No Hemming and Hawing: To Call the '96 Vote, Look at Women's Clothes


With the presidential election a little more than a year away, political pundits are working overtime to predict whether a Democrat or a Republican will be inaugurated. Much attention will be focused on issues like the economy and foreign affairs and, as usual, the most reliable factor for predicting the winners and losers will be overlooked: the bottom line of women's fashions.

You see, each time hems go down, Democrats lose. Women's fashions appear to be getting shorter this fall, but there are still plenty of long dresses on the racks. And if the hemlines continue to fall next year, the GOP is almost certain to win the election sweepstakes.

In the 19th century, Republicans romped as women's fashions were so long as to sweep the floors. Amelia Bloomer made a valiant attempt to come up short, but the knee-jerk reaction of most women was covered by yards and yards of crinoline.

When progressive Republicans occupied the White House in the early 20th century, the length of women's clothes went up about a hem or two.

The upsweep was enormous in the 1920s, although it was a Republican decade. Older women, however, stuck to their original no-show garments, and party bosses vowed that the radical fabric contours and stitches of young folk would be banned.

Democrats had no such hang-down. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal lifted spirits and hemlines and encouraged experimentation in women's fashions.

In World War II, fabrics were scarce, and a 72-inch girth limitation was imposed on women's skirts. Patriotic feelings were flying high -- from knee to shining knee.

Dwight Eisenhower's moderate Republicanism saw no reactionary clothing styles. Crinolines returned with longer and fuller skirts. The compromise clothing for most women was pants. Even when hems inched upward, the look was sack-like rather than form-fitting, which ensured that the strait-laced midriff majority in the GOP wouldn't get too uptight.

With the Democrats coming into power in the 1960s, miniskirts were the rage, as well as short shorts, both vanishing as the Republicans took office in 1969. After President Richard M. Nixon visited China in early 1972, Chinese fashions in the form of long evening dresses took hold in the U.S.A., ensuring a Republican rout in the November presidential elections.

However, it was clear that the 1976 race for the White House would be close because street-length dresses (neither long nor short) became the rage. Democrat Jimmy Carter, you might say, won by a mere half-hem.

In 1980 President Carter was caught off guard by women's fashions: On the one hand, lengths ran the gamut from ankle to short-short, but late in the year as campaigning began, silhouette dresses, a tad longer and tied at the bottom, escaped Democratic notice.

Ronald Reagan and the Republicans were destined to put a nip and a tuck in Democratic hopes.

In 1987 Women's Wear Daily went all out for the short skirt, presaging a Democratic victory the next year. But the style didn't catch fire with most women, and domestic designers let down hems like crazy. By November 1988, George Herbert Walker Bush was a shoo-in for the presidency. But then styles changed once more in 1992, and Democrat Bill Clinton won the election.

Of course, the Democrats aren't fated to lose next year if hems go down. But one thing is certain, if they intend to whip the Republicans. They certainly cannot afford to hem and haw. Or, for that matter, skirt the issues.

Thomas V. DiBacco, the son of a seamstress, is a historian at The American University in Washington.

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