Do Short Skirts Really Mean Better Times?

ByCatherine Valenti

Jan. 17, 2003 -- The old maxim was when women's hemlines rose, so did the economy.

So now that miniskirts are hot new items for spring, are the economy and stock market set to skyrocket as well?

Not likely, say experts.

"Fashion used to be much more of an indicator of economic trends," says Marshal Cohen, president of NPDFashionworld, a market research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y.

Cohen says over the past few years, the casual look that's become so popular in U.S. workplaces has diminished fashion's importance in indicating trends.

A Theory With Legs?

The so-called "hemline theory" is said to have gotten its start in the 1920s when Wharton School of Business economist George Taylor noticed in good economic times many women raised their skirts to show off their silk stockings. When times were bad, women lowered their skirts to hide that they weren't wearing any.

Supporting the premise was that the cost and availability of fabrics have historically affected the hemline of skirts, say economists. In boom times, when producers typically charge more for their yarn or textiles, designers would make skirts shorter to cut costs.

"Often designers felt that they could maybe save 20 percent of their material costs by creating new styles," says Edward B. Shils, the George W. Taylor Professor Emeritus of Entrepreneurial Management at the Wharton School.

But some fashion historians don't think the hemline-economy link ever held up that well.

"It's a kind of functionalist theory of fashion that doesn't work," says Valerie Steele, acting director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. "Hemlines were starting to come down in '27 and that was two years before the market crash."

Something for Every Taste

Even if the hemline theory held true at one point, fashion watchers say it has long gone the way of silk stockings.

That's because these days, there are so many different types of clothing that one particular trend in fashion doesn't necessarily point to a direction for the economy.

The wide availability of different fabrics and inexpensive manufacturing techniques enable designers to offer something to suit the tastes of every shopper. Consumers today have more fashion choices than ever before, and can express their individuality no matter what the fashion magazines are touting.

"In the '60s, everyone wore short hemlines because that's the only thing the manufacturers made — you couldn't go in any other direction," says John Mincarelli, professor of fashion merchandising at New York's FIT. "However, today there are many designers offering a variety of hemlines in the same collection."

The New Indicators

That's not to say that fashion isn't affected by the economy, even if it doesn't work the other way around. To be sure, retail has been one of the many casualties of the almost two-year-old recession.

In December, one of the most important shopping months of the year, retail clothing sales were flat as a lack of new styles failed to excite consumers, forcing many retailers to offer deep discounts to lure budget-conscious shoppers.

"If you look at the merchandise mix that is in the stores right now, there is a preponderance of basics, because in rough economic times, people shop for replacement clothes," says Mincarelli.

But if sales of mini skirts do take off, analysts say that would be a good sign for the economy and the retail sector, because it would show that consumers are willing to take a chance on an article of clothing that is completely different, not just something to replace an item that has worn out.

"When you see a trend that does stick, that is a good sign that people are willing to invest in their wardrobe," says NPDFashionworld's Cohen.

What About Market 'Research'?

But it's not just the economy that determines what people will ultimately buy. Also stirring demand for a certain item, no matter what's going on in the stock market, are cultural influences and what celebrities are wearing.

And some market watchers even say that the worse things get in the economy and the world's political situation, the more some consumers might embrace fashion to get their minds off of things — if they have the money to do it, of course.

For example, short, sexy numbers graced the runways during the Spring-Summer 2003 collections shown in Milan last fall.

"Psychologically, it doesn't make sense, but people want something different," says Andreas Kurz, chief executive officer of Italian-based fashion firm Diesel.

Diesel is even poking fun at the notion that marketers can pinpoint the latest fashion trend in its new ad campaign this spring, which lampoons market research with nonsensical "facts" about "Diesel individuals."

"Fashion is a coping mechanism," explains Stefani Bay, a faculty member of The Illinois Institute of Art-Chicago's Fashion, Marketing and Management department. "We use it to make ourselves feel better when times are bad."

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