The skirt, the lower part of a gown or robe that covers the wearer from waist downward, has been called “the simplest and most obvious of garments” by John Flugel (p. 35). He theorized that “tropical” skirts, which developed as a class of clothing distinct from “arctic” bifurcated forms, had certain advantages: “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 … often with great increase of dignity” (p. 35).
In Western culture, both genders long exploited the skirt’s inherent characteristics, but since the sixteenth century a true skirt has not been a feature of standard masculine dress (if, with Anne Hollander , one excepts the male kilt as a survival of drapery). The skirt separated from the dress bodice in the early sixteenth century; shortly thereafter “skirt” became synonymous with a woman, at first as standard English and then as slang in the nineteenth century. The skirt had become the defining female garment.
For several centuries feminine skirts were often very full, worn over petticoats, and sometimes supported by understructures and lengthened with trains. According to Hollander, shrouded legs visually confused rather than explained the structure of the female body. An inherent dichotomy was imagined between women’s mysterious skirted forms—that included no type of bifurcated garment, not even as underwear—and tightly garbed trousered males, as illustrated by the furor over the Bloomer fashion of the 1850s.
While expansive and expensive skirts of previous eras may have demonstrated women’s abstinence from productive employment, the slimmer line of the early twentieth century was restrictive in other ways, culminating in the “hobble skirt” of about 1910. Mobility, however, triumphed in the 1920s as skirts shortened to reveal women’s legs. A new statement in the continuous dialogue between modesty and sexual attractiveness, the shortened skirt was, Hollander believes, “the most original modern contribution to feminine fashion accomplished without recourse to the standard male vocabulary” (p. 146).
For much of the rest of the twentieth century, hemlines served as the primary indicator of fashionability, alternating higher and lower, from extravagantly long New Look skirts to scanty miniskirts and “micro-minis.” To explain seemingly quixotic hemlines, inventive (if unsubstantiated) theories linked short skirts with high stock prices. By the 1970s pants increasingly comprised an accepted part of women’s wardrobes. In The Woman’s Dress for Success Book, however, John T. Molloy, advised businesswomen to avoid what he called the “imitation man look,” by wearing skirted suits with the hem length fixed at slightly below the knee, thus “taking a major step toward liberation from the fashion industry” (p. 51). Since that time, however, the array of feminine skirts has only gotten more eclectic—slit, tight, see-through, or full in any length from floor to crotch. Short skirts remain a way to attract attention, whether admiring or outraged. Flaunting legs under an abbreviated skirt has been interpreted as a form of feminine empowerment.
Wearing a skirt has become a choice for women, and since the 1990s even a rare and provocative masculine sub-fashion. Yet the tenacity of this garment as a female signifier is evidenced by standardized international gender symbols: with no innate anatomical basis for the skirt of one figure, cultural conditioning makes her femininity instantly indisputable.