I remember, as a 13-year-old, my teachers checking the length of my skirt. As girls, we were made to wear skirts, and I was largely OK 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 knuckly finger, and it became clear to me that skirts meant 'girl' and trousers meant 'boy'. I had to wear one and – I realise now – at 13, it was up to me to alter my clothes in order to not be sexualised by someone else.
Growing up, I saw skirts everywhere. My teachers wore skirts; Olympians wore skirts; my favourite 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. I was a girl.
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". Thirteen-year-old me is confused.
I should have worn trousers. On a 30 degree day, in summer, at 26 years old, standing in a field and, by chance, next to a cretin of a man, all of a sudden it was my fault. I should have worn trousers.
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 and so is its history. So are you sitting modestly? Then I'll begin.
The humble skirt was the second piece of clothing ever invented, before the dress (which is effectively just a T-shirt sewn to a skirt, but whatever), 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. It wasn't until trousers were invented and the middle ages came around that clothes became gendered – and that, ladies and gentlemen, is where it all started to go south.
After this, clothes became a hallmark of importance; a floor-length, bulky skirt meant rich – especially if it was more than three metres in diameter round the bottom. Next, the flamboyant fashion of the Victorian era made its debut, so skirts were layered and bustles added. Victorian women's fashion was about creating the 'ideal' bell shape and showing their 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 layers of clothing including a corset and a skirt cage – a sort of sartorial 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.
Laced in, covered up and just generally having a hot, sweaty and itchy time (not in a good way), women were at the mercy of their clothes, and, of course, still wearing skirts, because y'know, woman stuff.
In the '50s, a calf-length pleated number was the default because, finally, the ankle was seen as the bony appendage it is. 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 Chelsea's King's Road in 1955, and raised hemlines (and eyebrows) with a skirt she named after her favourite 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 fiancées wearing it – yawn. Women had taken their sexuality, and bodies, into their own hands.
Since the '60s, hemlines have gone up and down, sure, but the skirt has settled and become a sartorial 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 sexualised 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 be continuously coughed up from the comment section.
But don’t fear, I have the answer: 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.