The mini and maxi of hemlines as economic indicators

There are any number of indicators that are used to predict economic activity, futures and options being examples in common use—but what about hemlines?

According to the New York Times, hemline theory goes back to the 1920s when University of Pennsylvania economics professor George Taylor, in a PhD thesis on hosiery, theorised that there could be a link between the Dow Jones index and hemlines: the stronger the market, the higher the hemline. It has been a source of debate ever since.

Hemline length is not the only unlikely economic indicator either: IBM’s high-heel index found heels go up in an economic downturn, and the lipstick index, coined by Estée Lauder chairperson Leonard Lauder in 2001, claimed sales skyrocket in hard times as women turn to lipstick instead of more costly luxuries.

But it is New York’s fashion week that has brought hemlines back under the spotlight.

News website Business Insider conducted its own study of hemlines presented by the 25 most influential designers at the fashion week in February.
The researchers measured more than 2 000 images—hem length was measured as a percentage of the length of the garment from floor to waistline—and compared changes in the length of skirts and dresses from the previous year.

The findings, Business Insider said, were clear: “Hemlines are getting shorter.” Overall, average hemlines in 2012 registered 44.38 on the index, up from 35.04 for the autumn/winter 2011 collections. And 80% of the designers included in the analysis created shorter skirts and dresses.

The collection for renowned designer, Marc Jacobs, for example, had a hemline index of 45.6 compared with 41.1 last year. So the economy is recovering, right? Maybe not.

Perception seems to be at odds with the study. A report by television channel CNBC, entitled “Hemlines are plunging, is the economy next?”, also followed New York fashion week but quoted fashion analysts as saying the hemline trend is “definitely longer”.

Sandra Rogers, executive manager of Edgars Trend & Design, said the trend was for fitted pencil skirts that end just below the knee.

“We are seeing maxi skirts for the next season where the front is shorter than the back, so you are getting the best of both worlds, maybe an indication of how uncertain things are in the economy,” she said.

Local couturier, Gavin Rajah, told the Mail & Guardian the trend now is for “restrained luxury—not so flash or overt”. Rajah said hemlines are slowly creeping up but are not yet short. “There is a sense of optimism—although it is a quiet optimism.”

Rogers said Edgars’s sales do not correlate with the hemline theory. “Customers right now are voting for what is new and exciting, including a wide range of different skirt lengths rather than a specific, set hemline.”

A global study on the hemline index found the theory to hold true—but instead of hemlines predicting the market, it found skirt lengths generally lagged behind macro­economic trends by three years.

The Erasmus School of Economics in The Netherlands produced a study in 2010 titled “The hemline and the economy: is there any match?” By analysing monthly hemline data from French fashion publications from 1921 to 2009, with business chronology from the National Bureau of Economic Research as an indicator of the “world business cycle”, the study found a correlation between hemlines and economic trends. “Supporting the urban legend, we find that poor economic times cause the hemlines to ... get lower and that prosperity is correlated with a reduced hemline.”

But the research also found that hemline fashions lag about three years behind economic swings—for example, skirts and dresses remained quite short even in 2010 when the economy had not recovered from the recession. The report said this is “because today’s fashion was designed one or more years ago and it takes time for new fashion to become ready to wear”.

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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