The History of the Midi Skirt

The swath of fabric that caused industry bankruptcy and feminist uproar.

06.17.16
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If the midi skirt had a Real Housewives opening credit, it might be: “I may look innocent, but I’m anything but…”And you’d be wise to believe it (and steer clear of it at particularly tipsy dinner parties), because the skirt that hits above the ankle and below the knee — demure as it may seem — has a history of being a real shit-stirrer.

It all started in the 1920s when, for the first time in centuries, floor-length hems were on the rise. The war was over and the world was a nightclub: the economy was making it rain, lady ankles were out to dance, waists were dropping low, sweaty Victorian-era modesty was being ushered out by security and Coco Chanel was chilling in the VIP area telling everyone to just freaking live a little.

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For the small portion of humanity that wasn’t being marginalized by evil humans during this decade, it was a real gas. And then in 1929, like a total buzzkill, the Great Depression hit. Spirits plummeted and they brought hemlines down with them. If Instagram had existed, ladies surely would have captioned their longer-skirted selfies with, “Mood AF.”

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This was the era of the longer, more traditional midi. Hard economic times brought a renewed focus on modesty, and tea-length was an appropriately less-fun alternative to the shorter flapper dress. Sad. But also kind of chic. Post-depression blues carried the plain, demure midi into and through the 1940s.

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Finally, mid-century, the traditional midi gave way to skirts of the poodle and pencil variety, and it’s right around the time I use the term “poodle variety” that you’re thinking: OKAY BUT WHERE THE F IS THE DRAMA YOU PROMISED ME?

And to that I say, BE PATIENT! A storm is brewing! And that storm looks a lot like a mini skirt.

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If you read our recent retrospective on Mary Quant, you’ll recall that the invention of the mini skirt in the 1960s was as scandalous as it was revolutionary. L-E-G-S were finally out to P-L-A-Y.

What does this have to do with the midi? Well, this is when things gets muddy. By the late ’60s, loads of industry people — not to be confused with everyday women who were rocking the fuq out of minis — were still offended by a skirt that had the gall to show a woman’s thighs. They wanted the midi back and they intended to bring it back by brute force if necessary.

Enter: John Fairchild, “the tyrannical, mischievous editor-in-chief of Women’s Wear Daily and founder of W Magazine.” DUN DUN DUN! Fairchild found minis to be immoral and unladylike so he banned them from all of his offices, proclaimed them dead and then declared 1970 “the year of the midi.

Now, let me be clear. This proclamation was not an educated guess or a creative idea; it was a morally-driven decision. And designers and manufacturers and stores and fashion influencers promptly listened because WWD was, as TIME described it, “a sacred mouthpiece of the fashion world.”

Stores started stocking up on midis. One high-end department store, Bonwit Teller announced that 95% of its fall fashion would be midi-length. Marketing on midis was plastered everywhere with reckless abandon. Hollywood pushed midis as the next big thing.

People were pissed. Because guess what? The midi skirt was actually not back. No matter how hard the industry pushed it, people weren’t taking to it. Consumers didn’t want to wear them! They’d shop for mini skirts and only find midi skirts! Can you imagine? It’s the sartorial equivalent of shopping for chocolate and only finding broccoli.

Actual boycotts erupted and soon newspapers were calling it a “hemline war.” The length of women’s skirts became a feminist issue: how dare anyone tell them how to dress? How dare a man define decency?

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Rags, a counterculture fashion magazine out of San Francisco, called the push of the midi a conspiracy in a 1970 exposé entitled, “Fashion Fascism: The Politics of Midi.”

By 1974, the forced resurgence of the midi was proclaimed a failure. The New York Times reported that “women stayed away in droves, forcing several couture houses and small manufacturers into bankruptcy and the apparel industry into a tailspin.”

Did I not tell you this was drama? Although the midi-length peeked its head out via the classic 90s slip dress, it didn’t really find its footing again until the Spring and Fall 2014 collections when designers started mashing together influences from all the latter decades of the 20th century and — this is the clincher!!! — people actually liked it.

Which is kind of the point, right? If the midi debacle of 1970 achieved anything, it proved that even the most influential voices can’t sway the public if they don’t want to be swayed.

Good news: trends and progress and freedom lie in the hands of the collective.

Feature photographs by Bess Georgette/Flickr via The Atlantic and High Valley Books. Inserted image credits in order of appearance: via Huffington Post; via Wearing History Blog; via Marie Claire; via Mintage Vintage; via The Atlantic.

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