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 Uniqlo, ASOS, 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.