Can the length of skirts in Toronto tell us if a recession is coming?

I never thought I’d be someone to participate in Dry January — especially because I don’t even like drinking much anymore. But I have another vice — I love clothes. I love buying clothes; I love looking at clothes; I love reading about clothes (I am a subscriber to invite-only fashion newsletter Opulent Tips). What were once merely frequent but fiscally harmless purchases from Urban Outfitters sale racks now manifest themselves as less frequent but far more significant designer purchases. I got my first adult credit card so I could buy a custom Bode Senior Cords jacket in New York City. When both my passport and wallet were stolen in Barcelona, I somehow found a way to still buy a pair of Prada loafers I’d been coveting for months (they let me input my replacement credit card info, and my sales rep Ellaria emailed me for holidays and my birthday). I convinced myself to buy a recycled cashmere turtleneck from Dai because it is “sustainable” and allegedly a staple piece I needed in my wardrobe (I was right). 

Don’t get me wrong: I do not regret a single one of these purchases. But in a cold turkey attempt to curb my spending habits, I determined not to spend a single Canadian dollar on clothing for all of January, something which proved to be extremely difficult but very necessary. I spent my evenings unwinding by scrolling through the SSENSE sale, adding items like Jacquemus sunglasses and House of Dagmar trousers to my wish list. I craved everything, including a bejewelled Collina Strada water bottle — it’s camp! It was agony. 

And then suddenly, it was Feb. 1. I didn’t want to buy a single thing. The impulsive urges had faded and I’d gained a newfound limit to how far my wallet would stretch. Maybe it was Dry January. Or maybe it was the fact that inflation had increased significantly over the past year, and everything was more expensive, so buying a pair of Saint Laurent sunglasses seemed like an unwise financial decision. If I’m shelling out more money for tampons and Advil, gas or groceries, splurging on something that is, to some, frivolous is not only ill-advised but vapid and imprudent. I have rent to pay! I am anemic! These things cost money. Do our fashion purchases and trends indicate periods of economic turbulence? Or is it not as simple as tracking the height of hemlines to tell us whether a recession is here?

Iris Simpson, the co-founder of Hello, Couture! Design, said the answer to that has changed over the years. Simpson began working at at Eaton’s part-time as a student and has built a storied career in the fashion industry, including as the board director at the Fashion History Museum of Canada.

“Fashion is in an era of disruption; the old adage that hemlines fall and rise with the economy no longer holds the same weight it once held,” she said. (Evidence: Miu Miu FW22 mini-skirts.) “With the speed of trends and silhouettes falling in and out of style it’s caused many not to consider trends at all. It’s more about building an aesthetic that represents one’s authentic self. Aesthetics is what represents the lifestyle many women would like to emulate.”

Simpson is referring to the hemline index, the now-debunked theory that skirts are shorter during times of economic prosperity and are longer when the economy is suffering. But she points to another economic indicator in fashion that holds far more meaning. “The lipstick index, however, does hold weight. A small purchase of a lipstick is still a sign of an affordable indulgence during an economic downturn. Other beauty products such as nail polish and face creams can also substitute a lipstick purchase,” Simpson said.

With lipstick sales still soaring, it seems consumers are dealing with the economic downturn by indulging in more of these types of less expensive but still luxurious purchases. As it seems like every celebrity has launched a skincare or makeup brand, the demand from consumers is obviously there. While living through times like these — a global pandemic, erosion of democracy, etc. — one would imagine that buying a new shade of lipstick or trying out a new moisturizer not only feel like a luxury, but allow us to maintain the illusion of control. 

While Simpson said fashion trends aren’t as strongly influenced by the economy anymore, that may be because of the new era of fashion we’re in — one of micro-trends and a capitalistic tendency to buy, buy, buy.

Iris Simpson said the constant evolution of fashion trends has changed our consumption habits. Photo: @irisknowsbest/Instagram

“Fashion has to constantly change to keep consumers wanting to buy. New trends give them a reason to keep buying and this is very evident during economic struggles,” Simpson shared. “Fast fashion and luxury fashion has had a huge impact on consumers as a result of economic growth. Both these sectors have sustained huge growth over the last decade.”

Perhaps the fact that we live half our lives online has contributed to this growth. There’s a sort of class anxiety that emerges when you’re confronted with images of expensively-dressed people on a daily, if not hourly, basis. In the past, without the Internet, we weren’t fed a steady diet of what it’s like to live outside our own social milieu. These days, I can’t help but compare myself to the slew of influencers that populate my explore page, toting their gifted bags and borrowed clothing.

That being said, while fast and luxury fashion have seen major development, consumers’ priorities have also shifted. “Consumers are also becoming much more conscious of the environment,” Simpson said, “resulting in major growth in sustainable fashion and locally produced goods from more diverse companies.”

There’s distinct intention behind some consumers’ purchases. They recognize that actions, such as deciding where their money goes, makes a difference. That’s part of the reason I bought that Dai sweater back in the fall. Sure, it’s a little pricier than what I’d normally pay for a knit turtleneck, but then again, what if what my conception of what I’d normally pay is wrong? What if in buying cheaply made, cheaply bought clothing, I’m simply feeding into corporate greed that contributes to the oppression of underpaid workers overseas and pollutes the environment with interminable waste? If one has the purchasing power to buy less and spend a little more to buy a sweater or a pair of jeans or a jacket that will last them for a decade rather than a handful of washes, I fear we have a responsibility to exercise our wallets in such a way. As Simpson said, what we chose to wear should reflect “one’s authentic self.” Our choice in clothing is inherently political. We need to ask ourselves who we want to be.

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