Guest Post: “Skirting the Issue”

This post is by guest contributor Cary O’Dell.

Few wear full skirts anymore.

Though they still pop up on the fashion runways–de la Renta’s, Vivienne Westwood’s and Dior’s catwalks come to mind–the traditional ball gown skirt (bell-shaped, Cinderella-esque, Deborah Kerr in “The King and I,” if you will), the type of skirt that sweeps and flows and rustles as the wearer walks, is and has been for years now, seriously out of fashion.  And even if they do make it off of the runway and onto the fashion editorial page, they seldom, if ever, filter down to the wardrobes of real women.  We are now in our second decade of the tried-and-true column dress, lovely as ever but certainly missing the grand panache and impact that a Charles James creation or an original Dior once demanded.


Courtesy:  Viviennne Westwood, Ltd.

So what gives?  Why has the most traditional and arguably most feminine of shapes been relegated to antiquity or at least to a passé state?

The reasons are multi-layered.

Part of this trend has, no doubt, arisen out of sheer practicality.  Even when cut slim and narrow

–and especially when complimented by the de rigueur high heels–long skirts are tough for women to navigate in as they climb out of a cab or up a flight of steps.  If several more yards of excess fabric is incorporated into a design (simply for the sake of style) the physical difficulty is only compounded, often to an embarrassing degree.  Haven’t we all witnessed the hapless homecoming queen or embarrassed bride struggle with her frills and petticoats when attempting to alight from their cars or make their way through a gauntlet of guests?  Furthermore, how can even the most poised of actresses sit comfortably, photogenically, for four hours at the Academy Awards if she is encased in bolt upon bolt of excessive yardage?

And, of course, there’s a certain amount of vanity that is part of this trend (or anti-trend) as well.  While the wide ball gown can hide a multitude of flaws, it will not suitably display one’s hard-won, super-toned body.  A full skirt does not lend itself to a high slit on the slide which will casually, yet teasingly, reveal a pair of Pilates-perfect legs with every step down the red carpet.    

It is the form-fitting column dress is the best choice to show off a flat stomach and tight thighs.  After all, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

And, finally, and perhaps surprisingly, the dearth of the full skirt also has to do with the overall economics of high fashion as well.  Whether American-made (like Donna Karan) or international (from YSL to Gaultier to Chanel), designer style is a costly endeavor; even the coffers of such top fashion icons as the Daphne Guinness, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Nicole Kidman are only so boundless.  The fabrics of quality fashion are costly.  The less amount of fabric utilized in a design, the less expensive the final product.  Less fabric in a garment also means less time spent cutting, draping, and beading or bejeweling its surface.  Couture clients the world over can save thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of dollars every year as long as the look of fashion remains, not full and fluffy, but long and lean.

But to say that the current demise of the full round skirt is due only to the reasons above is to—pardon the pun—skirt a larger and more important issue.  After all, when is fashion ever about pragmatism?  Along with being something to wear, fashion is also symbol and statement.  It communicates time, place, status and, often, social and moral attitudes.  And as Nancy Etcoff points out in her book “Survival of the Prettiest,” “A fashion faux pas is not an aesthetic gaffe so much as a social and moral one.”  And this attitude is perhaps most exemplified throughout the history of dress by dedicatedly following the shifting width and volume of a lady’s skirt.  The current lack of the full skirt in fashion is a direct reflection of contemporary moral and economic concerns. 

As Alison Lurie maps out in her landmark tome “The Language of Clothes,” from the first incidents of fashion (i.e. clothing worn as decoration as opposed to clothing worn out of necessity, for example, to keep warm), surplus fabric has always been a sign of wealth and the upper classes.  The ancient Romans and Greeks sought to differentiate themselves from their slaves—who were always nude—by draping themselves in ribbons of cloth, eventually resulting in their trademark togas.  Throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods, fabric was so linked to status and wealth that almost all of the portraits of the period have their subjects positioned in front of thick curtains of superfluous material (a tradition that continued today, especially in photographic portraiture).  In 1476, even the law got involved in Venice with the establishment of the “Head of Pomp,” an appointed political position whose job it was to regulate luxury.  Along with dictating hairstyles and the robes of the clergy, such sumptuary laws also mitigated fabric uses and amounts.

Excessive fabric worn as a symbol of status, eventually resulted in the long-standing layered look of both women’s and men’s daily wardrobes–endless petticoats for women, long coats and even capes for men.  These looks, which endured from the 1600s to the beginning of the 20th century, are still present today in formal and ceremonial wear for both sexes.  It reached its apex of course with the double-doorway-wide skirts (not to mention the opulent, ridiculous wigs) of Marie Antoinette and the others ladies of pre-Revolutionary France.  They ignored any semblance of practicality and co-opted clothing as a gaudy method to display careless extravagance.  Let them eat cake, indeed!  Years later, in the United States, the outrageous hoop skirts of the antebellum South, best represented by Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind,” symbolized wanton excess along with images of wealth and leisure.  (After all, tightly corseted, heavily petticoated women, while cocooned in such attire, could not possibly do any sort of manual labor.)

Courtesy:  Selznick/Warner Bros.

But, in both cases, once a revolution and Civil War were over, skirts slimmed down.  Some of this reduction in the size of women’s wear is of course easily ascribed to the scarcity or the expensiveness of cloth immediately after such historic events.  But, beyond that reason, as with the message that the exaggerated skirt was trying to convey, so, too, was the resurrected slim silhouette attempting to both convey a deeper meaning and reflect the sensibility of its wearer—a new mentality of seriousness and greater, even solemn, connection with the world at large. 

Courtesy:  Mixed Media Sculpture by George S. Stuart.  Photo by Peter D’Aprix for the Historical Figure Foundation

The full skirt had its first modern interpretation of course in 1947 when Dior launched his revolutionary “New Look.”  With its emphasis on a cinched waist and ample, flared skirt, the New Look signaled post-war prosperity.  But to the nation of France, long indoctrinated with thoughts of wartime rationing and frugality, the New Look at the time of its birth was an assault to proper decorum and good taste not to mention national well-being.  A few of the first stylish Parisian women who dared to wear the look out in public actually found themselves attacked on the street by hostile crowds who deemed the pleats of Dior’s creation as recklessly wasteful and offensive to the eye.

But after the New Look exploded like an atom bomb on the world of fashion, its influence, like the smoke from a mushroom cloud, began to dissipate and the 1950s became a time of fashion mixed messages.  Some designers, like Charles Jams, with his trademark soufflés of satin wrapped around the figure, brought the Dior esthetic firmly to America.  Others, however, kept style highly slenderized.  And some designers attempted to straddle the fence:  the great Coco Chanel, who had reopened her house in 1954, often favored the flared skirt for evening but cut her iconic suits slim, stressing her philosophy of practicality in daytime dress.  Meanwhile, designers like Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent (who took over the House of Dior after the death of its founder in 1958) attempted to find a happy medium between wide and narrow (YSL most illustratively with his signature “Trapeze” dress which he debuted in 1958). 

Courtesy:  Regina Relang @ Munchner Stadtmuseum/Dior Archives

During the 1960s and ‘70s, clothes, by and large, returned to the body, consider the highly-influential personal style of the fashion icon of the era, Jacqueline Kennedy.  Or consider the work of Halston and Cardin, among others.  Perhaps this return to form was to emulate the streamlined shapes of the space age.  Or perhaps it was due to the rise of exercise and fitness culture.  Or, perhaps most of all, it was linked to the emerging women’s movement:  just as the skirts of Scarlett O’Hara conveys a life of leisure, the pared-down styles of the sixties and seventies communicated values of activity, economy and, most importantly, relevance.

In retrospect, it now seems to make perfect sense that the last time the full skirt was at all “in fashion” was when the pouf skirt popped up courtesy of French designer Christian Lacroix in the 1980s.  It was, after all, the era that is now recalled for its constant undercurrent of greed and personal gain, when Reagan was in the White House, Wall Street was running away, and “Dynasty” and “Dallas” were dressing up primetime.  It’s no accident that Jennifer Saunders, creator of TV’s “Absolutely Fabulous,” chose Lacroix as her indulgent fashion victim’s Edina Monsoon’s favorite designer.

Lacroix’s colorful, theatrical, mad tea party creations brought back into fashion everything from the “bubble” skirt to the bustle to full crinolines to other dress-up, doll-like extremes.  To set them off even more, he often coated his pouf skirts and ruffles in all sorts of little frills:  bows, ribbons, ornate fabric flowers, and just about anything else that could be stitched on.  Despite the utter impracticality of Lacroix’s designs—women sometimes couldn’t sit, often had to turn sideways to get through doors—fashionably-inclined women of the 1980s gobbled them up with the help of their freshly-minted American Express Gold Cards.  It was a shift in fashion sensibility that drew the ire of then “Vogue” editor-in-chief Grace Mirabella who went so far as to label Lacroix “anti-woman” and say of the era, “It was the moment of tasteless wonders…that were like elaborate ice cream sundaes onto which someone put more and more and more cherries until the whipped cream bled read.”  (Amidst all this decadence, perhaps not surprisingly, Mirabella’s tenure at the fashion bible would come to an end before the close of the 1980s to make room for the regime of Anna Wintour.)

But, in fashion, like everything else, what goes around comes around and by the dawn of the new decade, when the excessive ‘80s gave way to the necessary ‘90s and the age of fashion minimalism, Lacroix was seriously out of favor. 

Perhaps fashion’s progression from the go-go ‘80s to the more minimalist ‘90s was best embodied in the style of the late Princess Diana.  In her fresh-faced naiveté in her early years on the world stage, the young princess was often treated like a real-life Barbie doll by various British designers who repeatedly encased her in silly, overly frilly frocks.  But, in time, as Diana gained confidence and assertiveness, and began to lend her name and fame to issues beyond fashion, namely AIDS research and the remove of land mines, she severely simplified her look, streamlining her wardrobe and accessories, drawing her clothes closer to her form just as she was drawing her world concerns closer to her heart.

Stylishly-speaking, it is a moment we are still very much in.  For a bold contrast, compare Princess Diana’s ostentatious Emanuel-designed wedding gown from her 1981 marriage to Prince Charles with Kate Middleton’s recent pared-down but equally elegant dress for her wedding to Prince William.  Kate did not have to contend with either the inordinate taffeta bell of her late mother-in-law’s wedding dress skirt or her legendary (non-detachable!) 25-foot train.

And, so, today, to wear a full skirts seem almost as out-dated as choosing to wear a Lacroix bustle, or as silly and unsightly as showing up somewhere in an exaggerated hoop skirt.  In fashion-speak, the full skirt just does not look “right” or “modern” right now nor has it for some time.  The full skirt imposes an aura of frivolity and wantonness upon its wearer.  It says one is both out of time and out of touch.  (Actually, it’s not just in terms of skirts that extra fabric has become verboten—various attempts in recent years to bring clothes with “waterfall” backs to the masses have also been trend non-starters.)

This is not to say, however, that images of “conspicuous consumption” is still not evident and tolerated in fashion, even if it does, at times, border on hypocrisy.  In a slim skirt, one still can be deemed “appropriate” even if it happens to be burdened with beads, heavily embroidered or adorned in endless featherwork.  Superfluous fabric can still be found in the short trains or “puddle” hems and still be deemed “uncomplicated” even “refined.”  For even despite the auxiliary, unnecessary nature of them, the train and the puddle on a garment simply does not drag with them the loaded symbolism that the wide, full skirt still does.

Indeed, the only place today where extravagant, full skirts seem to still dominate, to be visually and symbolically “correct,” is in the traditional wedding dress.  Even in modern times, weddings remains the one day when a woman is expected to draw attention to herself and where such a display of abundance and symbolic wealth—perhaps hearkening back to the days of brides arriving to matrimony with a dowry—is permissible, even encouraged.  But, interestingly, many skirts of wedding dresses today are made up of layer after layer of white tulle.  Tulle can be piled on endlessly until the bride looks like she is encircled in a cloud.  The effect is charming and, due to the fabric’s thin, individually layered transparentness and general inexpensiveness, can still convey statements of conservatism.  While the tulle skirt might have size, it is counterbalanced by its fluffy, insubstantial, lighter-than-air appearance. 

The other time and place that the full skirt still seems to reign unchallenged is in prom dresses where such grandiosity can, one supposes, be easily chalked up to tradition or, perhaps, just the foolishness of youth.

So:  will the full skirt, in the spirit of Dior or Charles James, ever return as something other than bridal or prom wear?  Certainly it will take a sharp upturn in the current US economy before even the most hardcore fashioniesta is willing to revisit the styles of attitudes of the long-ago 1980s.  But even then, as aware of the world as we are now in this post-9/11 Global Village of ours, the full skirt, with its history dating back to Marie Antoinette, still seems to radiate an ugly sort of pretentiousness.  Therefore, for now, even the most breathtaking of traditional ball gowns will have to no doubt remain closeted, shut away like a shameful vestment of a more indulgent time.

Further Readings:

Etcoff, Nancy.  “Survival of the Prettiest.”  New York:   Anchor, 2000.
Lurie, Alison.   “The Language of Clothes.”  New York:  Holt, 1981.
Mirabella, Grace, and Judith Warner.  “In and Out of Vogue.”  New York:  Doubleday, 1995.
Weber, Caroline.  “Queen of Fashion:  What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution.”  New York:   Picador, 2007.

Cary O’Dell is the author of “Women Pioneers in Television” and “Virginia Marmaduke:  A Journey in Print.”  He works for the Motion Picture and Recorded Sound division of the Library of Congress and resides in Culpeper, VA. 

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  • StephC December 07, 2011 06.29 am

    I spent some time thinking carefully before I responded.

  • Maryanne December 07, 2011 02.00 pm

    This is an opinion piece, and a selective one at that. Are you saying that Kate Middleton’s skirt was not full? It is very full. It is just not gathered at the waist, it is pleated instead. One would hardly expect Kate to turn up in a big fat gypsy wedding dress.
    The suggested decline in full skirts in fashion is nothing to do with fabric costs. Once upon a time, labour was cheap, fabric expensive. These days, the other way around. Beading a long sheath of a dress is a far, far more expensive process than making a full tulle skirt and beading a bodice.
    Fashion will always, ALWAYS, work back and forth between extremes, otherwise women would stop buying new clothes, and that would break the industry, it’s that simple. So whatever is in vogue today, the opposite will be in vogue in 5 years. Big deal. More fool women for buying into it. But please don’t try and analyse this in some pseudo intellectual way. Anyway, there is a trend right now for 50’s revival, rockabilly and retro styles that is showing up everywhere in big skirts – gathered, full circle or combination of both.

  • Ava December 16, 2011 04.06 pm

    This piece, frankly, does not belong on this blog. It’s an opinion piece that presents itself as being historical/factual/objective. It’s absurd, and the author is clearly very confused about the whole notion of wearing a full skirt. I’m shocked that Worn Through posted this article.

    On the other hand, Steph’s response, which is linked above in her comment, is quite thoughtful and thought-provoking.

  • Monica Sklar December 16, 2011 06.14 pm

    Thank you for your comments. To respond to Ava, I really appreciate your thought that the piece doesn’t belong on this blog, as to me that phrase indicates you feel this blog is a good go-to for thoughtful academic inquiries. At least that’s how I’m interpreting your post. That said, many of the posts on Worn Through reflect the perspectives of their authors, and incorporate opinion with historic or cultural fact. So, when I chose to include this guest contribution piece, I had that notion in mind. I did not put it this post up to drum up controversy, and did not know there would be one, however I do think it’s very healthy to have a dialogue featuring differing perspectives on a subject, such as this post has generated. We welcome comments on this blog that are thoughtful and add to the conversation. In fact we encourage it, such as with the Fashion Bytes column, but really with all posts.


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