Skirts can be worn as separates or coordinated with suits, as Coco Chanel showed the world in the 1920s. Her wool jersey suits were paired with straight skirts, which did away with the petticoats and hoops of the Edwardian and Victorian eras that had forced skirts into enormous circles. Even though Chanel’s straight skirts were by far the favorites of the decade, the 1920s were also when pleated skirts came into fashion.
Skirts got shorter in the ’20s, but hemlines did not stay up for the duration. Before the stock market crash of 1929, skirts had crept up the leg until they almost reached the knee. After the crash, though, hemlines dropped precipitously, as if in sympathy.
The dominant cut of skirts in the 1930s was long and flowing, with more material at the hem than the waist—the short straight skirt of the 1920s was history, at least for the time being. Skirts on suits often featured kick pleats to make it easy to move in the garment and give it life as the wearer walked. Pleasant floral prints on lightweight materials were a tonic to the austere times, and soothing green was a favorite color for skirts during the decade...
With fabrics in short supply throughout World War II, skirts and clothing in general were designed for economy. That meant narrow skirts that fell to the knee to save material—style had little do with the decision to show off so much leg.
Then, in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, circle skirts came back. Unlike the boxy styles of the war years, circle skirts were loose and exuberant. Designed to flare to perfect circles when dancing, these longer skirts often featured appliqués of slogans and animals such as squirrels, kittens, and, of course, poodles. Very popular then, iconic 1950s poodle skirts are highly collectible today.
Other types of vintage 1950s circles skirts, in everything from cotton to Dacron, were beaded and then paired with coordinated and similarly decorated cashmere sweaters.
Rayon skirts were sometimes flocked with designs such as fish, with rhinestones placed at the eyes. And then there were the skirts made out of Lowenstein Signature Fine Art Fabrics, whose prints featured designs by contemporary artists. You might think that circle skirts made from such materials would have been sold only in exclusive boutiques, but, in fact, these arty skirts were sold in large numbers by outlets as mainstream as Sears.
A-line skirts of the 1950s were inspired by Christian Dior’s A-line dresses. These maxi skirts were usually quite long—in the hands of Yves Saint Laurent and other designers, they sometimes had buttons up the front. Coco Chanel liked the A-line so much, she ditched the straight skirt for them when she redesigned her famous suit in 1954.
Princess skirts were big billowy floor-length versions of A-line skirts. Gathered at the waist, princess skirts had been popular in the 19th century, but they made a big comeback in the 1950s when they became the preferred silhouette of wedding dresses. In the opulent 1980s, the princess skirt was a favorite of women attending fancy fundraisers and galas.
Other designers focused on making the skirt as maintenance-free as possible. Cotton blends from Clare McCardell and other designers gave skirts an easy-care dimension that fit active lifestyles. McCardell also put drawstrings in her skirts to make them comfortable regardless of a woman’s figure.
The 1960s are probably best remembered, or reviled, as the decade of the miniskirt. Miniskirts had always been around as athletic attire—in tennis, for example—but in the 1960s they stepped forward as fashion elements in their own right. British designer Mary Quant gave birth to the look, naming her skirt after her favorite car, the Mini Cooper.
French designer André Courrèges also championed the miniskirt, although his were not quite as form-fitting as Quant’s. Miniskirts soon came in everything from black leather to yellow “pleather” (patent leather) to blue Levi’s to plaid wool to a rainbow of revealing stretch fabrics.
Of course miniskirts were hardly the only game in town. Knee-length plaid skirts in mohair or wool offered the classic schoolgirl look. These skirts often had deep pleats to give them dimension and make them a bit more formal. Slim pencil skirts with zippers at the back also had hems that landed at or just below the knee.
Casual denim skirts and culottes were another look favored by schoolgirls. These skirts often came with a denim belt that tied at the front and they had jeans-like pockets.
In the 1970s, vintage ’50s skirts were rediscovered while customized tiered skirts were made at home. Tiered skirts often used those vintage ’50s skirts as a base, with a wide added band of a solid color near the hem.
By the 1980s, short skirts were no longer shocking or designed only to be worn to clubs and parties. In fact, short skirts became an important part of the new female corporate power suit, which allowed a woman to project an air of self-confidence. No one knows for sure if these suits were also designed to unnerve her less-self-assured male colleagues, but that was often their effect.
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