True Power

True Power

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Showing some skin during the tough times

After Watching Joan Rivers and her stinging commentary on what celebraties are wearing, my attention was peaked when she said "hemlines are geeting longer" and the particular dress she was refferring to was just below the calf.

My mind started to reach a foggy fact I had heard somewhere at sometime about the economy having an affect on whether women wore the hemline of their skirts or dresses longer or shorter depending on the economic climate.

The news article, I was trying to remember, if memory serves me correctly, stated that dress length/economy correlation was first propounded by US economist George Taylor in the 1920s.


During the Great Depression, hemlines reached as far as the ankles

Taylor argued that women wore shorter skirts in boom times because they could afford expensive silk stockings and wanted to show them off. During a recession, however, the skirts grew longer, because the women couldn’t afford stockings and wanted to hide the fact that they weren’t wearing any.

The story said Taylor’s theory had been surprisingly accurate. In the 1920s, 1960s and 1980s, which were boom times in the US, hemlines rose. On the other hand, they reached down as far as the ankles during the Great Depression.

The stock market’s measure of consumer confidence has far-reaching implications. Fashions, such as women’s hem lines, tend to follow the market (high hem lines and high stock prices imply confidence in various areas of life). Movies such as the gangster movies of the 1930s, Godfather style movies of the 1960s, and Batman or Darkman in 1990, follow the stock market contractions of the same periods. Financial indicators such as home construction and buying, auto and major appliance purchases, vacations, etc. all follow the stock market cycles, and in fact stock market trends measure the confidence and psychological attitudes of peoples (including those who are not investors), and thus provides a convenient and concurrent mathematical measure of attitudes and a wide range of economic, political, and societal events.


So, with all of the economic turmoil going on in America these days, will we see longer dress on an everyday basis?

In 2008 this was the question on the mind of almost all fashion designers. What will women want to wear during our economic downturn? This is what the fashion community has to say on the subject.

The oldest adage about fashion and the economy is that hemlines rise and fall with the stock market. In the boom times of the 20s and the 60s, skirts were short; in the 30s and 40s, they fell. Except that, on closer inspection, even this most famous theory fails to hold water. During the wartime years, arguably the period of greatest privation in modern history, hemlines were shorter than before or after the war; in the recession of the early 90s, hemlines fell. We cannot rely on skirt length alone to track the economy through fashion.

After 9/11, upscale New York boutiques reported a surge in demand for lower-heeled shoes: on the shopfloor, they said, women were explaining they wanted shoes they could run in if necessary. The financial crisis has not had the same effect: heel heights have been rising steadily for several years, and look set to continue their skyward trajectory next season.


Betty Jackson keeps it simple. Illustration: Betty Jackson A downbeat stockmarket is not necessarily reflected in downbeat clothes. Indeed, according to fashion historian Valerie Steele, "this whole idea that fashion is a 'reflection' of the economy is a misnomer. It would be more accurate to say that fashion and art are as much a part of living history as the economy is." What happens on Wall Street, says Steele, "is mediated through the manners and mores of the time" before influencing the fashion aesthetic. In the 60s, for instance, what impacted on fashion was not so much a booming economy as "the anti-conventional youth movement" which flourished in a booming economy.

"The hemlines theory was invented back in the 1920s. But it just doesn't hold up. Take the 20s - hemlines actually began to fall in 1927, two years before the crash. They were falling by 1969, two years before the downturn of 1971," says Steele. In many cases, fashion designers appear to have an ability to read the writing on the wall, without waiting for the newspaper headlines. Between 1936 and 1939 fashion began to pick up on the rumble of warmongering, with military-inspired square shoulders teamed with lower heels. Even nightgowns sported three-inch shoulder pads. At other times, we may misinterpret clothes in retrospect in the light of world events. Christian Dior is usually credited with grasping the mood of the moment with his joyous, full-skirted Corolle collection of 1947, which launched Dior's New Look - but in 1939, before the outbreak of war, the Paris collections of Chanel and Mainbocher were both modelled on a full skirt and a wasp waist. With the war came a dampener on fashion, and the trend did not catch on until Dior revisited it.
Rosemary Harden, curator of the Fashion Museum in Bath, agrees that the notion of a catwalk aesthetic which straightforwardly reflects the economy "feels quite glib. It's much more complex than that, and I think it's important to unpack it a bit. The 20s and 60s were a time not just of boom but of liberation. The short skirts of the 20s were driven as much by the rise of sportswear as by the stockmarket. The sense of liberation cut across the social spectrum - there are photos of my grandma in south-east London wearing short knitted skirts. The 20s, like the 60s, was a time of opportunity, a time of people not feeling shackled. Opportunity led to newness and experimentation. It is connected to a buoyant economy, but the link is not as direct as people imagine."


Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys department store in New York and author of the memoir Beautiful People, is rather more blunt. The notion of fashion design reflecting the economic mood is "a total fallacy. Fashion people live in a creative hermetic bubble, and are rarely so tuned in to the political or financial vicissitudes of the world. The idea that they might have a Dr Strangelove conclave where they confer about hemlines and the economy is hilarious." Nonetheless, he says, "there is one certainty about recession, which is that fashionistas will buy less - by which I mean one pair of Louboutins instead of three."

Those expecting to find Grapes Of Wrath chic in the stores - dungarees and grubby faces as the hot new look come spring - will be disappointed. Next season's clothes are, if anything, rather more upbeat than those on sale this winter. At John Lewis, recent weeks have seen an upturn in sales of miniskirts and opaque tights, rather than catwalk-led trouser styles. It seems we are in tune with Doonan, whose advice to customers "is always to dress up rather than down, in tough times. You owe it to your pals, family and colleagues to present yourself in an optimistic and fabulous way. Remember what Quentin Crisp said? 'When war broke out, I bought five pounds of henna.' "

So there you have it. Women will do what they want to do when it comes to fashion. Whether the hemlines grow longer or get shorter; the point will always be - to look fabulous.

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