There is a theory that the length of women’s skirts follow the rise and fall of the economy. It sounds gross, yes, but stick with me. Attested to a man with too much time on his hands in 1926, the Hemline Index theory goes like this: in a booming market hems get shorter allowing women to show off their expensive silk stockings, while in a downturn they hide their cheaper nylon hosiery under long skirts.
And it’s not just a misogynistic urban legend. The correlation tends to be that the economic cycle leads the hemline by about three or four years. It’s kind of the olden days equivalent of covering up in a tatty old pair of Primark tights when you’re skint, versus wafting around with your cherry-scented vegan spray tan on payday weekend.
It’s not really used much these days – and rightly – probably because it was popularised in a time when the length of a woman’s skirt was something which was readily discussed in terms of how it made men feel. Long skirts, poor economy = bad times; short skirts and loadsa money = great stuff. But there is still a point to be made.
And that is that we have been sold the narrative that consuming and acquiring goods in every-increasing amounts are indicators of a successful society. Not only that, but that we should be ashamed of, and take care to conceal, anything that indicates our inability to fulfil it.
We have, for many years, been brought up on a set of values that celebrates economic exchange and newness, and disparages the old, the stale and even the recycled. And it’s only beginning to change now.
But even the recent tide of change in the fashion world will have a tough job when you reflect on how these values have been taught and are hegemonized by our language. Consider the phrases: “brand new”, “fresh to death”, “box fresh” compared with “dirty old”, “musty, hand-me-downs”, “charity case”, and “cheap and nasty”. Earlier in the article I even wrote “tatty old”. It’s hard not to when language reflects and perpetuates this ideology that the new has a greater value than the old.
Perhaps this is why change has been so slow for most of us and why there hasn’t been a great deal of progress since the polyester parade of the 70s and 80s.
Back then clothes were cheap – and unapologetically so – as industry bigwigs patted each other on the back for developing fast production of very low cost manmade fibres and outsourcing manufacture to cheaper workers. These fibres washed better than wool, cotton and most things that came before; they didn’t shrink and were fairly durable so became household favourites in questionable economic times.
There have been other economic influences which trickled down into the fashion industry. The concept of a capsule wardrobe – owning a few key pieces that wouldn’t go out of fashion but could be jazzed up with seasonal accessories – was conceived in the 1970s, one of the least prosperous economic periods of the late 20th century. And what if its popularisation in the mid-80s came out of the many feminist movements of the period: women becoming more empowered in their industries didn’t have the time or inclination to spend hours shopping or choosing their work clothes in the morning.
And later came an ostentatiousness – Versace and Moschino prints, and their various knockoffs when I was in school. Paris Hilton was the ultimate wealthy party girl as we prepared for the start of a new millennium forecasting exponential tech advancements. We anticipated that we would be developing socially and economically faster than ever before.
And what now? Is fashion consumption still linked to economy, society and culture?
We’ve come out of a financial slump and arrived smack bang in the middle of commercial and political uncertainty once more as we prepare to leave the EU. But we are still spending: British women are projected to spend 29.4 billion pounds in clothing this year, and the sales of womenswear to grow by 14 percent between 2018 and 2022.
The problem is that even though recycling, donating and reusing are on the increase, we are still struggling to eschew the philosophies of a disposable society. Ideologies embedded in language adulate acquisition, expenditure and monetary gain instead of the emotional value of our clothes.
When we stop thinking of our clothes as transient and give their life expectancy a little boost by cherishing them, we should be able to add a value which is greater than their cost.
So think about the top you were wearing when your friend spilled a whole pint of beer on you and how you laughed uncontrollably for five minutes; spare a moment for the shoes you had on on the first day of college and that woman stopped you in the street and asked you where they were from and said they really suited you; go and try on the dress your sister gave you because she thought it’d look better on you.
It’s time to move society towards valuing these things over consumption. Think about where they came from, the journey they made getting to you and how they have, and will continue to, become a part of your own story.