms during times of hardship.

It obscures a more comprehensive assessment of women’s economic impact

Gaby Hinsliff from the New Statesman argues that the theory enforces the conventional view of women as consumers instead of also being key producers. It obscures a more comprehensive assessment of women’s economic impact and the worker identities that developed after the Second World War. Indeed, journalist Jenna Sauers asserts that the theory misses the basic point that “fashion is an economic indicator.” For example, New York fashion week generated $865 million in just 14 days. Additionally, InStyle have also highlighted a valid point that other factors have influenced fashion – from the rise of feminism and social movements to politics.

Dr. Dawnn Karen, a fashion psychologist, in her book – “Dress Your Best Life: How to Use Fashion Psychology to Take Your Look — and Your Life — to the Next Level” suggests women were tired of having their bodies and ideal self-images imposed upon them. The 1990s saw styles being built around an image such as grunge or rave culture rather than the shorter or longer skirts. Thus, fashion became a lot less restrictive; it was a form of self-expression and identification with a specific group rather than mere trends or societal expectations.

Whilst these are all good points, I think it’s reasonable to suggest as with every myth, there is a hint of truth. Perhaps, this theory just need a tweak. Rather, we could look at the broader idea of how women decide to dress differently when the purse-strings are pulled than simply changing hemline lengths.

Each recession has created its own unique form of dressing

You only have to look at the recent COVID-19 pandemic to see how people have changed their normal styles and attitude toward fashion. There’s been an increase in people looking for comfort over design – baggier jeans, sweatpants, and waistbands.

Thus, as journalist Quinlyn Manfull suggests – “how we dress speaks to our personal relationship with money”. Trends and aesthetics that take place during these economic rises and falls are inseparable. This has also been spoken about in terms of ‘minimalism’ and ‘maximalism’. The 2008 financial crisis saw darker colours trending and a desire for more subdued looks. Whereas the 1980s was an era of bold fluorescent leg warmers and designs with a pop. This shows how each recession has created its own unique form of dressing, for example the post-world war suits for women as well as men, or even the rise of ‘barbiecore’ in 2022.

The recent popularity of denim and floral maxi skirts during the cost-of-living crisis does make one question the theory’s validity. Bloomberg has also shown that the Google searches for ‘miniskirt’ rose above pre-pandemic levels since restrictions have been lifted. Thus, it’s up to you to decide – is this some silly conspiracy theory or do you think there’s some element of truth to The Hemline Index?

Ella Pilson

Featured image courtesy of Amelia Bartlett via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

In article image courtesy of @dr.dawnnkaren via No changes were made to this image.

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