Hemline High-Jinks

by Cornelia M. Parkinson

 Fashion is a thing used and dropped, changed a bit then used - and again dropped, over and over. Fashion might have started when Eve asked Adam, "Does this fig leaf make me look fat?" and the exasperated male, not sure what she wanted him to say, answered, "No, little darlin', it's those caramel apples." We don't know for certain that they wore anything but birthday suits, for long-ago artists' depiction of that First Couple sporting leaves could be mere artistic license hoping not to offend either peasanty or gentry.


Garments in general could have been intended as much to increase intergender speculation as to protect the wearer from weather, or to draw attention by revealing and/or concealing features the owner is proud of or never got any of. On a scorching 1930s summer day our neighbor, a slender older woman, said to my mother, "The only reason I wear this corset is to stay warm."


Artful revealment has always been in fashion. Men with suitable figures favored tight-fitting

breeches to the knee, with silken stockings to show off a manly calf. The Scots have a saying about the kilt [a man's pleated tartan "skirt"]: "He has/hasn't the leg for it." For women, the bustle [a seriously enlarged backside] was briefly popular as an added attraction. Maybe men lost interest, but women weary of dragging around that extra weight were relieved when by 1870 the bustle had flown the fashion coop. The expression "hustle your bustle" was used in a previous Courier article.


One mystery feature of men's trousers was no fly, no front opening. However, a V-shaped

flap, open from the waist down several inches, solved that problem. It was held up by three buttons, and generally concealed by the vest or frock coat. [You may have read about frock coats but haven't a clue what they looked like. We would call them a suit jacket, nicely fitted, with the long front tails cut away or else buttoned back for convenience when a-horseback.]


A woman's waist was supposed to be tiny, even after you were a matron who had borne the

10 children that, for centuries, made up the family. Scarlett O'Hara, small though she was,

complained about her corset so tight that it might make her belch. In my early teens I knew a tall girl who had a 16" waistline, and loved to brag about it. Not knowing her for long, I cannot say if the passage of years and the bearing of children could have expanded that desirable number.


To accentuate the waist, skirts were extremely full, made more so by several heavily starched

and ironed petticoats worn underneath. Or/ also hoops, made of whalebone, pleasant to behold but a blasted nuisance to wearer and observer alike, as they took up a big space that could not be condensed, and when a gentleman encountered a hoop-skirted lady on a narrow walkway, it was he who had to step aside - often into the mud -- to make room for her to pass.


In this connection, a few centuries after, “circle skirts" [a full circle of material that swung

enticingly when the wearer was walking] did not need, but were often worn with, a stiffened

petticoat. Costumes for one 1950s Minstrel Show chorus, Jane Spencer directing, were coral-colored cotton circle skirts and a black-and-white striped blouse. The skirts were pretty, but endless to iron.


One great, everlasting fashion offense was committed by the royal person who introduced the Empire waist. The waistline was raised to rest directly under the bosom, giving every wearer the

look of a five-month pregnancy. I never found this style attractive, even when the lady was at that stage. But, along that line, let us discuss the codpiece, also previously whispered of. This was a fairly short-lived male fashion designed to call attention to and exaggerate the male endowment. The Peasant Wedding, a 1568 painting by Pieter Bruegel The Elder (1520- 1569) showed all the men wearing codpieces, which led one viewer, 450 years later, to ask if it were everyone's wedding night. 


Yes, we are slowly approaching the subject of hemlines. They were floor-length for so many

decades that a gown revealing the ankle was scandalous. Fashion was offensive enough when

women ceased to wear dress gloves and hats -- and any gown that outlined the figure underneath was just outrageous. [We are not talking here about ancient Egyptians and Greeks -- they lived in hot countries and were sensible enough to dress accordingly.]


How did anyone know what was in fashion? You attended indoor neighborhood events such

as quilting parties [house] and husking bees [barn], paying attention to what others wore. Or

someone might travel abroad and bring back, if not the latest fashion, a drawing whose style you could copy in fine fabric. You gladly attended fancy dress balls. For the first two occasions you wore less than best because work was involved. A fancy dress ball or dance called for exactly that: your rootin'-tootin' eye-poppin' best. If you were single, your potential mate might show up. If you were married but fooled around some, the same applied. If you were married and sticking to it, you could still feast your eyes. There were subtle advantages to whatever state you were in.


The subject of extra fabric in women's clothes was addressed by Sarah Josepha Hale, the

Liberated editor of * Godey's Lady's Book [more later], and writer of "Mary Had a little Lamb." She was directly influential in the erecting of the Bunker Hill Monument, the first public playground, and day nurseries; she suggested the admission of women into medical practice, and the uniform celebration of Thanksgiving Day [President Lincoln listened, and acted], while herself remaining a model of fashion and gracious dignity.


With interim compromises such as pantalets worn with a mid-calf skirt [tut-tut, the scandal

of women wearing men's clothing!] long dresses crippled along in popularity until the late 19-teens and World War I. This applied even to little girls, whose suffered fashions like Mama's. Since history fails to document the problems presented by the tomboy who climbed trees and got down on her knees to play marbles and jacks with the boys, or straddled a horse and rode around the pasture, we might suppose it never happened - though of course it did. For a long time, girls were protected from any physical activity not having to do with housework – but there was plenty of that every day, to keep young feminine muscles toned.


We're still discussing fashion, not your everyday outfit that gave a tug o' the forelock to

fashion but a more realistic curtsey to necessity. The major concession to hot weather for women was lighter-weight fabrics and short puffy sleeves that just covered the shoulder points. Britain's Queen Victoria who despite bearing eight children remained prudishly strict, might have grown faint at the notion of exposing flesh in the daytime. In the evening the proper lady exhibited a shocking acreage of bare chest, back and arm -- although she often wore long "elbow gloves" that nearly reached the puffed sleeve. The blessing of thin fabrics was defeated by the quantity of underwear decreed by propriety: corset, corset cover or chemise, panties, and -- naturally -- several starched and ironed petticoats.


The petticoat was replaced later on by a slip, still worn but not by very many. Having narrow

shoulder straps and no sleeves, a slip is a full-length shaped undergarment reaching barely to the hem of the dress and once a great embarrassment if it showed. Now many women wear slacks, so they don't need a slip. Or shorter skirts, no underpinnings desired. Most males already know that females have limbs.


Men were not given much summertime relief either, being required to don a full suit

including tie and vest. The fabric might be lightweight, but there was still an awful lot of it. Men

too had to wear underwear. For both genders, everything was layers. Got to cover all that skin.


I must be extremely old-fashioned even to think this, but there is no more delightful eye

candy than a good-looking man dressed in a white shirt, suit and tie - and his shoes shining. It

shows pride and self-respect, even when no one speaks a word of approval. The formality of it may account for the attraction of the military uniform, where all the parts are kept neat and sparkling.


World War I -- or perhaps in equal degree, the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s -- deserves

a lot of credit for liberating women from layers and from excessive use of fabric. As machines came into use, the working woman's clothing had to be cut closer to her body and frills eliminated, to prevent catching in the machine. And certainly, women were weary of garmental constriction.


This viewpoint was upheld by *Godey's Lady's Book, a Philadelphia-printed magazine with,

for many years, one illustration, hand-colored, in every issue. [This was so often torn out and framed that museums wishing to display whole copies had a hard time finding any.] One writer, who wrote an entire book about it, still called Godey’s"mediocre," though it used illustrations by famous American artists, plus poetry, fiction, period jokes we wouldn't "get” today, social advice and comment, and essays by such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Horace Greeley, Edgar Allen Poe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Circulation reached 150,000, dwindling to 100,000 at the end. The magazine, $3 yearly, lasted from 1830 to 1898, when it was shoved into oblivion by other publications such as Graham's and Peterson's.


Hemlines were like an elevator -- up, then down, then up. In the Depression years of the

1930s into World War II years, hemlines were more or less stable at the kneecap. This was a

comfortable length, appropriate on most women. Everything was in short supply, so wartime

manufacturers patriotically “saved fabric" by keeping skirts at that length. Right after that war

ended, skirts used yards more material in the “New Look," slightly A-shaped, the hem at mid-calf. I used to be a seamstress, and a woman bought a coat of the New Look and had me shorten it to mid-knee, throwing herself out of the fashion loop. She hadn't liked the feel of the coat skirts brushing her legs with every step. The A-line skirt was popular only with some, for as one wearer said, it made her look as if she had a big A.


On the other hand, you might or might not like the hampering feel of a "pencil line" skirt that

went straight down from hip to knee or lower. The longer ones were hard to walk in, and the shorter ones slithered right up to show your stocking tops when you sat down. You had to be very careful about that style.


Fashions in general eased away from the too-much-prettiness of pre-1900 until the decoration

diminished and the cut of the dress or coat was most all the decoration anybody got.


But! There was the Zoot Suit, for men. This splendid example of exaggerated cut came into

being around 1940 and, with few exceptions such as entertainers who perpetuated it, went out so fast it never got shiny. The Zoot Suit was WIDE. Wide padded shoulders, wide lapels that went east and west to cover nearly the entire chest, gaunt waistline, and wide-cut trousers that tapered down to the ankle. The cut was even more effective in a vertical chalkstripe fabric. A tall, comely local man, RTHS member in life, whose name I recall but will not sully, was seen dancing to the juke box at the Blue Bonnet café wearing a Zoot Suit complete with flowing tie and knee-length golden watch chain heavy enough to hold a mad bull at the starting gate. I have to say it, girls - yumm!


For teenage femmes' leisure wear there were two designs that occurred in my youth: the

farmerette and the broomstick skirt. The broomstick skirt was a dirndl (full-ish, gathered onto a

waistband) that to follow the intention was wrapped spirally around a broomstick and dried. Cottons of that era wrinkled, more so when you didn't want them to, so you had that IN look without much effort. Or the skirt could be ironed, making a proper dirndl. The farmerette was a jeans-fabric overall for girls, with heavy shoulder straps and buckles, cut knee length. It was meant to be worn with a blouse. One girl I knew wore hers without, not a style everyone could emulate, though the boys seemed to think it was pretty hot stuff. Earlier on, there were "beach pyjamas," sort of what you'd expect, in daytime fabrics. For a while, shorts sets included matching blouse, shorts, and overskirt. Then came in short shorts which, like the Zoot suit, inspired a song. These have entered the hall of permanent fashion, shown off by many a female who “hasn't the leg for it." I remember being taken to a burlesque show at the Gaiety Theatre in Washington DC, and being surprised that one tall dancer wore a costume that revealed the bottom curves of her, er, bottom.


Another fashion statement left best unspoken: the waist-to-ankle leotard, or tights, of many

colors and designs, too often worn, surely not by popular request, by females who haven't believed a mirror in the past twenty years.


Currently in vogue is whatever you want. If you like your skirts long, you pick the length. If you like the mini-est of minis, that's it. If you like to flaunt your pregnancy, you wear a stretch top too small and it's right out there for all to view. You can go to church or a party or on a date in

T-shirts and jeans. Women who have discovered the convenience of slacks and some sort of top

have adopted it for all occasions. Yet men still dress up every day and would not dream otherwise.


Women wear a nice dress, or a skirted suit, to business. That is a pleasure to see. A lot of

companies have designated Friday as dress-down day, when more casual outfits are acceptable.

Teachers used to wear nice clothing Monday through Friday, but now appear in whatever outfit they threw on for the day. I know one middle-school lady teacher who dresses well every day. The students call her "fancy." Like the rest of us, she too is wearing whatever she wants.

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