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Taking Up the Hem

The economics of women's fashion

Anyone who’s met me, even for a fleeting second, knows that I’m a committed member of the (highly elusive) (aggressively middle class) St. Andrews long skirt community. Naturally, this codes me into adopting overly affected habits such as: ordering an oat London Fog at Taste, saying things like “no, but I can only study in the Byre”, and writing pretentious articles for The Saint. The clothes that we wear hold and exert such a social force. The things that we choose to wrap our bodies in each morning are a tentative and yet visual meeting point between our own private understandings of ourselves, and the outside world that we live in. They send out messages about who we are. Our internal and external worlds collide visibly on our bodies every day, be it in the form of a long skirt, an FS puffer, or (God forbid) a Schöffel.

Let’s be clear — I genuinely could not be less interested in studying economics if I tried. Despite the exhaustive efforts of my first boyfriend who (somehow) convinced me to read SuperFreakanomics when I was 16, ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ to me just connote the length of a skirt. The one and only time that I’ve ever been interested in studying the economy lies in the title of this article; the bizarrely influencing effect that it has on women’s fashion. Fascinatingly, the economy is an integral part of this external world that shapes and is part of how we dress.

Paul Nystrom in the 1920s was the first to notice the correlation between the economy and the way that women dress. He argued women tended to wear shorter skirts when the economy was booming, and longer ones when it dipped, calling this the “hemline theory.” He was right — hemlines rose with the stock market in the 1920s, and lengthened with the great depression. They climbed up again in the 30s, fell alongside the recession of 1949, and climbed allll the way up to the Twiggy mini skirts (or belts, as my mum would say) of the 60s. This lasted through the 80s before hemlines, and the economy, dipped again at the end of the decade. I don’t have the expertise of an economist nor Anna Wintour. But I think that fashion is psychological. When the economy is doing well, we go out, we move more, we dance more — we can afford to. We’re more likely to go from the office to the bar, or in our case, from our lecture to the Vic. Shorter skirts allow us this malleability. Thinking back to being 17 and running out of the house wearing the smallest mini skirt I could find hidden under some joggers, these small little skirts reflect the flirtation and freedom of going-out culture.

As a counterpoint, scholars such as Koh have noted the way that people tend to wear more black when the economy tanks. This is interesting — it’s an ambiguous colour. It’s often a sign of counter-culture; something of course on the rise when it feels like the system at large is failing. It’s also a sign of professionalism, perhaps a colour to will business in, when there isn’t much around.

The economy’s effect even extends to affect the way that we dress our faces. Leonard Lauder, chairman of Estée Lauder, famously coined the ‘lipstick index.’ This notes the way that lipstick sales interestingly go up when the economy dips. The theory goes that women splurge on smaller things like lipstick when bigger purchases like shoes and bags are out of reach.

The way that we dress is a weird and wonderful meeting point between the way that we see ourselves, the way we wish to be perceived in the world, the economy at large, and the mini (utterly micro) economy in our student bank accounts. Our own internal world collides with these big forces visibly on our bodies every day. It is strange to think about. In 10 years time, the taste queue, the Byre, the arts and culture pitch meeting for The Saint — might just be full of mini skirts rather than long ones.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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