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Do Skirts Get Shorter When Wealth Declines?

August 23, 2011, 11:14 AM

George Taylor, an economist at Wharton School in the 1920’s, claimed there was an inverse relationship between the state of the economy and skirt lengths. Today we discuss whether or not rising skirt lengths could fuel economic growth with new research suggesting that men exposed to sexily-dressed women increase their preference for expensive status goods.

Taylor made the following argument. He said that in good economic times women shortened their skirts to show off their silk stockings but when times were bad they lengthened them to hide that they couldn’t afford stockings. So when the economy boomed skirts were short and when it lagged skirts were longer.

I don’t think there is any evidence that this theory held up in the long run, but more recently some of my favorite marketing / evolutionary biology researchers decided to have one of their grad students (okay, that is pure speculation on my part) get dolled up in a mini skirt to see if men in an experimental setting changed their preference for status products when the experiment was conducted by a woman dressed in a manner that would have made George Taylor blush.*

Here is how the experiment worked. The experimenter (an attractive young woman) asked each participant to view ten images, each for one second. Each of the ten images contained a picture of six products arranged in a wheel. The products were both functional (i.e. rolls of toilet paper) or status (i.e. a Porsche, Aston Martin or Maserati).  After they viewed the images, the experimenter then instructed the participant to make a list of as many of the products as possible in 25 seconds. Presumably the products they listed were the ones that they most immediately recalled from the images.

Pretty simple experiment. The interesting part is that in half the experiments the experimenter dressed in plain clothing (think farm girl with glasses) and in the other half she wore a jean mini skirt, a low cut top and heels (an early version of the paper is available here with pictures of the experimenter in both of her guises and an example of the product images).

It turns out that men who indicated that they were in a committed relationship recalled roughly the same proportion of status goods when the experimenter was in her sexy clothes (33%) as when she was in her plain clothes (35%). The men who indicated that they were single, however, recalled significantly more status goods when the experimenter wore a mini skirt (43%) than they did when she was in her farm clothes (33%).

Independent of their relationship status, both types of men recalled a lower proportion of functional products when the experimenter was in her mini skirt. I suspect they were distracted.

The evolutionary argument is that when a single man is in the presence of an attractive, young woman his preference for products turns to those that can help him secure her as a mate. He assumes, perhaps subconsciously, that the products that will attract her are those that indicate his wealth.

This raises an interesting point. As women’s fashion has evolved over time in a way that makes women more conspicuously sexual, has this changed men’s preference for products that more conspicuously demonstrate their wealth and status?

The answer to this question is probably no. One of the fundamental principles of economics is that the price of a good is related to its relative scarcity. If scantily clad women are scarce, then their price is high (where here the “price” is the amount a man must spend in order to demonstrate his affluence to a relatively attractive woman). When scantily clad women increase in abundance, however, their price is bound to fall as men no longer need to compete with each other over the relatively scarce good. In fact, as hemlines go up, conspicuous consumption of status goods might fall for precisely this reason.

What has become relatively scarce over the past few years is affluent men. Can this be driving fashion trends that suggest shorter hemlines this season? Maybe that is the real effect that George Taylor observed all those years ago.

* Janssens, Kim; Mario Pandelaere; Bram Van den Bergh; Kobe Millet; Inge Lens and Keith Roe (2011). “Can buy me love. Mate attraction goals lead to perceptual readiness for status products.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 47: pp 254-258.


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