They're up again; they're down again. Hemlines have become as volatile as the stock market, Orange County's economy and the California Angels.
Skirt lengths have gone from long to short and back again so often in recent seasons that nobody knows which way is up. Fall fashion collections only added to the hemline confusion. Some designers, notably Calvin Klein, showed below-the-knee '40s lengths, while others put their models into minis.
"Right now, I have no idea where hemlines are headed, and I'm not going to try to predict--that would be crazy," says Doris Fuqua, fashion design coordinator for Fullerton College.
Hemlines weren't always so crazy. At one time, women could count on skirt lengths staying the same for years, even decades.
"Hemlines are changing faster and faster," Fuqua says. "Part of that is due to the media. Information about what fashion is doing is getting out more quickly. Trends are more visible to the average person."
Fashions are being absorbed by the masses and discarded at an increasingly frenzied pace.
Not until modern times, when the era of mass communication got underway, did hemlines begin to seesaw. Skirt lengths went up for the first time in the 1920s. (Although they weren't as short as many people imagine--skirts still fell below the knees--but to show any leg at all in those days was revolutionary.)
Hemlines were down in the post-war 1950s, way up in the '60s, down in the '70s and up again in the '80s.
In the '90s, for the first time in fashion history, skirt lengths are all over the map.
"In the '60s, women couldn't really wear longer skirts without looking dated. They had to wear short even if they didn't have a miniskirt figure. Now women can wear almost any hemline without people being horrified," Fuqua says.
The choice of skirt lengths has women searching for which hemline is best. What many have discovered is that no one length is right for everyone.
"The right hemlines are whatever looks great on the leg," says Nancy Brown, owner of A'Marees, a women's clothing boutique in Newport Beach. "Every woman has a different body. Some have great legs; some don't."
Marie Gray, head designer for St. John in Irvine, has always favored hemlines that fall just above the knee.
"I've worn my skirts within an inch of my ideal length for more years than I care to remember," Gray says.
While designers such as Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel frequently raise and lower hemlines from ankle to thigh, Gray has kept skirt lengths at St. John at or near the knees for years.
"We vary our hemlines at most by an inch from season to season," she says. "We don't believe women can keep up with the ups and downs. Women are too busy to take their hemline up and down that often."
Her current collections come in just two lengths--regular, a 23-inch skirt on a size 8 that hits about mid-knee, and short, a 20-inch skirt that bares just a couple of inches above the knees.
"Every woman has a particular spot that's most flattering on her leg. For some it might be below the knee; for others it might be above it," Gray says. Most women look best in skirts lengths that fall just to the knee because that's a natural division on the body, and, Fuqua says, it hits where the body is narrow.
"Never have your skirt divide your leg where it's fat. Crossing the body at its widest point makes it look wider," Fuqua says. That's why women who wear minis should have well-toned thighs.
Legs aren't the only consideration when choosing a hemline.
Skirt lengths also need to be in proportion to the entire figure. They have to be adjusted to achieve the right balance between the upper and lower body.
For instance, an outfit should never cut the body directly in half, Fuqua says. One part should be greater than the other. Thus, shorter skirts can be worn by more people if they're paired with a longer top, while longer skirts look better with short, fitted tops.
Now that they can pick and choose their hemlines, women are less susceptible to designers' ever-changing skirt lengths. They're less likely to shorten or lengthen their clothes just because of what's being shown on the runways.
Wakim Kirvorkian, owner of the Michael Nusskern Boutique in Fullerton, has found his customers resisting the below-the-knee, '40s skirts.
"They're trying to promote that mid-length thing, but I can't sell it," Kirvorkian says. "Women love the leg. You put an older women in that lower length, and she looks like her mother. Even the models look dowdy."
He's having better luck peddling A-line minis and bias-cut skirts that fall almost to the floor.
"Women do what they want when it comes to hemlines," he says. "Women with good figures who are secure and like fashion are wearing skirts four inches above the knee. I'm talking really, really short."
While some women can get away with wearing a mid-thigh, 16-inch skirt, others don't want skirts that show more than their kneecaps.
"If you're in the business world, wearing your skirt at the knee is almost a rule of thumb," Brown says.
The working woman lifestyle has made it necessary for designers to give women more options.
"Women love having a choice. They love to wear the length they feel is best for them," Brown says. "Now they can go from a mini to above the ankle. Hemlines should have been that way a long time."
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A HEMLINE TIME GUIDE
1920s-30s: Skirt lengths rise above the ankle for the first time in modern fashion history. Although they are 'short' by standards of the early 20th Century, hemlines are still below the knee--a radical change caused by the entry of women into the work force during World War I. Calf-length skirts are more practical for work than longer skirts and petticoats that sweep the floor.
1940s-40s: Because of a fabric shortage caused by World War II, skirts remain short (but below the knee) until after the war. Then they plunge--a sign that the long years of scrimping on material are over. Christian Dior helps lower hemlines around the world by introducing "The New Look"--characterized by curvaceous figures in long skirts--in 1947.
1960s-70s: Skirt lengths make dramatic shifts from mini (which exposed knees and thighs to unprecedented heights) to maxi. The charging economy is one factor behind the ups and downs--
hemlines tend to rise in good times and fall in bad times.
1980s-1990s: The economy is up, and so are skirt lengths in the '80s. But conflicting financial news and the resistance of women to be dictated to by designers translate into thevaried lengths seen today. Women wear whichever hemline looks best, such as model Yvette Martinez's short dress of Merino wool ($360) and Kimette Hughes' long crochet dress ($595), both by Marina Spadafora of Italy, available at Michael Nusskem Boutique in Fullerton.
* Source: Doris Fuqua, fashion design coordinator for Fullerton College.