The hemline effect

With the economy in the toilet, one mother cheers the return of modest clothing.

Published August 18, 2008 6:50PM (EDT)

Remember the good old days, when modest clothing was just for religious fundamentalists? Well, according to Eileen Putman of CNN, one of fashion's longest-standing clichés is once again proving true -- when the economy looks bleak, hemlines fall. In less than a year, Putman watched her 13-year-old daughter's tastes change from the super-revealing to the downright '50s-tastic and sensed that fashion's tide was turning.

The piece -- which reads as a kind of two-trends-in-one story -- touches on the impact celebrities and social networking have on teen and 'tween fashion, noting that the "put-together" styles of "Gossip Girl" (a show whose characters certainly don't seem to be smarting from the recession) could be influential. And, of course, organizations from Pure Fashion, a Catholic group active in the modest-clothing movement, to the American Psychological Association have weighed in on the adverse effects of revealing clothing. "Last year," writes Putman, "an American Psychological Association task force reported that cognitive performance and health can suffer when teens and young women make themselves into sex objects by wearing sexy clothing or styling themselves after sexy celebrities. Eating disorders, depression and low self-confidence can result."

Personally, I find this statement a bit misleading. While I acknowledge that the standards of physical perfection offered by fashion magazines and pop stars can make teen girls feel inadequate (believe me, I've been there), I also think it's dangerous to imply that young women who wear miniskirts are automatically on the road to self-hatred or mental illness. Is it so audacious to suggest that wearing a dress with a plunging neckline may sometimes reflect the self-confidence of a teenager unafraid to wear a bold outfit, rather than a slavish desire to emulate celebrities?

That said, I'm not even sure Putman's right about the modest-clothing fad. I haven't noticed any fewer tiny tube tops, itty-bitty dresses or short shorts walking the streets of New York this summer than ever before. During a brief visit to H&M last week, I saw enough minuscule plaid skirts to clothe an army of Catholic schoolgirls gone bad. So what do you think? Has "the hemline effect" struck again, or is Putman indulging in some serious wishful thinking?

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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