What I’m Reading: Skirts, Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Author: George Spencer

If the birds and the bees had newspapers, headlines in their fashion pages might read, “Wasp Waists Shock Bumblebees” or “Legs Are in For Fall, Say Giraffes.”


Naturally, animals don’t have fashions. Only humans do — thus, the endless fascination and outrage over the ways in which men but mostly women change how they adorn themselves. “Fashion, by definition, depends on novelty; it’s not just the essence of fashion but its economic engine,” notes fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell in her new book, Skirts: Fashioning Modern Femininity in the Twentieth Century.

Women in pants, a la Hillary Clinton and her 2016 “Pantsuit Nation,” is “a temporary transitional era,” writes Chrisman-Campbell. Women donned pants as sartorial armor, the better to joust with in male-dominated offices. Suddenly, C-suite men began asking, “Who wears the pants in this relationship?” Increasingly, women are.

Why write a book about skirts? They are among the world’s oldest types of clothing, dating back to 20,000 B.C. — and they’re not going back in their closets anytime soon.

We needn’t hem and haw about this —women and skirts are inseparable. Look no further than the door of any public restroom, argues the author. Its ubiquitous symbol — a gender-neutral figure with a pyramidal shape below its waist — speaks volumes about how skirts and women are interwoven in our cultural imagination.

Skirts (and dresses, because they also have skirts) are practically synonymous with femininity. They relate women’s evolving “fortunes, freedoms, and aspirations” over the past 125 years, Chrisman-Campbell says. She gives readers the lowdown (from the maxiskirt) to the top line (the miniskirt) on every style, weighing in on eight other game-changing designs, notably Chanel’s little black dress, von Furstenberg’s wrap dress, Dior’s New Look and the strapless dress. (“Women on the brink,” jokes Chrisman-Campbell of the last.) All became the rage while often enraging cultural gatekeepers.

Skirts reminds us that when women’s fashion takes a dramatic turn, lots of people get upset. Translation: a new mode crystallizes a new zeitgeist. It brings into focus an emerging political, cultural, economic tsunami. Fashion is a stand-in — a straw woman, as it were — for whatever is really getting people’s knickers in a twist, be it war, depression, prosperity or promiscuity.

Consider the tennis skirt. Introduced in 1919 by French phenom Suzanne Lenglen and her designer, Jean Patou, it bore little resemblance to today’s pleated mini. Hers was calf-length. As shocking as that was (and it was, compared to the ground sweeping hems of its competitors), critics’ real problem was that Lenglen wore no corset, no petticoat, no bustle, no hat and no gloves.

Lenglen became the world’s most famous sportswoman. Patou got rich. The press cried “Indecent!” Tennis star Bill Tilden denounced Lenglen as “a cross between a prima donna and a streetwalker.” Meanwhile, an American female tennis champion said, “All women players should go on their knees in thankfulness to Suzanne for delivering them from the tyranny of corsets.”

Consider the timing of Lenglen’s sartorial splurge. (She also created a craze for headbands decades before Jane Fonda and wowed the footwear world by prowling the baseline in an early type of sneakers.) World War I had just ended. Prosperity was inching back, so hems inched up. People wanted to live a little. Ergo, the shorter tennis skirt was all but inevitable.

Flaps over tennis fashion persist. Serena Williams got slammed in 2018 for wearing a catsuit inspired by the movie Black Panther. Tennis icon Billie Jean King defended her, saying, “The policing of women’s bodies must end.” She knew something about the subject. As a teen, King was barred from a group photo at a tennis match because she was wearing shorts, not a skirt.

A constant tension bedevils and energizes women’s fashion. Mae West nailed it when she told costume designer Edith Head, “Make the clothes loose enough to prove I’m a lady, but tight enough to show ’em I’m a woman.”

Jump back a few years before Lenglen and see a similar loosening of fashion mores among society ladies, a shift that drew far fewer howls. Suddenly evening gowns had to be long, pleated tunics. These monochromatic delphos sheaths mimicked those worn by women in ancient Greece. “Goddess dressing,” Chrisman-Campbell calls it.

“The absence of seaming or understructure, the pleats also gave the dress its shape — or rather, they ensured that the dress conformed to the contours of the wearer’s body,” she writes. But grand dames wanted to do more than look Olympian, they wanted to feel heavenly. “Gone were the buttoned boots, the curves, the boned collars, the straight-fronted stays,” said dancer Isadora Duncan.

The Industrial Revolution led to steel stays in corsets, and women got tired of looking like battleships. Indeed, during World War I, to free up metal for the war effort, Uncle Sam told women to stop buying corsets. Breathing a deep sigh of thanks, the ladies supposedly liberated 28,000 tons of the stuff, supposedly the weight of two battleships.

Going by the number of times she is discussed in Skirts, women’s fashion has one superstar. No, not Jennifer Lopez, who broke the internet in 2000 by appearing at the Grammy Awards in a gown held up by a brooch and double-sided tape. “At the time it was the most popular search query we had ever seen,” recalled former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. As a result of this panting avalanche of search requests, Google created a search tool for images.

Instead, the most influential — or, at least, attention-getting — woman of the past 125 years might be Marilyn Monroe. She was killer in at least three key styles, says Chrisman-Campbell. She dazzled in a hot pink strapless gown singing “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She (and Jack Lemmon) shimmied in fringed, sequined little black dresses in 1959’s Some Like It Hot. And she rocked President Kennedy’s world at a 1962 birthday party rally for him while poured into a “naked dress” so serpent-tight and seemingly translucent it was the visual equivalent of nudity.

What is the skirt’s future? Here Chrisman-Campbell has a surprising answer. “It just might be male,” she predicts.

European men only started wearing pants in the late Middle Ages. Consider men in other cultures — Saudi guys wear thobes (gowns). Yemeni dudes don dishdashas — tartan skirts accessorized with daggers. Southeast Asian men look so right in sarongs. Meanwhile, Brad Pitt got more buzz for the skirt he wore to his latest premiere than his film did.

“Part of the reason men’s skirts are more visible and accepted today is a resurgence in national and ethnic pride amid rapid globalization, expressed by wearing traditional or regional garments,” observes Chrisman-Campbell.

So far I have skirted the issue. Although my ancestry is English and Irish, not Scottish, I wear wool kilts in winter and in warmer times ones made by Utilikilt. Founded in 2000 by a Seattle construction worker, the brand gets high marks (from me, at least) for its rugged fabrics, earth tones and generous pockets. They are cooler than pants, both temperature- and fashionwise. Plus, they fall at the knee, preserving my modesty from the female gaze.

In my experience, kilt-wearing gets a lot of attention, all positive, from women and, to my surprise, from men. If Nike made men’s kilts and paid Tom Brady or LeBron James millions to wear them, I expect massive numbers of men would, too.

Not because of sports-idol worship. Men are simple creatures. The average guy would find that women like seeing men in kilts. Lads wear what wins them favor with lasses, even if the lasses are wearing the pants.

George Spencer is a freelance writer who lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina.