WHEN VOGUE’S editor in chief Anna Wintour observed a few weeks ago that anything “overly sexy or overly clinging or look-at-me has simply gone out the window,” she was referring to the spring 2019 collections. But, as is often the case, the industry was playing catch up with the mood on the street, which has turned toward a modest feminism of late. With the courts embroiled in conversations about gender, many women are looking to strategically cover up. Consider the continuing interest in the midi, aka the mid-calf-length skirt, which is back for fall in large part because designers like Gabriela Hearst, Ulla Johnson, Emilia Wickstead, Gucci, Marine Serre, Ganni and the Row know women want to wear it. Midi skirts and dresses, said Ms. Johnson, “are the backbone of my business.”
Just don’t confuse “not overly sexy” with “completely void of sex.” “There’s a discreet sexuality to them, an ease and an elegance,” said Ms. Johnson. Added Ms. Hearst: “It’s a design that has an allure that’s sophisticated, that’s sensual without being too revealing; it keeps something back. It’s subtle.” Like Ms. Johnson, she considers the midi central to her aesthetic.
Things were different in 1969, when fashion designers first proposed the midi. Then, it was a reaction to the thigh-baring mini skirt, which, after being tentatively introduced to the U.S. by Britain in 1964, had come to dominate the market. Not all women braved the micro-minis that were available by 1967, but, as family photos from the era attest, even grandmothers wore minis during the ’60s—and this was a time when the old looked older than they do now. During the 1920s, the last decade when skirts’ lengths had retreated at such a rapid rate, hems allowed for a glimpse of knee but rose no further; doing so would have exposed women’s stocking tops and garters. Sixties designers, thanks to the newly invented pantyhose, had no such checks on their inclinations to send hemlines ever upward.
‘ When the first significant batch of midis arrived in American stores in the autumn of 1970, the outrage was palpable. ’
Still, by the end of the decade, fashion’s constant pendulum effect meant that skirts had to get longer because they couldn’t decently get any shorter (enter: hot pants). Cool it-girls at the time like Paloma Picasso and Loulou de la Falaise had already long tired of tiny mini skirts; they were shopping in flea markets for longer-hemmed looks from the 1930s and ’40s. And fashion insiders were restlessly scanning the horizon for the next big thing. By the summer of 1968, Women’s Wear Daily had already sent a memo to its fashion staffers banning them from wearing short skirts to the office (“we all know minis are dead”), while laywomen still happily wore their minis, unaware that their preference was about to be challenged.
When the first significant batch of midis arrived in American stores in the autumn of 1970, the outrage was palpable. Although some women had objected to Dior’s New Look when it arrived in 1947, they were in the minority. Midi haters were legion. Surging inflation (who could afford to replace all their skirts and dresses?), second-wave feminism (why should fashion magazines tell women what to do?), and a sense that the midi was being foisted on them (we never asked for this!) caused women to rebel. They turned on fashion and collectively said, “No.”
Such attempted strong-arming is unimaginable now for a slew of reasons, among them the fact that fashion doesn’t march in lockstep anymore and women don’t follow it with anything like the zeal they once did. And that’s in part due to the midi, whose divisive 1970 arrival serves as a case study in how women’s relationship to fashion has changed.
In 1970, fashion still believed it could direct and women would obey, as they had since the days of Charles Worth. Significantly, the decree to don the midi came from Paris, the historic center of the fashion world, where la mode is at its most imperious. Even American publications rooted their pro-midi arguments in French soil. A 1970 Women’s Wear Daily article pushing the midi is datelined Paris, as though the writer were in search of true believers who could properly appreciate the correctness of the new style. She quoted a young Frenchwoman on her preference for the longuette, as it was known in France: “I feel so much more feminine. I walk more gracefully. I stand much straighter. Even the way I use my hands has changed.” The message: Be more womanly and put on a longer skirt.
But American women weren’t interested, and the midi debacle left retailers with unsold stock and a lingering disinclination to take risks. In our postmodern trend mashup, of course, you can wear whatever you like, which is the real story here: Now, the midi is beloved by a generation of women born after its contentious introduction.
So what did women in 1970 buy when they couldn’t find a skirt length they liked? The same thing many of them buy now: a pair of pants.
LONG SHOTS / Midis That Make the Mark
From left: A densely knit patterned piece with good swing. Skirt, $ 895, proenzaschouler.com; A pleasingly classic option. Skirt, $ 3,990, The Row, 212-755-2017; For fun, a madras one with a built-in belt. Skirt, $ 70, zara.com.