Viewpoint: Corsets and Currency


It has been some time since the prospect was raised of a correlation between tastes in fashion and economic activity. Someone, whose name is less memorable than his thought, pointed out that there has been a historically revealing relationship between the trappings of women and inflation, with inflation minimal only when women wore long dresses and corsets. Presumably, the tighter the corsets were cinched, the higher the value of the unit of currency. As the corsets were uncinched, then shed altogether; as the skirts shortened in length and necklines plunged, increase in monetary expansion seemed to follow.

Once pointed out, this relationship between fashion and economics raises the possibility of an entirely new form of government intervention to suppress the consequences of monetary depreciation. Some enterprising administrator in the Council on Wage and Price Stability might make corset wearing mandatory. The president could announce from the White House that the first lady had cinched herself in and was pleased to do so as her small contribution to keeping the price of Rice Krispies low. The Commerce secretary, being a woman, could call a press conference to discuss the relative merits of various corset designs. Someone would undoubtedly point out that corsets with stays are more binding and uncomfortable than those composed solely of elastic. This, it might be inferred, would make them more effective in the fight against inflation. Voluntary guidelines about the number and length of stays could be posted at the main entrances to shopping centers and reproduced on the first page of the Sears-Roebuck Catalogue.

One could imagine much more of the scenario. Ecology groups acting on the fact that the stays in the most expensive corsets are of whalebone would counsel open defiance of Phase One of the Corset Campaign. More sophisticated observers would point out that focusing on corsets alone would be to isolate only one aspect of a many-faceted problem. Further directives would have to be issued to lower the hemline on women's dresses and to button all blouses up to the neck. And the wearing of hats by women would also be in order, as they have historically been worn during eras of low inflation. If the campaign went far enough, it could extend to footwear. Shoes with pointed toes might help tighten the money supply.

The danger of the correlation between fashion and economic activity being acted upon by the State is nil. This is not because the correlations are any less scientific or logical than those that politicians and bureaucrats embrace with alacrity. No, it is merely the fact that everyone's experience of fashion is so intimate and personal that it renders government intervention into that field, in ways counter to the public taste, a matter of extraordinary absurdity. At the same time, it is as evident as any amount of argument could make it that there is no direct causal relationship between the wearing of corsets and the increase in the value of the currency. Every woman alive, and indeed all the men, could wear three corsets apiece and this could not stop inflation if at the same time there were an increase in the monetary base and a vast extension of credit.

The fact that there is no causal relationship, however, should not blind us to the possibility that a correlation may indeed be genuine and that it rests upon factors that can be placed in reach of explanatory principles. For example, there can be little doubt that when healthy people voluntarily confine their bodies in corsets, and this practice is so general as to be the prevailing fashion, it is a period, both literally and figuratively, of self-restraint. Arguably, this need not be true in each individual case. Some persons undoubtedly wear corsets because of a lack of self-restraint; not having limited their caloric intake in order to maintain an acceptable figure, they submit instead to the rigors of elastic and stays. That admitted, when uncomfortable undergarments become the fashion for persons of normal build, it can suggest a willingness to forgo some immediate gratification.

That certain kinds of fashion do correspond to differing economic prospects is not entirely preposterous. Fashion, whether in clothes or any other aspect of life, is definitively what is "in the air." If the public perception of the future could be said to be "in the air" as well, there may be a subtle calculus by which the perceptions and tastes are brought into correspondence. Who knows why this should be—why, for instance, plunging necklines should in any respect correlate with currency expansion? Perhaps animal spirits run higher in a time of a false inflationary boom than during a period of stable growth when everyone must weary himself with working. Perhaps, too, the inflationary boomlet puts people in a party mood because there is an unconscious realization that the prosperity cannot last and one must live it up while one can. Indeed, it might be a general consequence of inflation that individuals take a more near-term view of relationships of all sorts. This would be a logical consequence of the disruption of expectations, even when the first consequence is the unanticipated boom.

Now consider another possibility. Suppose there is a kind of precognition of economic prospects that is reflected in trends of fashion and taste. If it were true, and past correlations held, then the sum total of millions of individual decisions about hemlines, necklines, and let us not forget corsets, could suggest something about the time to come. I introduce this possibility because, as those who watch such things will attest, there has been a perceptible recent trend toward what might be called "deflationary" dress. To be sure, corsets are not yet the rage, nor do I expect them to be. Their sales are up, however (Gadzooks), and many of the other "fashion dictators" suggest the same thing.

Men's fashion seems to hark back almost directly to that of the late '20s and early '30s. Glance at almost any photo of that period and you see today's well-dressed man. He is wearing narrow leather shoes, heavily pleated pants, and probably a double-breasted jacket. Most notable is his shirt collar, of which the late boom and early depression had several treatments: the pointed collar with pin, the rounded collar with pin (Herbert Hoover's favorite), and the wing collar. That's right, the wing collar. It has not been seen in anything akin to popular fashion since the Great Depression. What is more, the return of the hat—the late '20s style slouch hat, no less—is also reminiscent of the fashion of the Great Depression.

This could mean little or nothing. But there is also the more fascinating possibility: that somehow the haberdashers and dry goods merchants, in conjunction with Polo (not yet Brooks Brothers) have through an intuitive entrepreneurship given us the clothes to wear through a depression period. This is clearly the furthest thing in the world from their minds, but it may nonetheless be just that. Even if their designs are merely nostalgic, the question arises, Why depression nostalgia? They could have drawn on many periods of history and many cultures for their inspiration. Witness the Nehru jacket and the Chinese coolie look that briefly fascinated designers a few years ago. They could go to togas, African robes, the polyester leisure suit, anything. They have not. They have hearkened back to the styles, cloths, and weaves characteristic of the Great Depression. If, in fact, the real estate market crashes, there is a credit crisis in the banking system, and somehow or other—in spite of the politicians' best efforts—the reflation fails, then you can thank the tailors for the tip.