Clothes Sense

Drawing the Line

Skirts are sinking below the knee, but only because we know they’ll scurry back up again.

Fashion columnists have been suggesting that the chic woman’s skirt will fall below the knee next fall. Meanwhile, Parisian store windows are full of columnar skirts meant to graze the shoe tops, and women in the street adhere in great numbers to the miniskirt–that is, anything 3 inches or more above the knee. The movable hemline goes on being a key visual element in the theater of female appearance. Wherever the line is drawn, a suggestive point is being made about female legs–about their provocative relationship to the pelvis and to the eager glance of the beholder. Pants just can’t offer anything quite like it.

Popular fashion history claims that the Modern Woman was created when women gave up corsets. But that moment never quite occurred, at least not as it has been portrayed. Women have been shaping their bodies to suit shifting ideas of feminine beauty not only for centuries before modernity but ever since. The temporary abandonment of tight little waists represented no more than a change in method. The most important moment in the modernization of female dress was when women cut off their skirts for good.

That was just before World War I, about a decade before the second most important moment, when they cut off their hair for good. These two radical acts made irreversible transformations in female appearance. They created a new shape for women, dynamic and changeable–and yet somehow so permanent that the little female logo on the women’s restroom can doubtless keep her knee-length skirt and chin-length hair forever. No matter how low or high women’s hemlines become or how much their hair length varies, the point of all such changes–including those in store for us next fall–is to show that women have the choice to lift their skirts and crop their hair. Before the 20th century, they didn’t.

Long skirts, like long hair, had been required for women by religious law and general custom since time immemorial. During the 600 years when fashion developed its own history, both skirts and hair were considered immutable, even when fashion went to extremes. There were moments of deviation–the bloomer costume, for example, with full trousers showing below short skirts–but they never lasted long. The arrival of women’s legs in the first quarter of this century was a genuine shock.

Women’s legs were known to be there, but they were meant to be seen and judged privately. Women’s legs obey mechanical laws, of course, and move apart while they are being used. Watching them do that has always been a volatile matter for the male viewer. Throughout all those heavily skirted centuries, men paid good money to watch women’s legs prancing, kicking, and leaping on the stage, since on the street, the shift of weight was about all that could be discerned.

The mythology of the feminine had a lot to do with the veiling of a woman’s lower half. The thick, floor-length skirt produced the sense of complex, secret treasures difficult (and perhaps unwise) to discover. It’s not surprising that at the beginning of this century women who wished to declare a new parity with men, to escape feminine mystery and enter female reality, should shun male gear. It was too frivolous and perverse. Instead, they remodeled the skirt. If a skirt could be shorter and simpler, female legs and feet could be seen at work, the normal action of knees and thighs would be apparent under its neat shape, and a woman could at last be seen to make strides. Her brains and her feet could be seen to connect, and she would become a normal human being.

Skirts had risen above the ankle by 1913, went up nearly to the knee during the war in 1915-17, and had a steep postwar drop back down to the ankle in 1922, a steep rise to mid-knee in 1925, another drop in 1929, and so on. Once off the ground, the skirt’s exact length became a burning issue, first about hellfire itself, since a woman with visible legs was seen by many to be walking toward her damnation. Then a range of personal worries about the exact level of the hem came into play. Shorter might be too silly or too daring, longer too staid or too sultry, either choice might be too modish or too tawdry. Such uncertainties stirred up ever-ready fashion hatred and made the hemline into a derogatory synonym for fashionable change. Legs turned out to be problematic: The free-swinging or up-sliding hem invited not only the eye but the hand. It soon became clear that dispelling mystery involved more than compelling ordinary respect.

With the miniskirt of 1965, the public received another shock. Pants gave skirts freedom to be outrageous, and up they went to within an inch of the crotch. And there many of them stay, with all the other lengths proposed in the 20th century, including back down to the floor and even trailing.

T he miniskirt was a truly revolutionary departure. The heavy threat of the ancient long skirt was long forgotten–that’s not what miniskirts rebelled against. The miniskirt arrived not only as a separate garment but also as the bottom of a little dress, worn with big, teased-out hair and big, blunt-toed shoes. Suddenly, everybody began to look like Shirley Temple in her singing child-star days–all bouncy hair and wiggly legs, with a tiny dress in the middle–no waist, no breasts, no hips, and pale lipstick went with it. The look was a bid to be a little girl again, with all a little girl’s irresponsible eroticism. Adult female reality was proving too hard, perhaps.

All real little girls’ dresses from the ‘20s to the ‘60s had been crotch-length. In those years, no adult skirts ever rose that high, except maybe on the ice–tiny skirts were conventionally part of the innocence of childhood. But as soon as the miniskirt became part of the adult erotic arsenal, little girls’ dresses sank below the knee, right where they had been in mid-Victorian times and where they still are, guarding traditional female decorum as their elders’ skirts no longer do. The sexiness of children has lately been thoroughly acknowledged, which may be why their tasty little legs are now conventionally covered.

The original miniskirt had another revolutionary side–it was another theft by women from men, only disguised. Pants were an old story, and they were no longer strictly male; but the 1960s short-tunic-and-tights costume, especially when worn with high boots, cropped hair, and a hip-level belt, seemed to put girls into the clothes of Renaissance youths, so they looked like Carpaccio dandies or Ghirlandaio toughs. Daggers were not added, but the effect of privileged male freedom was very telling–maybe with a touch of Joan of Arc. Girls in such androgynous gear looked ready for any adventure.

All such Robin Hood allusions have long since been extinguished. There followed the epoch of leg warmers and other mutations into the aerobics class look. Miniskirts withdrew from such sweaty connotations, emphasizing instead their harmony with classic jackets. These days, most miniskirts stop quite a few inches below the crotch. They have mainstream acceptance and no shock value, and are worn by young career women and old grandmothers alike.

Though many girls still wear their skirts very, very short, novelty has lately required increasing their length, not their brevity–and many new long skirts are resembling South Sea wraparounds, often gauzy, to suggest more exotic freedoms, newer ways for longer skirts to seduce. Once everybody goes in for length, let’s give it about three years–the same period as between 1922 and 1925, say–and then expect another rise, with other connotations. The fashion business sees to it that interest in shifting skirt lengths is never exhausted.

But perhaps after a hundred years of skirts that liberate and expose, women will again feel the desire for fullness, drag, and bulk in their skirts; for the chance to swish, trail, and sweep; to swing heavy fabric from the hips; maybe even to lift heavy folds in front of the belly–or simply to have another way of muffling unsatisfactory legs with something that isn’t pants. The couture ball dress and the standard wedding dress do, after all, keep suggesting the possibility, and Madonna’s Oscar outfit this year suggests that full gowns have even attained the status of something avant-garde.