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Still skirting the issue of economic investments

Published May 18, 2003

All things," the French poet Violet Fane wrote, "come to he who waits."

Guess she was right: The news is that miniskirts are coming back.

This is a subject I wouldn't have touched a year ago, but I'm such a short-timer now that they can't really send me to diversity training again.

"Besides," said Boss, when I broached the subject, "the first six times didn't do any good anyhow."

I do not, gentle reader, come to this subject with some testosterone-driven, drooling fascination with exposure of greater portions of the female anatomy (I just vacationed in a nudist camp, for heaven's sake!) but because I think there are important sociological and even economic forces at work here.

I was still in the service and Nancy Sinatra was a star when miniskirts came into fashion in the 1960s, and my interests then were admittedly less academic than they are now.

That part of the last century was a time for extremes, in part because we realized that a lot of the people who had been counseling moderation had been lying about everything else.

As always happens, even the shortest of skirts - even accessorized with white boots and lipstick - became unremarkable. And even the braless look of the late 1960s fell into the maw of an unshockable public.

But, as a Greg Morago of the Hartford Courant points out in a recent story, some of the associations from the mini's last outing - hooker and cage dancer, for instance - cause people problems, although just about everyone did wind up wearing them in the end whether they should have or not.

And, Morago adds, "designers including Chanel, Gucci, Prada, Marc Jacobs, Guess, Stella McCartney, Michael Kors, Missoni, Versace, Jil Sander and Christian Dior have all shown haute minis in their spring collections."

It may be that the extremes seen in fashion shows won't completely mimic what you see on fashion models in Paris, but there is another factor to consider.

Those of us nearing retirement and casting wary eyes on our investments should remember the old stock market adage about stock prices following women's hemlines.

That has its good and bad portents.

If you stop and think about the upward climbs on hemlines during the flapper era of the 1920s, the conventional wisdom takes on credibility.

If you think how the '20s wound up, with the market crash of 1929, you come to believe, I guess, that there can, indeed, be too much of a good thing. If you believe that what goes up must come down and fear that it might come down as drastically as it did on Black Friday, then stabilization begins to become more appealing.

But from a scientific viewpoint, the hemline school of economics is probably fallacious unless there is some weird connection between reckless abandon in the dressing room and during conversations with your broker.

Basically it is based on actions like those described by behavioral psychology guru B.F. Skinner in his work on the origins of superstitions. He found if pigeons were fed at random, the reward tended to reinforce whatever behavior the pigeons were engaged in right before they were fed.

So if rising stock prices have frequently followed rising hemlines, we aren't a lot smarter than pigeons if we see a causal relationship in that. Then again, watching hemlines is probably no better or worse way to make major personal economic decisions than anything coming from government sources or from the big mutual funds who thought they would make their clients rich by buying Enron stock a couple of years ago.

I, personally, use a system based on "the willies."

For reasons I do not understand (I am completely financially illiterate) I have twice in the past 20 years gotten a case of the willies where I suddenly feared for my admittedly meager investments, and, each time, moved most of what I had in the stock market into bonds - right before major market dips.

I have no idea what causes the willies, but they have been good to me and I trust them.

But I am not throwing out the skirt thing completely. I will, in the interests of science, continue to observe the phenomenon, but, if there is anything to it, a return to the type of financial moderation that might be represented by the midi-skirt for the next 20 years or so will be just fine with me.

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