Falling Hemlines and Rising Inflation

A 2009 Royal Mail stamp shows British fashion designer Mary Quant wearing her Banana Split dress. (Photo by Jane Barlow/PA Images via Getty Images.)

Mary Quant, the designer credited with creating the look of England’s Swinging ‘60s, died on April 13 at age 93. Quant defined the fashion of the era, popularizing hotpants, knee-high socks, berets, and, most famously, was credited with inventing the miniskirt. 

But others have suggested that while Quant—or the others who may have created it—may have done the designing, it was really the invisible hand of the market that raised skirt hemlines in the 1960s. That’s the idea proposed by the “hemline index,” an economic theory suggesting that hemlines rise and fall with economic fortunes. Economic booms lead to good times and short skirts; recessions bring austerity, both in budgets and fashion. 

So should economics departments start teaching students about hip lines as well as assembly lines?

The theory actually predates the introduction of miniskirts and came in the 1920s, when economist George Taylor noted that skirts getting shorter led to increased hosiery sales. Flappers’ skirts getting shorter in the 1920s, countercultural miniskirts in the 1960s, and the weird denim skirt phase of the 2000s are often cited as examples of the phenomenon in action. The following decades and their economic decline, were also met with a lengthening of skirts,  the narrative goes.

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