The Rise and Fall of the Hemline Index

Thursday, January 3, 2013: 1:20 PM
La Galerie 5 (New Orleans Marriott)
Clara Berg, Museum of History and Industry
Hemlines rise when the economy is good and fall when times are tough—so says the theory of the “hemline index.” This supposed correlation between skirt length and the economy has been cited in everything from books on investing, to academic studies, to newspaper articles hoping to spice up the latest stock market numbers. The theory has been credited to more than one originator, including an economist in the 1920s and a stock analyst in the 1960s, but citations to primary texts are difficult to find.  This paper is an investigation of the history of the theory, the various ways it has been referenced, and the reasons that have been given for the connection between rising hemlines and economic boom.  While some have dismissed the theory as frivolous, others have given it weight and believe it to be logical and provable. This paper is also a re-examination of the evidence for the theory through the study of key moments in the twentieth century where either fashion or the economy shifted significantly. Whether true or false, the continuing resonance of the hemline index goes to the heart of how our culture understands fashion. Is it something that reacts and follows trends started elsewhere, or is it so pure an expression of the spirit of the times that it can predict shifts in other parts of society?