Origin of the Trend: Maxi Skirts

The mini skirt is a far younger trend than its more prevalent counterpart, the maxi. The parent trend, which led to the shrinking of skirts with the sexual revolution of the late mid-twentieth century, has its roots in, well, every skirt that existed before the 1900s. Except for those made of animal skins and leaves and maybe a few colorful quetzal feathers to give primitive outfits some pizazz. I can’t imagine that those ladies had the desire, or resources, to make floor-length skirts. That much clothing would’ve been inconvenient.

So, our travel through the history of maxi skirts starts in post-settlement Europe. It could probably start elsewhere, but everyone can imagine those obtrusive, attack-of–the-fabric skirts trailing along narrow carriage roads as ladies frolicked in meadows, village squares, forests, etc. Although Joan of Arc may have successfully avoided the modest dress style, maxi skirts (true to the name in more than just length) were basically the female uniform for centuries.

It wasn’t until the early twentieth century that crinolines and bustles were discarded in favor of slimmer skirts, according to Britain’s The Independent, when French designer Paul Poiret “introduced the ‘hobble skirt,’ one that was so long and fitted that the wearer could only take small steps when walking. This evolved into the ‘trotteur’ or walking skirt, a straight, off-the-ground skirt that allowed ease of movement and rapidly became a classic.” While the hobble skirt was just as restricting as the full skirts of the 1800s, it was, at least, sexier. Chop it in half, and you’ve got the pencil skirt. Props to Poiret for conceiving the precursor to a wardrobe essential. But, like, was he trying to torture women by putting their legs in straight jackets?

The maxi skirts of the first decade of the 1900s were more structured than those of 2011, but their body-contouring silhouette has recently been reworked and emphasized, with designs utilizing flowing fabrics that cling to the legs.

Maxis were pretty much absent for the following sixty years, as flappers heralded the beauty of short skirts and feminists donned pants in protest of social constructs. The 1970s, however, saw an influx of the trend. This may have been influenced by hippies. Or maybe the hippies liked what they saw on the runway. I can’t speak to the originality of hippie fashion.

According to WornThrough.com, “One of the earliest appearances of the ‘Maxi-Dress’ was in 1968. The New York Times highlighted a cotton lace version by Oscar de la Renta that he created for Elizabeth Arden Salon. More notable designers such as YSL, Dior, Cardin, Biba, Halston and others would latch on to the style as well.”

These dresses featured full-length skirts that were not like wearing chains or down comforters around the legs. They were a little bit flowy, in the spirit of the free-loving 70s culture as “hippies favoured long, flowing skirts in ethnic prints” (The Independent). They were discovering their primitive roots. Hippies could often be found tying a few yards of dirty faux-/real-leopard fabric around their waists (FashionEra.com). Just kidding. Sort of.

The 70s ended with the birth of the 80s, which killed the maxi. According to The Independent, “maxi skirts didn’t make a noticeable appearance again until autumn 1996 in the shape of Bohemian maxi skirts and coats from designers such as Richard Tyler, reworking the Portobello look.” I remember wearing my mom’s embroidered boho maxi skirt to school in the late 90s. It featured sequins and was easy to pair with a t-shirt and flip flops. Unfortunately, the boho look was not popular among midwestern fifth graders.

Designers’ interest in the maxi skirt, however, soared following the late 90s. In the past ten years, the skirt has dabbled in a variety of silhouettes, including some that are more constricting than those of the early 1900s, and, most recently, some that are sheer and even airier than those of the hippies.

These sheer maxi skirts are a good choice for this winter when you are a.) wearing nice underwear, b.) not going commando, c.) wearing a body-contouring skirt underneath, d.) feverish, or e.) crazy.

Published at The Lion, The Stitch, and The Wardrobe on November 18, 2011.

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