by Louise Perry
Tuesday, 11
August 2020

What’s behind the longer hemline?

Women's clothing is getting more modest — a trend that is likely to continue
by Louise Perry
Big brands like Uniqlo are now producing modest ranges, including hijabs and other hair coverings

The Hemline Index, an economic theory almost a century old, suggests that women’s hemlines rise and fall along with the stock market. In boom times (the 1920s or 1960s), women show more leg. In lean times (the 1930s or 1970s), their hemlines drop towards the ankle. In 2010, researchers took a look at the predictive power of the Hemline Index and found it to be surprisingly accurate.

A trend for longer hemlines was already underway even before the Covid-19 crisis hit and, if the Hemline Index theory has it right, we can expect it to continue. In the last couple of years, dresses have not only become longer, but also acquired higher necklines, more substantial sleeves, and baggier waists. John Lewis’ 2019 retail report reveals that “restrictive, tight-fitting clothing has been replaced with voluminous cashmere, longer lengths and looser-fitting styles”, with midi dresses and wide-legged culottes now hugely popular.

Last summer, a long-sleeved ankle-length dress from Zara, white with black polkadots, became something of a retail phenomenon. Christened ‘The Dress’ in media coverage, this almost shapeless tunic was worn by women of all ages and body shapes. Other retailers imitated the style and this year the uniform for fashionable young urban women leaves very little skin on display.

This may be a result, not only of the economic downturn, but also of changing demographics. So-called ‘modest fashion’, designed for women from conservative religious minorities, has recently broken into the mainstream. Big brands like UniqloASOS, and H&M have taken the lead from high end designers in producing modest ranges, including hijabs and other hair coverings. In the UK, a disproportionately young population of Muslim women offers a growing market for high street retailers willing to diversify their ranges; in America, Orthodox Jewish women have been similarly influential. 

A few devotees of modest fashion are critical of women outside of these religious communities for ‘appropriating’ modest styles, and suggest that this may be just a fleeting trend that will be abandoned after a couple of seasons.

But I’m not so sure. The joy of ‘The Dress’ is practical as well as aesthetic — this is a style that protects from sunburn, doesn’t require shaving or Spanx, and that can accommodate sagging, bloating, pregnancy, weight loss or gain, and all of the other realities of the female body that designers often prefer to forget.

Wearing a voluminous smock is far more comfortable than anxiously plucking at a pair of disappearing hot pants, and women may well be reluctant to return to styles that force wearers to be ‘body conscious’ (or ‘bodycon’, a term popular with designers in the early 2010s).

Not only is our population becoming more religiously diverse, it is also becoming steadily older and heavier, and therefore less eager to buy tight and revealing clothes. Whatever direction the economy takes, hemlines may be set to hover around the ankle for some time yet.

Join the discussion

  • I wish – expecting my 16 year old daughter to consider wearing some dress/skirt/shorts below the knee is about as likely as the world having an epiphany and fleeing covi world. Seriously – discussed this just the other day with my wife and she called me reactionary for asking why women adhere to fashions that expose so much flesh. Apparently I’m an idiot – women like the attention, it looks good. Now lets explore this ……… gave up as we became entangled in every possible argument. We retired to the local pub (not really connected as usually pop down there – when covi allows) and won £10 on trivia machine. Winning answer – on fashion! I conceded defeat. Three children, all daughters and wife. I on a loser here – I often observe how can you buy clothes with such little cloth. Some of the clothes they buy I postulate would be tight on a child. They look at me as if I’m mad. Dad you do not have a clue – concede that point happily.

  • Actually, as the picture above the article suggests, a lot of the “modest” but fashionable Muslim clothing may cover skin and hair, but it actually hugs the body closely…Love the contradiction!

    As if the women are saying to the imams, “see, I’m following the rules”, but subverting the whole idea of dressing so as to hide ones’ “assets” and not be attractive to men…

    The Orthodox Jewish and fundamentalist Christian women (which you didn’t mention, but are also a strong force) with their own fashion sites) are more into the loose clothing.

    But lots of mainstream women have long complained about how difficult it is to find summer clothing with sleeves, and generally clothes that are flattering for older women and not dowdy.

    I for one would welcome the return of elegance as a fashion value, rather than the “sexy” and “pushing the envelope” styles. The picture above the article is of elegant clothing. It still requires a slim, youthful figure though, it does not look as good on a flabby, overweight body, but then, what clothing does?

    But I always found the tunic over pants costume Pakistani women wear elegant and flattering and practical (unlike the sari that always has to be adjusted or it falls off…), as long as it isn’t too tight.

  • Probably far more to do with the fashion industry.
    They need something “new” every now and again to boost sales.

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