The question of whether fashion is a reliable mirror for change in society was posed to me recently, and I keep being reminded of this query every time I hear a news report about the recession. At my office we listen to NPR all day long, which gives me a lot of opportunity to hear different spins on the current crisis. Sadly there don't seem to be too many ways for journalists to cover it as the same cliches reappear over and over again. Almost daily I hear mentions of the 'hemline index,' George Taylor's 1926 theory that hemlines on women's dresses rise along with stock prices, and drop drastically in poor economic times. If this theory was correct then we could definitely say that fashion was a reliable mirror for change, but I think it is pretty apparent simply by looking around that this theory does not really hold true.
While it is easy for people who only have a passing knowledge of fashion history (say any lay economist or journalist) to see this theory as a viable one- most people know that hemlines were generally short in the 1920's and longer in the 1930's, they wouldn't know that hemlines were only knee-length for two years in the '20s and had already fallen before the stock market crash. It is amusing to listen to journalists who are more used to writing a story about the Dow Jones attempt to test the validity of the theory by flicking through the latest issue of Vogue, where, as any women would know, there are a thousand and five different hemlines showcased.
I've read several articles disproving the hemline index, referring to wide availability of different styles and trends. While it is definitely true that there is now a much broader variety of clothes worn by people, it must be said that what is seen now as the typical clothing of past eras is incredibly reductive. Little beaded flapper dresses may have been the ideal for many rich bright young things in the 1920s, but this discounts everyone who was from a different socio-economic or age group. I've had more than enough people scrunch their noses up at me when they are trying to date a vintage piece I'm wearing. Due to the limited vision of historical fashion they have, most of the time I can see the confusion on their faces when I eventually tell them what era my outfit is from.
Our ability to take all the trends in one decade and distill them down to a few simple ideas is actually quite remarkable. These concentrated fashions are more likely to work as a reliable mirror of change since they are so simplified that a correspondence could easily be found to some shift in society. The more one knows about the fashion and the history of an era, the more difficult it is to find these correspondences- they definitely exist but there are so many different trends and ideas that need to be considered. Even more difficult is to attempt to look at contemporary fashion for clues to what is happening in society- for every designer who would seem to fit your theory, there will be another five that won't. It seems to me that we can only truly look for and find these connections in hindsight, when we are able to look at an era as whole, when we know the long-term results of historical events on society.
Labels: fashion history