The New Woman was the first in all women’s fashion ever concerned with hemlines. Throughout her historical arc (1890s-1920s), the length of skirts went through what was a veritable revolution, both in sartorial and liberation terms.
The hemline is an invention of the 20th century. The term was first introduced in the 1930s. Before that, fashion magazines simply talked about the length of the skirt. But at the beginning of the 20th century, the hemline became ‘a thing’, and fashionable women were extremely attentive to its every rising and dropping.
Skirt length had never been an issue throughout the whole of Western fashion history. Skirts reached the floor, and that was it. But at the beginning of the 20th century, hemlines started to fluctuate according to women’s gained mobility and freedom of expression, therefore becoming part of the discourse of women’s social role.
Hemlines first started to rise at the very end of the 1800s, raised steadily throughout the 1920s, reaching the kneecap in the middle of the decade, the highest they would go. In the second half of the 1920s and especially in the 1930s and 1940s, hemlines would then drop again. After WWII, hemlines stopped being a concern for a long time.
So, what was the trajectory of the hemline in those momentum decades?
The bell-shaped skirt
The bell-shaped skirt of the ensemble separate that was the fashion of the Gibson Girl was the first example of ‘hemline concern’.
In the 1890s, as women started to demand more mobility, both in their body and their lives, skirts became shorter. In 1896, Harper’s Bazaar commented that the proper length for the skirt was about the top of the boots. This allowed women to easily go about town without getting dirty – previously a great concern, especially in wet weather – and even to engage in activities like riding a bicycle or sports like tennis.
The ‘hobble skirt’
In the first part of the 20th century, women’s dresses started to assume a straighter, looser line, influenced by the Oriental Style that Art Nouveau made popular.
French couturier Paul Poiret proposed a long skirt with a narrow hem inspired by the traditional Japanese costume. In 1910, this skirt was christened ‘hobble’. It had a tubular shape with a narrow hem that emphasised women’s sensuality, giving more visibility to the legs since its hem rose to just below the calf.
Although this skirt could be more restrictive in terms of movement, soon slashes would be added to allow more mobility.
The tailored suite
The almost contemporary tailored suit included a loose-waisted jacket and a straight, mid-calf or above-ankle length skirt. This suit was perfect for walking around town and running daily errands, but it also was appropriate for formal afternoon receptions.
With its risen hemlines (it reached the half-calf height, which was higher than even the hobble skirt), this tailored suit was particularly popular among women in the suffrage movement. It became a kind of uniform for them.
The tailored suite also proved to be apt to the war effort.
With its undoubted functionality that also carried femininity, the tailored suit was a milestone in the sartorial history of women but also an expression of their changing role. Because of its involvement in the suffrage moment and the war effort, the tailored suit became a symbol of women changing social roles.
The rectangular frock
The rectangular silhouette, with its loose-fitting cut and the dropped waistline, which made the hips and the bust almost invisible, was the hallmark of flapperims and remained surprisingly steady all through the 1920s.Hemline (Enter the New Woman #AtoZChallenge 2022) The hemline is an invention of the 20th century. Previously, skirt had simply brush the ground, with no exception #WomenFashion Click To Tweet
But even if changes were few throughout the decade, they did occur, especially in hemlines. The skirt hemline rose to half-calf in 1921-1922, then dropped to the ankle and rose again in 1923. It steadily rose until 1926, when it reached just under the kneecap, a shockingly high hemline.
This went well with the flapper quest for freedom that often expressed itself in sensual ways. Exposing the legs hinted to many of the new ways flappers lived: they were active women who moved around, danced frantically, jumped on automobiles or public transports, lived the new, fast life.
Short skirts were absolutely acceptable even on evening occasions when the wildest dances would happen.
The flapper frock was extremely flimsy in comparison with dresses up to that point. It was often just one layer of fabric, with simplified, lighter underwear, one of the most unconstraining dresses before and after. It posed almost no limitation to her movements. It was easy to maintain and even to stitch on her own if need be.
The Great Depression brought back longer dresses
As the Great Depression set in, the freedom of the flapper slowly faded, and as it happened, hemlines started to drop again. There was even an attempt to bring back long dresses, which partially succeeded since evening dresses indeed went back to brush the floor.
But what women had won in terms of freedom of movement would never be lost again.
Eabinovitch-Foz, Einan. Dressed for Freedom : The Fashionable Politics of American Feminism. University of Illinois Press, Champaign, Illinois, United States of America, 2021
Family Search – 1900s Fashion: Clothing Styles in the Edwardian Era
Glamour Daze – History of Women’s Fashion from 1900 to 1919
Prohibition An Interactive History – Prohibition Sparked a Women’s Fashion Revolution
Styles Matter – Women Fashion 1900-1920
Love to Know – Hemlines
The Grace – Women’s Fashion Evolution: from Gibson Girl to Flapper
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