The rise of the skirt (and the dress)
Skirts and dresses haven't always been defined by the female figure. We look at the history and development of skirts and dresses through the centuries, delving as far back as 1500BC. We will learn why these garments a firm fixtures of fashion through diverse cultures and why they are here to stay.
Dress Like an Egyptian
The earliest styled garments were draped around the body, accentuating its contours while marking the wearer's status and gender. In Egypt this form of dress developed before 1500 BC from the schenti, a belted loincloth that was more like a pleated, knee-length skirt. For women, the skirt finished under the breasts, secured by shoulder straps.
The styles adopted by the classical Greeks and Romans were looser. The chiton, which formed the basis of the Greek wardrobe from 700 BC, fell from the shoulders and waist in folds. The man's chiton was shorter, but otherwise there was little difference between the sexes. In Italy, the early Etruscans used ties to create close-fitting dresses, but contact with Greek civilisation led to the adoption of a draped chiton for Roman women and a flowing, semicircular toga for men.
Fitted and Flared
In the 5th century AD the draped look was abandoned as the influence of northern Europe grew, spread by the Germanic tribes who invaded Gaul and raided Britain. From about 450 to 1300 the dress was a sewn, T-shaped garment belted at the waist. A flared skirt helped to accentuate the bust, waist and hips.
Around 1350 the rise of competitive court societies in Italy and France introduced the idea of a fashion cycle. The dress now became the focus for the tailor's skill and the wearer's sophisticated taste. Lacing, buttoning and the cutting of fabric across the grain all contributed to a fitted look.
A Feminine Dress
The floor-length gown became an exclusively feminine item in the early 16th century. From 1530 female costume was composed of the bodice and the skirt or ‘kirtle’; the one-piece outfit remained as a long undershift. This form of dressing was worn for ceremonial occasions until the 18th century. For more private moments, the one-piece gown had re-emerged by 1700 as the loose, open-fronted ‘mantua’, which was often worn in the mornings.
In the 1800s advances in the technology of clothing production and materials led to a wider variety of styles suitable for particular occasions. The width of the crinoline dictated the fashion for skirts, blouses and jackets in the 1860s, but from 1870 princess-line dresses were cut in one length.
By the turn of the century the new pursuits of cycling and tennis had hastened the fashion for tailored skirts and blouses. The trend for sensible rather than symbolic forms of dress—part of the movement towards emancipation—underpinned the simplification of female dress. From 1925 the short, shift-like dress encouraged the switch to mass production. It was left to designers such as Coco Chanel in the 1920s and Christian Dior in the 1950s to introduce stylistic features that reflected the mood and taste of the time.
Raising the Skirt
By the 1960s Britains own Mary Quant redesigned the skirt to many raised eyebrows. This simple but radical design that caused a sensation, kick-started the Sixties, helped them swing, and symbolised the liberation of women. Mary Quant says her design was named after here favourite car, The Mini. This truely great British design paved the way for the future of female dress fashions, taking it to extreme lengths (no pun intended) and ensuring that the skirt will never go out of fashion.