Thursday, May 01, 2008

In 1926 an economist called George Taylor put forward the view that hemlines fall with the markets. I was reminded of this by an FT article written by Vanessa Friedman in March. The idea was also referenced and a brief history given by Claire Brayford in the Express in February. It's certainly a common theme for columnists who want to throw something cultural into financial articles or surprise people with an unusual idea that holds some authority. Catherine Valenti also had an article on this subject published on the ABC News money site in January. In this particular article Taylor's theory is debunked by Valerie Steele, the Chief Curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, who is quoted as saying "it's a kind of functionalist theory of fashion that doesn't work... hemlines were starting to come down in '27 and that was two years before the market crash." Her choice of words is significant, when asked to define functionalist google tells me that theories in particular rely heavily on the notion of realization to explicate the relation between consciousness and the physical. This probably isn't the definition that Steele is referring to, she is more likely thinking of the idea that all elements of a culture are functional and so people attempt to assign a correlation between two separate parts of our culture to make them function together. I think that the definition of functionalist works well in this context, the idea that people's economic fear, their consciousness is written in what they wear is very present in Taylor's hemline index.

The idea in the press seems to be that there are too many conflicting products to derive any specific ideas about the economy. Many skirts equates with many hemlines so how can you make a cultural judgment? Trends allow for differing hemlines, the point is in the majority of popular skirts. Nevertheless the argument promotes the idea that the hemline index was ever viable and that's very spurious. Clothes do not necessarily follow a pattern that relates to the rest of society unless your conclusion is that after a decade of bland, beige clothing people might want to wear bright, acid colours. Fashion and the economy are linked but the specific part that is linked is not the creative process, it's the business side of the market, the selling of clothes to customers. In order to gauge the effect of business on design and creativity you have to go through a chain of influence that differs depending on the organisation that makes the clothes, in some parts of the industry buyers have more influence than in other parts of the industry. Some retailers, Topshop immediately springs to mind, are orientated heavily on cost, the same pattern will have details added to it many times and the economy directly influences the clothes sold in the stores. This is not as obviously true of fashion houses. Essentially then the question becomes whether fashion today has a life as a whole or only as a series of separate entities, that is always the question, whether you're looking at various catwalks around the world or at independent shops in Camden.

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