08 April 2009

Fashion: The Ups and Downs of Hem Lengths

By Delia DeLeest

At the turn of the last century, women's dress was rather conservative. Long, smooth skirts draped gracefully to the ground below tightly corseted figures, making women look like shuffling pigeons. Topped off by enormous hats, these were not clothes you wore for comfort. Style was what it was all about. Women, those who could afford to anyway, were looked upon more as a decorative object than a functioning member of society, and their clothing reflected that. But change was in the air.

In the 1910s, as war raged in Europe, women began to fight their own war. In the United States they fought for equality, the vote, temperance. As their awareness of the world around them rose, so did their hemlines. By 1915, the style was to wear a full top skirt over a slimmer under skirt, both of them only going down to mid-calf, a shocking height never before reached in Western society. Though a dramatic change from previous fashions, this style still restricted leg movement, making things difficult for the girls looking for a more modern lifestyle. Then along came the Roaring Twenties.

Youth ruled in the 1920s, youth who played sports, went swimming, did the Charleston and many other things not possible with the restrictive clothing previously worn. Basic tube-shaped dresses with skirts just tickling the knees came into fashion. It allowed the new, active woman freedom to do the kinds of things her mother hadn't even dreamed of. To make matters worse, these scandalous young women threw away the conservative black stockings of yesteryear and wore flesh-colored ones, making their legs look almost...naked!

The sobriety of the Wall Street crash soon found its way to women's fashion. Skirt lengths crept back down to mid-calf, many times longer in the back than the front, giving it a fuller appearance. Pleats and tucks replaced the dropped waist of the previous decade, giving women a more genteel appearance without losing any of the hard-won freedom the looser clothing had given them.

The war years brought a new-found conservatism to women's clothing. Rationing of material made full, pleated skirts not only impractical, but downright unpatriotic. Slim lines with hems coming to about knee-length were the norm. With more women taking over in the workplace while the men were on the fighting front, the new style gave a serious, professional appearance to woman, something they'd not experienced in the past. A new era was dawning.

Once the war was over, all bets were off. After scrimping and saving to help the war effort, people were ready to cut loose and enjoy life once again. With no wartime restrictions on material, dresses became longer and fuller, many with added crinolines to make them stand out even more. This style made it easier for the young people to cut loose on the dance floor to that new crazy music called Rock and Roll.

As if in rebellion of the excessive use of material in 50s fashions, the mini-skirt came into vogue in the 60s. Creeping up higher than the flapper of the 20s could ever imagine, more leg was exposed to the public view than ever before. New clothing materials were making their way into people's closets and many of these minis were made of vinyl and other man-made materials.

Once again, the desire to do the exact opposite of those before them showed up in fashion. Long granny-style skirts found their home in the 70's. Falling lower and lower, soon long skirts were popular again for the first time in almost 60 years. The main difference between the long skirts of the 70s though, was that they weren't women's only option. They had the benefit of choice and if a long skirt was too restricting, they could always pull on a pair of plaid, polyester bell bottoms. Those of us who lived during this time period still have nightmares.

The 80s brought the power suit. In order to compete with a man in business, women felt they must dress like one. Dresses and skirts, when they wore them, were basic, no nonsense things meant purely for helping the wearer get ahead in life. Worn at about knee length, they allowed for freedom of movement while giving a woman just enough femininity to make her still feel like a member of the female gender.

The 90s provided more of an "anything goes" type of attitude than ever before. Though women very seldom wore dresses and skirts anymore, when they did, the rules for length seemed to no longer apply. Instead of dressing for fashion, women started to wear what looked good on them and what made them feel strong and confident in themselves. For the most part, this attitude has carried over to the new millennium.

So the next time you open your closet and grab something to wear, remember to give a little thanks to those who came before us. Think of the battles the flappers fought so you can wear that denim micro-mini or how your grandmother scrimped and saved her material coupons so you have the freedom to pull on that breezy, calf-length floral skirt. Just take a minute to appreciate the years it took for us to have the ability to wear whatever we want without fear of arrest. We've come a long way, baby!

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