The Battle of the Skirt

Published: 14 July 2023

By Han Yu
via the Columbia University Press web site

Battle of the Skirt

How Flappers and World War I Transformed the Fashion Industry

I can show my shoulders,
I can show my knees;
I’m a free-born American
And can show what I please.

On August 23, 1923, the Parent Teachers Association of Somerset, Pennsylvania, gathered for a solemn task: petition the school board to adopt old-fashioned school uniforms and bar “short skirts, bobbed hair, and low-necked, sleeveless dresses.”[i] Catching wind of this, the town’s flappers came uninvited, delivered the snappy rhyme, and stormed out, leaving the parents and teachers seething with indignance.

The Associated Press picked up the story, spreading it to newspapers across the country. In Wilmington, Delaware, the Morning News announced that flappers had risen to defend their “near nudity.”[ii] In 1920s America, women didn’t have to do much to be accused of practicing nudity.

On some level, I guess, the accusation makes sense. Only thirty years earlier, skirts had been floor length, barely showcasing women’s shoes.[iii] Indeed, from ancient Greece and Rome onward, the concept of “short skirts” was largely unknown to Western civilizations.[iv] Skirts, dresses, and gowns were meant to cover up the legs, to pretend that women don’t have ankles, much less knees.

Given this fashion history, the flapper’s attire was nothing short of scandalous to her contemporaries.
Given this fashion history, the flapper’s attire was nothing short of scandalous to her contemporaries. Head to toe, multiple qualifications made the flapper, three of which specifically concerned her knees: a knee-length fringed skirt, exposed bare knees, and rolled hose to accentuate said knees.

To further ensure that their knees stood out and were put forward in the best light, flappers took to another fashion practice: rouge them. “The idea is to get just the faintest pink effect—a coat of rice powder, the slightest touch of rouge on the knee cap and a film powder over that.” [v] The effect was promised to be quite charming. The more creative and ambitious also painted their knees. This, according to beauty specialists, was “the latest thing.”[vi] One might choose from a variety of designs, simple and elaborate: “Some girls prefer a flower or a group of blossoms. Others like a portrait or a little landscape.”[vii]

With their fashion outrage, flappers were often held up as extraordinary rebels: brave and liberated, they smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, and danced the Charleston, single-handedly bringing about women’s dress reform. This picture is, alas, more Hollywood (and Fitzgerald) than history. In reality, seventy years of fashion rebels had preceded—and one might say enabled—the flappers and their exposed knees.

Two disparate groups raised the issue of dress reform: water curists and women’s rights activists.
Although skirts had always been devised to hide the female lower body, the Industrial Revolution and its attendant technology took this to the extreme. Power-driven looms churned out great quantities of fabric, which allowed skirts to swell with layers of petticoats.[viii] The sewing machine then added complicated stitching and intricate trimming, tons of it.[ix] If lavish petticoats and decorations made for an attractive dress, they also made for a heavy one. Weighing in the neighborhood of forty pounds,[x] such outfits effectively forced women into a sedentary lifestyle, moving as little as possible and carrying nothing of substance. On hot summer days, layers of fabric became a heat trapper, creating additional discomfort that deterred movement.[xi]

At this juncture, some women finally said enough was enough. Two disparate groups raised the issue of dress reform: water curists and women’s rights activists.

Read the entire article on the Columbia University Press web site here:

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