Guest Post: She’s Got Legs: A History of Hemlines and Fashion

She’s Got Legs: A History of Hemlines and Fashion (Schiffer Publishing, 2016) is a new book exploring fashion history with legs at center stage. The book’s thirteen chapters examine different themes of “legcentric” fashions such as undergarments, pants, swimwear, dance wear, sports clothes, and stockings. With over 300 color images, the book paints, visually and textually, a narrative of changing body and beauty ideals from ancient times to present day. Exclusively for Worn Through, co-authors Jane Merrill and Keren Ben-Horin look back at how the book came to be.

Keren Ben-Horin received her BA in Fashion Design from Shenkar College of Engineering and Design in Israel. After graduation, she moved to New York and held several positions as a fashion designer specializing in knitwear. Shifting to an academic career, she pursued a Masters at The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in the Fashion and Textiles: History, Theory, Museum Practice program. Keren founded the fashion history blogs On Pins & Needles and Then & Now. She is a fashion curator, historian, and author residing in New York with her husband and their three sons. More about her work here

Jane Merrill has published articles in 50 national magazines including The New Republic, New York, Cosmopolitan, Penthouse, Connoisseur, Town & Country, Harvard and History. She has written books on popular culture, beauty, lifestyle, and self-help. Her latest book, I Love Those Earrings; A Popular History from Ancient to Modern, was written with Chris Filstrup. Jane has graduate degrees from Columbia and Harvard and a BA from Wellesley, speaks French and Persian, and raised her children bilingual. She and her husband now reside in mid-coast Maine, where their family gathers from lives far-flung, and she hand-quilts using traditional patterns.   

Legs

Keren Ben-Horin: Our book centers on the relationship between clothes and body from the waist down. The project started with Jane, as more of a cultural study of the female leg. Jane brought me on board to inject some fashion expertise. Our publisher, after reviewing the proposal, asked that we focus the story more on fashion, which allowed me as a fashion scholar to bring in my own perspective of how changes in body ideal propelled fashion trends.

Lady Reading a Letter by Camaron Boronat (18th century). Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao, Spain.

Lady Reading a Letter by Camaron Boronat (18th century). Museo de Bellas Artes, Bilbao, Spain.

Jane Merrill: A lot of the work is uncharted.  Keren is more on the fashion side and I write on cultural history and material culture.  The book became our point of intersection of beauty, cultural history, and fashion.  We wanted a naturalistic present-ness and the project attracted a first-class documentary photography who raised the bar.

KBH: Yes, the work of Nasser K., the photographer who collaborated with us, is featured throughout the book. We love his black and white street photography and it anchors each theme to a contemporary context.  The book brings together Jane’s years of experience as an author and researcher and my fashion background. Although Jane lives in Boston and Maine, and I’m in New York, we were able to debate each topic and merge our ideas. Chapters written by Jane were edited by me, and vice versa. Some chapters we wrote together, like chapter five on hemlines; Jane would write parts, I added in, and so forth until we felt the story was complete.

Photograph by Nasser K., 2014.

Photograph by Nasser K., 2014.

Photograph by Nasser K., 2014.

Photograph by Nasser K., 2014.

JM: Each of us wanted to be worthy of the other. Yet in taking the work very seriously, it was not uncommon for us to duke it out.  I’m certain the end product benefitted from this.

KBH: I think Jane would agree with me that we have tried to offer a new perspective on fashion history with each chapter exploring a narrative of change in attitudes towards the clothed body. Our book looks at clothes not only as beautiful objects for consumption, but rather as propellers of social and cultural change. For me personally, I found one of the biggest challenges was sourcing and selecting images. We spent many hours and much effort on sourcing the images from archives, museum collections, designers, and private collectors. After the text was for the most part complete, we met in Boston to look at the images as a whole. It took several days to select how and where to place images within the text.

The authors met in Boston to sort and select the final illustrations for each chapter.

The authors met in Boston to sort and select the final illustrations for each chapter.

JM: It was very important for us to represent different mediums, not only fashion photography. We have paintings, drawings, sculptures, and examples from decorative arts, each of which teaches us how people throughout the ages were fascinated by the clothed female leg.

Dancer Josephine Baker (late 1920s) by unknown photographer . Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Dancer Josephine Baker (late 1920s) by unknown photographer . Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

1948 Diving Girl, artist unknown. Courtesy of Jantzen.

1948 Diving Girl, artist unknown. Courtesy of Jantzen.

KBH: One of my favorite images in the book is an original sketch of Ted Tinling’s 1949 design for the tennis player “Gussy” Moran. She shocked the audience in Wimbledon with her daring outfit complete with lace-trimmed panties; photographers lay on the ground to capture the sensation. Chapter 10, Sporting Legs Attire, begins with Venus Williams’ French Open appearance in 2010; under her black lace dress- already quite an unusual choice- Williams wore skin-tone underwear which made her look naked. Williams’ wardrobe on the court is a direct descendant of Moran’s legacy and other sportswomen like Susanne Lenglen who have challenged notions of decency and pushed the boundaries for fashionable women outside the courts and sport fields.

Original fashion drawing of woman holding racquet in her right hand held over her head, left knee bent, left foot in air, right foot pointed as on toe left arm extended to side. She wears a white tennis dress that appears sleeveless (or with loose cap sleeves) with ruffles from shoulders down to form a V at waist; two buttons at center of crew style necklinee; full, short skirt with ruffle at hem; panties with lace trim showing beneath skirt; pink bow in hair. T.T. 1949 [written in ink] / MODEL TINLING COPYRIGHT/ LONODN / MUST NOT BE REPRODUCED/ WITHOUT ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The original sketch of the Ted Tinling design for Gertrude “Gussy” Moran (1949). Ted Tinling Archives of the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum, Newport, Rhode Island

Suzanne Lenglen (June 29, 1925). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Suzanne Lenglen (June 29, 1925). Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

JM: We both liked discoveries. I was, for instance, excited by the Bronze Age miniskirt, beautifully preserved in an oak bog, the 2nd millennium B.C. goddess Ishtar thrusting a leg out from her skirt like a showgirl, the woman in half “fishnet” stockings on an Italian Renaissance apothecary job; and numerous evidences of cross-dressing in ancient times.

Venetian albarello, or pottery apothecary’s jar (1500-1520 A.D.)  The woman wears woven half-stockings that appear very similar to fishnets.  Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD.

Venetian albarello, or pottery apothecary’s jar (1500-1520 A.D.) The woman wears woven half-stockings that appear very similar to fishnets. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD.

KBH: For me it was a revelation to realize how influential African dance was on western dance from as early as the 1890s. And it wasn’t just the dance routines that originated from African tribal dance, but the whole stance of the dancer. The movement in African dance emanates from more than one center, so while the torso is doing one thing, the legs and the head move to a different rhythm. In contrast, ballet dancers keep one straight “line” of movement from their neck all the way down to their legs; perhaps centuries of corset-wearing inspired that very long, straight posture we come to associate with ballerinas. African-inspired dance movements required looser clothing, so the dancers adopted dresses with deep cuts along the side to allow for wider strides, and that then seeped into street fashion. It’s a wonderful example of how fashion is such an inseparable part of how we live and how much we can learn about social changes by looking at the evolution of fashion.

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