The rise and fall of hemlines – fashion archive, 1987

In 1947, the introduction of Christian Dior’s New Look skirt provoked reaction against its longer length, and action groups were formed to campaign for the reinstatement of short skirts. A ‘little below the knee’ club was started by women in Dallas, and in Georgia the legislature announced its intention to introduce a Bill to ban long skirts (just as some states had tried to make the showing of ankles illegal in the early Twenties).

There were also signs of protest when the midi skirt began to replace the mini in the late Sixties. By that time, however, fashion was more pluralistic, and the lengthening of skirts had nothing like the same significance.

Years earlier, at the end of the Twenties, dress reformers formed the Sensible Dress Society, and campaigned against the lengthening of women’s skirts (initially by Jean Patou). They were inspired directly by their desire to retain the short skirt.

Now the opposite is true, and a club extolling the virtues of the area between the knee and the ankle might be the only way left to appease the large numbers of women who are heartily sick of hearing about the short skirt.

We had come to expect the sporadic tabloid headlines screaming the return of the mini, used as an excuse to take the titillation beyond page 3 (in terms of flesh per square inch, not quality), but we weren’t quite ready for the way in which the dubious ideology of the short skirt was rammed down our throats by fashion reports in newspapers and magazines.

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For women with less than sylph-like measurements, indignance mingled with insecurity (partly induced by ignorance of the alternatives: big, baggy clothes don’t disguise a weight problem, they emphasise it), or just downright anger. Their protestations didn’t extend to organised resistance however, like the action provoked by the introduction of longer skirts in 1947. Complaints were aired in indignant letters to fashion editors, some very rightly stating the case for longer skirts, too, in the busy life of a working, fashion-conscious woman.

In spite of all the hysteria and silliness surrounding the hype of short skirts, we know that longer lengths have always been there anyway, quietly and comfortably holding their own against yo-yoing hemlines. Their wearers would stoically shoulder spiteful implications that they were frumps or irrevocable squares, all sense of style lost forever in the voluminous folds of a cheesecloth hippy skirt.

Deciding what length skirt to wear means taking ruthless stock of your proportions. Most women know what suits them, although Lucille Lewin, owner of the Whistles chain of shops, states the case for short skirts quite simply. “If you’re in good nick, with nice knees and good shoes, they’re okay. Otherwise you shouldn’t wear them.”

A model wearing a crepe de Chine dress with a drop-waisted blouson jacket and matching hat from the Kimijima collection at the Carre du Louvre in Paris, c 1982.

A model wearing a crepe de Chine dress with a drop-waisted blouson jacket and matching hat from the Kimijima collection at the Carre du Louvre in Paris, c 1982. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images

Long skirts are as important a fashion statement as short skirts this season, says Lewin, who is a great advocate of a woman’s right to choose her length, and through the variety of styles and shapes she stocks, has never demanded that women dress in a certain way.

Many designers have given long skirts the thumbs-up this year, although that doesn’t mean we can use any old shapeless patchwork dirndl or indian print skirt as a claim to stylishness. There are still certain rules to observe. “My favourite look this year is the full, circular or pleated skirt and wrap top,” says Lucille Lewin.

Betty Jackson reiterates the flattering qualities of the new ballerina-like proportions, with its softly sloping shoulders, full swirling or tulip shaped skirts, and flat shoes. “What I hate is that oversized look,” says Jackson. “I’d advise women to avoid a heavy, layered look with big jackets and long or straight or full skirts. Keep the top half as small as possible, with wrapped shirt and cardigan and wear them with full, circular skirts that swing and move with you.”

“The ballet has taught us most of the aesthetic advantages of a longer skirt,” said Molly Cochrane, a writer, in 1947. She was responding to a comment by the diarist of The New Statesman and Nation on Dior’s New Look, and the sheep-like mentality of women who followed the “uncomely” new fashion. Molly Cochrane replied that men were as conformist as women, and that anyway, longer skirts were both more convenient and more “comely.”

Next stocks a good range of long pleated chiffon skirts, and Whistles, Hobbs and Workers for Freedom pioneer the two strongest looks for autumn: the folksy floral mish-mash of prints or the floating diaphanous ballet-dancer chiffon. The designer Marilyn Anselm, of Hobbs, suggests that fans of the latter would be well-advised to “wear some warm underwear with it.”

The long straight skirt, especially when equipped with box pleats, seems to be the bete-noir of most designers this season. It certainly doesn’t conform to the new soft and floaty look, and Marilyn Anselm finds it hard to forgive “the trendy Sharons who come into the shop in high heels, long narrow skirts and sheer tights. They look awful.”

Linda Evangelista, in Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, Vogue 1987.

Linda Evangelista, in Saint Laurent Rive Gauche, Vogue 1987. Photograph: Arthur Elgort/Conde Nast/Contour by Getty Images

A shift of emphasis and a change of proportions is fundamental to the new, softer silhouette. “If you do nothing else,” says Betty Jackson, “throw away your shoulder pads.”

Although the true fashion devotee will slavishly wear her short skirts very short and her long skirts extremely long, there is a length in between that is often overlooked by hysterical short-skirt haters who think that their options are limited to crotch-skimming minis or voluminous dirndls.

The matter of the hovering hemline was discussed by Rene Konig in The Restless Image. “The Seventies show without a doubt an instability similar to that during the French Revolution and during the Twenties. Skirts had been becoming shorter and shorter for many years up to Mary Quant’s mini skirt, and then sudden reactions followed with the floor-length maxi-skirt and the corresponding maxi-coat worn sometimes with the old mini, sometimes with longer dresses.

“Occasionally a decision based on indecision produced the so-called midi-look, calf length dresses. This is a typical expedient, the sort of thing that makes people who cannot decide between a red and a white wine for their meal choose rose.”

The rose of the hemlines this season must be the softly gathered tulip skirt— full at the top and narrow at the bottom, or a shorter, gathered skirt which is more flattering than it sounds. Knee-length skirts shouldn’t be overlooked altogether. Lumped together with memories of the rigid triangular styles we drew at school, or the unflattering A-lines of the mid-Seventies.

In addition to long, crepe de chine and lightweight ottoman skirts, “anything soft and fluid,” Marilyn Anselm is hazarding a “halfway line, forbidden by the press, which falls just below the knee. It covers all the ugly bits but still looks new and feminine.”

For short skirts, Anselm predicts a move towards the flipped-out hemline look of the forties, as opposed to the prevailing re-hashed Sixties style. Besides long skirts, another alternative to the short skirts are, says Anselm, “those lovely wide trousers.” At the suggestion that most women would first have to purge their memories of loon pants and flares before surrendering their softly tapered classic trousers and jeans, Anselm replies impatiently: “I’ll tell you something. Everyone’s nervous of everything these days; they’ve got to see hundreds of people wearing a style first, before they can even bear to try it on.”

Monday Style in the Guardian, 23 November 1987

Monday Style in the Guardian, 23 November 1987 Photograph: The Guardian for the Guardian


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