Dresses and skirts: The long and the short of it

Chanel once said that the knees were the ugliest part of a woman’s anatomy, perhaps this is why she was the first modern female designer to put women into trousers.

Dresses and skirts: The long and the short of it

What she would make of this season’s focus on retro glamour, groomed femininity and the revival of the skirt as a stylish key piece is uncertain, but she would certainly approve of the wearability of the season’s new longer skirt lengths.

Skirts have played a crucial and central role in fashion history as a barometer of not only social change and financial markets, but also how women perceive their role in wider society.

From the flapper’s scandalous short skirts of the roaring ’20s, the practical knee-length utility skirts of the ’40s, Dior’s voluminous flower-like skirts of the ’50s, Mary Quant’s micro minis of the ’60s and the bohemian maxis of the ’70s — skirts have indicated what women want and where they were going in any given era .

The New Oxford English Dictionary of English defines a skirt as “a woman’s outer garment fastened around the waist and hanging down around the legs” but this rather clinical definition misses the allure of a beautiful skirt.

Shockingly short or languorously long, fashionably flared or form-fitting, pencil slim or pleated and prim, there is something about a great skirt that changes how a woman holds herself and presents herself to her public.

Even though I like skirts, I am at heart more of a trouser girl, loving their practicality and easy androgynous appeal. In a fashion season dominated by feminine skirts, how then to address which skirt to wear and how to wear it successfully?

Also with skirts so in vogue, the eternal hemline debate persists: how does a 40-plus fashionista do her skirts? When exactly are you too old for a mini? Do celebrities such as Tina Turner, Madonna and Cameron Diaz look hot or sad in their pelmets and is the mature maven better served by a slim sophisticated pencil skirt rather than a micro mini?

As a forty-something with still passable legs, I have road-tested various skirt lengths and silhouettes for autumn/winter to determine if minis on “mature” legs are a feasible look or if a flash of ankle is more alluring than exposing all. Girlish or womanly — which is more wearable and more flattering?

There is no hard and fast rule that can be applied as a one-size-fits-all diktat about skirt lengths — I have seen minis looking fab on a granny and inappropriate on a 20-something because the former was in fantastic shape while the latter wasn’t.

Rules are made to be broken but a long hard objective look in the mirror is required before you make decisions about skirt lengths and whether or not they are age-appropriate. Diana Vreeland warned that: “The greatest vulgarity is any imitation of youth and beauty” and I tend to agree with her — wearing a mini in your 40s is a hard look to pull off successfully — you can end up merely looking as if you are trying too hard to defy your biological age.

That said I have seen older women (with great legs) wear short skirts successfully but it very much depends on context — worn with opaque tights or layered over leggings, flat biker boots and a slouchy sweater a mini can still be carried off by an over 40. The same garment worn with bare legs, high heels and a fitted top may look inappropriate and carry the distinct whiff of desperation.

The day may be gone when designers dictated the hem length for a season, leaving us free now to choose our own personal favourite — but such freedom must be used wisely.

Carol Vorderman still asserts her right to wear a shorter skirt: “There is a school of thought that when you hit 40 you should have a perm and wear skirts two inches below the knee. Bugger that! I’m not offending anyone. What is wrong with being a bit lively?” I agree with her sentiment but not always her execution of it.

Designer Michael Kors is an advocate of the longer skirt: “I think a lot of women have too many mini-skirts in their closets,” he says. And for most women, a more wearable option is a beautifully-tailored pencil skirt: there is something about a well-cut pencil skirt that lifts a girls’ spirits as well as her derrière.

The right one can knock off a couple of pounds, flatten your tummy and flatter your curves, all at the same time. After seasons of over-exposure there is a new demure mood in fashion and an emphasis on longer lengths.

While not everyone can carry off the directional dirndl shape or the New Look-inspired flared skirts shown by Raf Simons at Dior, a classic pencil skirt can be worn by almost all shapes.

The key is to choose the correct length to flatter your height and proportions and to ensure you match it with the most appropriate footwear. A heel, be it kitten or stiletto, is a great option to marry with a pencil skirt as the elevation emphasises the slimming effect of the streamlined silhouette and ladylike shape.

Alternatively with a pair of flat pumps or monk shoes, the shape still works. Pair a pencil with a flared sweater, and it is stylish, with a silk blouse, and it is elegant, or with a minimal knit, and it is cool, clean and modern.

A pencil skirt carries associations of film noir femmes fatales: sophisticated sirens who wield a subversive sexuality through the power of suggestion rather than revelation.

It manages to assert femininity and power simultaneously — no mean feat for a simple skirt. Worn with confidence and a pair of killer heels — it’s a potent combination. Powerful femininity: a fitting reflection of where noughties women are now — I am sure that Chanel would approve.

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