A Modern History of the Hemline
One thing that can’t be denied is that hemlines have changed dramatically in the past 100 plus years in Western culture. From the floor-length hemlines of the fin de siècle to the micro-minis of our most recent decade (and the even non-existent skirt in some cases… think of tights with just a blouse), it is pretty apparent that the hemline has been one of the most drastic fashion changes in modern history.
Much of that change has to do with the real practicalities of women demanding and receiving more rights in the political, cultural and familial spheres, as well as their move away from a purely domesticated role out into the workforce, but there’s also a fair amount of serendipity at work too. Fashion is a fickle business, trends must change season to season for the industry to be successful after all.
Of course, that doesn’t address the artistry and the envelope pushing of the designers themselves who have a hand in defining our culture through their creations. Think of those influential designers like Coco Chanel (recognised for introducing menswear into women’s fashions), Mary Quant (credited with creating the miniskirt) and Diane von Furstenberg (known for designing the wrap dress) and how each one of their contributions defined a generation.
It is important to note that prior to the 1970s the skirt (or a dress) was really the only acceptable public dress for women. Trousers were considered déclassé and it was only acceptable for them to be worn for specific tasks for which skirts were impractical, e.g. horse-back riding or physical labor.
It is also significant to mention that skirt lengths changed most drastically from the period of the turn of the twentieth century to the 1920s. After, literally, centuries of stagnation, hemlines went from floor or ankle-length to mid-calf and jumped again to knee length in a period of 15 to 20 years. Since then, they have shortened with each successive generation, with some back and forth in popularity.
So, what have been the prevailing hemlines of each of the modern fashion eras?
Mid-Calf – 1920s
Hemlines made their first dramatic jump from floor and ankle-length in this decade. Flappers wore even shorter skirts (at-the-knee), but most women stuck with the mid-calf length. The ankle was daring enough without showing the full calf!
Below-the-Knee – 1930s
As the 20s turned into the 30s, hemlines continued to shrink and bearing calves became less shocking.
At-the-Knee – 1940s through the 1960s
Acceptable hemline length remained the same for a period of time from the 40s through the early 60s. For the most part, at-the-knee was as short as things got.
The 60s were a decade of change in many arenas, including the fashion world. Skirt length made the biggest change since the 1920s and made a move to above-the-knee in the early 60s.
Mini-Skirt – 1960s
Of course, nothing was as dramatic or as shocking as the mini-skirt that appeared in the mid-1960s and which got shorter and shorter as the decade progressed.
Below-the-Knee Wrap Dress – 1970s
Once the shock of the mini-skirt wore off, hemlines seemed to reset and during the 1970s the attitude was “anything goes”. Below-the-knee and mini-skirts were both equally popular.
Ankle-Length Maxi Dress – 1970s
As were long maxi dresses!
Mini-Skirt – 1980s
During the 80s, the prevailing hemlines included both shorter styles….
Mid-Calf dress – 1980s
and longer ones.
Pleated Mini-Skirt – 1990s
During the 90s, the predominant skirt lengths were short. Pleated, plaid, schoolgirl skirts were very, very popular.
While the TV show Ally McBeal popularized the mini-skirt suit.
Since the 1960s, the trendiest of hemlines have gone up and down, but most styles are still worn with varying degrees of popularity and depending on the occasion. Long hemlines are worn at black tie affairs, while micro-minis are found on the dance floor. Hemlines are mainly determined by individual choice as well as appropriateness for the time and place, because designers are offering pretty much every length imaginable!
By Jen Wallace
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