Essay about the Skirt in Fashion Theory

For The Skirt Issue of independent Fashion Publication Garment Magazine I researched the Skirt in Fashion Theory. It was a fascinating topic, which sparked my interest in Gender Studies. Especially the work of Valerie Steele dramatically changed my view on dress in relation to the oppression of women. During this full-blown fourth feminist wave I thought this to be a relevant feature to revisit.

Garment Magazine Skirt Issue

Garment Magazine

Can you imagine fashion without skirts? We absolutely can not. Yet, there are hardly any books completely dedicated to skirts, whereas books about the little black dress, trousers, stilettos and even the Hawaiian shirt are easy to find. How is it possible that such a versatile and fundamental garment does not require an entire bookshelf in the library? Garment searches for the answer in the snippets of skirt-texts scattered around in different fashion books.


Is the skirt perhaps a less preferable topic to write about, because it is historically seen as a modest reminder of ancient times, while trousers are the highly innovative and sexual adventurous garments?

This skirt in relation to modesty and trousers in relation to sexuality might sound rather strange, since many women today opt for a skirt when they want to feel ultra feminine and sexy. Perhaps a little bit of skirt history is needed here. In Ancient times, women and men both wore draperies, which did not separate the legs. Women were required to dress modestly, so it was very common for them to wear floor length draperies. Meanwhile, men were allowed to show off their legs as a symbol of strength in shorter draperies.

This difference can be explained by the ancient Greek definition of gender. The Greek looked at the different genders as each other’s opposites. Men were the dominant members of society, which means that masculinity became the norm and femininity the socially constructed other. Thus, if a man would appear naked it would show his power, his strong body and equally strong mind, while it would be rather indecent and immodest for a woman to appear naked. Another reason of women’s modest appearance could be that the Greek were terrified for women’s unleashed sexual powers, especially since they lacked men’s self-restraint. One only has to look at unpredictable and temperamental female goddesses like Hera and the mythology of Kirke, Medusa, Medea the Serene and of course (the most catastrophic) Pandora to acknowledge how disastrous and merciless a sexually aggressive woman can be.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, men started to replace their short draperies with bifurcated garments. When the invaders from the north and northeast entered the Roman Empire, they inspired a movement in favour of more thick and tight fitting clothes, as was common in the colder climates they came from. This movement was reinforced by Christian morality, which opposed indecency with men as well. As a result, men started to wrap each leg up separately. Women, however, already had their legs covered, so they did not find it necessary to reinvent their way of dress.

During the middle ages women and men both wore similar shapeless bag-like garments. The main sex difference was that men sometimes wore shorter tunics, with separate leg coverings and loose underpants underneath, while women wore not a single kind of pants. However after 1300 men’s dress lost its unfitted loose character and became significantly different than women’s. This was due to innovation in armour design, which placed a high emphasis on the natural lines of the male body, redesigning each and every limb separately in a protective medium and placing it back as a substitute for the naked torso. Moreover plate armour required an undergarment made by a linen-armourer; a tight-fitted padded suit, which functioned as a second skin.

For a very long period of time men continued to dress in a more sexual way, clearly emphasizing the outlines of their bodies, while women opposed themselves to their counter-sex by guarding the ancient dress formula. Even those clownesque 17th century French noble men, with their frivolous ruches and lavish wigs, still proved the existence of a neck, head, working arms, legs and feet and sometimes even genitals, while women got lost in their indefinable ancient skirts.


So the skirt has clearly been overshadowed by the much more sexual and innovative pants. Has the skirt perhaps also had some competition from the dress? The skirt, as a garment on its own, does not have as much life experience as the dress. Throughout history it has always been attached to the dress. And even when it became a garment on its own, in the form of an underskirt or petticoat, it still took some time before the skirt could, literally, step out of the comfortable shadows of the dress.

The skirt as a separate garment, worn as outerwear, is most likely to have its origin in the equestrian skirt suit, before it became modern street dress for women. Equestrian women’s dress had a sombre look, because it was designed by tailors, rather than dressmakers, who used similar techniques and materials as they used for men’s equestrian costume. And since practicality, lack of decorative detail and allowance for mobility were important qualities for equestrian dress, you can imagine that the skirt did not exactly get a head start against the glamorous and festive dress.


When fashion theory does mention the skirt, it is often with a negative connotation. Feminists accuse the skirt of being the garment that repressed women. Historians often only find it interesting to mention the skirt, when it is about women saying goodbye to the skirt and moving over to pants.

Anne Hollander argues that the ancient skirt denies women’s humanity, by denying the fact that women have legs. She makes an interesting comparison to the myth of the mermaid, the female monster with a split personality. “The upper half of a woman offers both keen pleasure and a sort of illusion of sweet safety; but it is a trap. Below, under the foam, the swirling waves of lovely skirt, her hidden body repels, its shapeliness armed in scaly refusal, its oceanic interior stinking of uncleanness” (Hollander 1994: 61).

So when women shortened their skirts, it was not only out of practical reasons. It was a political move as well. By showing that they were in possession of an ordinary pair of working legs, just like men, they proved that they were human beings, instead of mythical creatures, with muscles and tendons and, by extension, brains. “ finally gave the female body a coherence that had been a male privilege – the head was shown to have a necessary relation to the feet, as thought has to action” (Hollander 1994: 146).

However, instead of presuming equality between men and women, the hem shortening could also be seen as an acknowledgement of male sartorial dominance. “ might see it as still another late female reprise of the fourteenth- century male revolution, when men first began to articulate the male body by displaying the full scope of its legs, while leaving women’s under wraps” (Hollander 1994: 146). The effect of the variable hemline was already used for three centuries in men’s tunics during the Middle Ages, before women finally discovered it.


It is true that not only women’s humanity, but also women’s sexuality was repressed, by prohibiting them to highlight the outlines of their nude legs. However we tend to forget that the skirt also does a lot for the beauty of the female body. According to Flugel “the simplest and most obvious of garments” adds qualities to the female body that nature failed to endow it. “Instead of being supported on just two legs with nothing but thin air between them, a skirted human being assumes much more ample and voluminous proportions, and the space between the legs is filled up, often with great increase of dignity” (Flugel, 1930: 35).

Then we did not even talk about what a skirt can do once it is in motion. Think about a pirouetting ice skater and how her skirt seems to acquire “a kind and amount of motion foreign to our natural organs” (Flugel, 1930: 36). The Victorian woman must have received most empathy from the modern day feminist, since she did not only had to cope with the corset, but also got trapped in the cage like crinoline. However, the crinoline could also be looked at as a symbol of female domination. A man looked rather small and undignified next to a woman in a crinoline. There are many jokes of the period about men having a hard time to find space to stand, once women in crinolines entered the room. “...a very slight further increase in the size of these extravagant garments would make it necessary for a gentleman, confronted with the task of taking a lady downstairs to dinner, to climb perilously down outside the banisters, as the whole of the staircase itself would be taken up by the voluminous skirts of his partner” (Flugel, 1930: 47).

What we also must not forget is that dress was an important medium for a woman to express herself and it was through dress that women established themselves as a separate sex. Historically men and women were seen as different versions of the same sex; women were the less fully realized versions of men. This assumption was based on the fact that since a man’s sexual organs were positioned outside his body, he was able to express his ideas in outward matters, like science, philosophy and politics. Women, however, have their sexual organs positioned inside their bodies and therefore also keep their ideas inside.

However, during the seventeenth century, the idea of women as unexpressed men was rejected and the idea of women as the complete opposite sex became the norm. This idea manifested itself in the later changes in dress during the Great Male Renunciation. While men solely focused their creativity, imagination and fantasies on outward matters and, as a result, started to dress in a sober way, women’s dress took the opposite direction. Proving that they too were in the possession of an imaginative mind, but still limited by a predominant male society, they expressed themselves in matters very closely related to their body: dress. Women used their imaginative talents to recreate themselves according to masculine visions. However by hiding the silhouette that was imposed on them with lavish decoration or exaggerating it towards the ridiculing, they place an extra layer on top of it, making men forget that they were the ones who originally created it.


“Frivolous as she might seem to us now, the fashionable woman was once considered a dangerous individual who selfishly ignored her familial duties in pursuit of her own pleasures” is how Valerie Steele described the way fashion granted women with power (Steele 2002/2003). So even though the ancient skirt took away women’s legs, it also gave women something very important in return: a graceful and dignified extension of their body, a symbol for celebrating their own separate sex, a way to escape the male gaze - without having men realize it - and a tool to impose them. How peculiar that this does not make the skirt a beloved subject for many fashion academics.

Words by Juliette Sijnja Published at Garment Magazine


flugel, j.c. the psychology of clothes. london. 1930.

hollander, anne. sex and suits: the evolution of modern dress. new-york knopf. 1994.

steele, valerie. femme fatale: fashion and visual culture in fin-de-siècle paris. fashion theory: the journal of dress, body & culture. september, 2004.