Should economists look at stats or skirts?

The shorter the skirts, the better the economy.

So goes an almost 100-year-old theory on women’s fashion and the economy.

The corporate owners of Stony Point Fashion Park and Regency Square Mall wanted to see whether there might be some truth to the legend.

They asked their customers in a survey: “They say that hemlines go up as the economy improves; If that’s true, where do you think skirt lengths will be this spring?”

Customers across the country think hemlines will be at knee-level. But local fashion experts aren’t so sure of that, or the wisdom of making economic prognostications based on women’s fashion.

Out of the four answer choices — ankle duster, just below the knee, above the knee and cheesecake (mini) — the majority of the 1,038 shoppers polled believed skirts would stay around the knee level, which according to the survey meant “Cautious optimism” or “Light at the end of the tunnel.”

Taubman Centers Inc., which owns Stony Point and Regency and other malls around the country, ran the survey online.

Wharton School of Business economist George Taylor devised the theory, sometimes called the Hemline Index, in 1926. He based it on the logic that when times were good, women wore shorter skirts to show off their silk stockings, and when times were bad, they wore longer skirts to hide the fact that they couldn’t afford silk stockings.

Since then, Taylor has been hailed as ahead of his time, and his successors use generalized history and fashion trends to trace his theory, citing such instances as the miniskirt fad in the 1960s and the floor-length pieces worn by women during the Great Depression.

But Taubman Centers wasn’t attempting an economic breakthrough. Noelynn Koo, marketing director for Stony Point and Regency, said the goal was to have fun and to listen to customer feedback.

“We thought it would be a fun way to find out where shoppers’ heads are with regard to both the economy as well as spring fashion.” she said. “We had done the survey originally in ’03 and ’04, and it was extremely popular. With the economy such a focus right now, we started receiving requests to conduct the survey again, so we did.”

But is there any truth to Taylor’s theory?

Probably not, according to local fashion sources.

Kristin Caskey, a fashion design professor at VCU School of Art, does not see Taylor’s theory as prophetic and has a different explanation for the claim that a war-strengthened economy caused hemlines to rise.

“Historically, I don’t think the theory holds much water,” she said. “I see hemlines going longer and referencing Dior’s ‘New Look,’ circa 1947, just below the knee to mid-calf, but the Dior length was actually a response to the restriction of fabric usage.”

According to Barron’s Finance and Investment Handbook, a very popular finance guide, “Despite its sometimes uncanny way of being prophetic, the hemline theory has remained more in the area of wishful thinking than serious market analysis.”

And according to spring retail inventories, the survey isn’t so accurate, either.

“We’ve seen ridiculously short skirts in our classes and in retail and the economy certainly isn’t good news ahead,” Caskey said.

Aisha Smith, supervisor of the Banana Republic at Stony Point Fashion Park, doesn’t see much truth to the theory after looking over her spring line.

“I don’t fully agree,” she said. “We have nothing below the knee. And minis are in.”

Kaitlin Mayhew is a BizSense reporter. Please send news tips to [email protected]

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Ann Khan
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If you’re tracking trends, look at 20 and 30 something women. They are the only ones who should be wearing short skirts. But I think it has more to do with Single Girl confidence than the economy.