Demure Or Raunchy? Our Confusing Attitudes Towards Skirts

Photo by John Dominis/The LIFE Premium Collection/Getty Images
The cover of Life magazine features a photo by a young woman in a clothing shop as she looks in a mirror and holds a shin-length skirt up over her mini skirt, August 21, 1970.

After two men took upskirt photos of Gina Martin, she began a campaign to make it a sexual offense. Now, she’s teamed up with Refinery29 UK to tell the stories of women who have been upskirted, and encourage the government to #StopSkirtingTheIssue.

I remember as a 13-year-old my teachers checking the length of my skirts. As girls, we were made to wear them, and I was largely okay with it, apart from the fact that I desperately wanted to run and roll around at lunchtime just like the boys did. Skirts were to be worn modestly or 'decent,' as Mrs. Stanway would say, wagging her finger — and it soon became clear to me that skirts meant 'girl,' and trousers meant 'boy.' I had to wear one and — I realize now — it was up to me to alter my clothes in order to not be sexualized by someone else.

Growing up, I saw skirts everywhere. My teachers wore skirts; Olympians wore skirts; my favorite pop stars wore skirts. I was told, subconsciously and consciously, by every movie, song, book, and adult that wearing skirts was normal for me. It was pretty and feminine and it was my uniform.

Fast-forward to last summer and a man shoves his hand between my legs at a music festival and takes pictures of my vagina without me knowing. A good chunk of the responses I get from people I tell are, "You should have worn trousers." 13 year old me is confused. Thirteen years later, standing in a field in summer, by chance, next to a cretin of a man, and all of a sudden it was my fault. I should have worn trousers.

Gina Martin

Over time, somehow, the skirt has become both a woman's uniform and her biggest sin: wear it and act like a lady, but suffer the consequences if you do. It's all a bit confusing, but so is its history.

The skirt was the second piece of clothing ever invented (before the dress), and was a hand-woven straw affair found in an Armenian cave in 3,000 BC. Skirts were worn by men and women back then — much as they are now — and were all about practicality. After the Middle Ages, clothes became a hallmark of importance: a floor-length, bulky skirt meant you were rich — especially if it was more than three meters in diameter around the bottom. Next, the flamboyant fashion of the Victorian era made its debut, with skirts being layered and bustles added in. Victorian women's fashion was about creating the 'ideal' bell shape and showing one's status, but, crucially, the amount of layers were to make it harder for them to be promiscuous. The hope was that it wouldn't be worth taking off five pieces of clothing, including a corset and a skirt cage — a sort of style-minded chastity belt had been invented. Pretty extreme, sure, but this was around the same time when showing your ankles made you a harlot and table legs were covered because they looked too much like the real deal. Allen Jones would be in exile.

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

In the '50s, a calf-length pleated number was the default. Skirts were all about femininity and creating curves while retaining your — you guessed it — modesty, but then Marilyn Monroe stood on top of a subway grid and we all lost our shit.

The birth of the miniskirt in the '60s brought some much needed rebellion and liberation. Fashion designer Mary Quant opened Bazaar on London's King's Road in 1955, and raised hemlines (and eyebrows) with a skirt she named after her favorite car — the mini. Cue Twiggymania and Jean Shrimpton, who turned up to the Melbourne Cup wearing a miniskirt and — gasp — no hat or gloves or stockings. The Swinging Sixties had arrived.

The miniskirt was considered a sort of peaceful protest and went hand-in-hand with the sexual liberation of women and the invention of the Pill. Many men weren't that happy with the mini, however, and although they liked seeing it on women they were unrelated to, they complained about their own wives and fiancés wearing it — yawn. Women had taken their sexuality, and bodies, into their own hands.

Photo by Leonard Burt/Central Press/Getty Images

Since the '60s, hem lines have gone up and down, sure, but the skirt has settled and become a staple. The height of your hem, is no longer a political or economic statement, but we have history with it. We have baggage. It's still wrongly assumed that wearing one is an attempt to convey a message: 'I'm attractive;' 'Look at me;' Hit on me;' the list goes on. The skirt has been through too much to simply be a piece of clothing, and, for some reason, women have been through too much to be able to wear it without comment.

In 2018, though, when clothes mean creativity and agency, the skirt can just be a skirt. It no longer has to be a statement. This highly gendered and sexualized garment is slowly getting there, but there’s some way to go. Until our attitudes about what it means to show our bodies change, and wearing a skirt becomes as wholesome as wearing a pair of jeans, ‘you should have worn trousers’ will still continuously be coughed up from the comment section.

The only way we can rid the skirt of its controversial history and enjoy the breezy, freedom of wearing one without any repercussions is by putting one on whenever and wherever we want — whoever we are. Maybe when we’ve done that enough, seeing a leg will become almost as benign as seeing an ankle.

You can sign the Care2 petition calling for upskirt photos to be made illegal under the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 here.

If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call theRAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

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