Skirts – a Cultural Barometer and Thermometer

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Skirts – a Cultural Barometer and Thermometer

Where and when the fabled alien lands on earth will determine whether skirts are an entirely female

Where and when the fabled alien lands on earth will determine whether skirts are an entirely female garment or a unisex item. If we count the kilt as a skirt, it remains an item worn by both males and females in Scotland and amongst the Scottish diaspora, although nowadays it is mainly seen on men during official and formal ceremonies such as weddings, funerals and football away games.

The Romans conquered most of Europe with soldiers dressed in skirts, and before them the Greeks saw the item as a manly and noble part of the military outfit, although even in those days, turning up in chiffon was seen as a faux pas.

But throughout the modern period, the skirt in the western world has been a strictly female preserve. Despite fashion houses’ perennial attempts to get men to wear skirts and sarongs, it never seems to catch on, for a host of cultural reasons.

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If you were to perform a 200-year stop-frame animation of the skirt, you’d witness an item of clothing whose lengths, widths and waistlines are constantly on the move as fashions, tastes, cultural freedoms and availability of materials vary.

During wartime, for example, skirts tend to settle around knee length to provide a balance between functionality (women are more likely to perform manual labour when the men are away fighting), availability of materials (which will naturally be stretched during wartime) and, to a certain extent, public modesty and respectability.

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During the buttoned-up nineteenth century, skirts would drag along the ground and be made of heavy, hard-wearing materials. But as early as 1934, Cole Porter was writing “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, but now Lord knows, anything goes!”

so even by then the idea that little of the female form should peer from below the neckline was long-gone. As the song reflects a time of great social upheaval, especially for women, the lyrics are hopefully more of a celebration than a complaint.

The high water mark of skirt-wearing must have been the 1960s, when the mini skirt was introduced by Mary Quant. It is amusing nowadays to watch footage of people’s reactions to seeing the mini skirt out in the wild, a mixture of admiration and shock, but proof that nothing like it had been seen before.

The micro-skirt, the even shorter sister of the mini of more recent times, has thankfully never really caught on in popular culture for obvious reasons. It would appear that Quant got it about right.

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The mini was a stark reaction to the glamorous but high-maintenance skirts of the 1950s, which required a feat of engineering to keep them perfectly flouncy and bell-shaped. Whilst this fashion was a welcome release after years of wartime austerity and then rationing, they were hardly a practical item of clothing.

Nowadays, Cole Porter’s lyrics can be taken more literally than they were intended, as anything really does go. A walk down any city centre street will reveal skirts of all lengths, shapes and styles.

Formal, businesslike skirts mix with the extravagant, the daring, the tight and the free-flowing, and probably more than half the women will be wearing trousers. It’s too early to say whether skirts will go the way of the Romans, but it seems reasonable to guess that the skirt is here to stay.

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