It has nothing to do with the economy anymore,” says Ed Burstell, managing director of Liberty of London, of the sudden rise of the long skirt. Long, lean and fitted, in fluid fabrics such as jersey and satin, the skirt is being celebrated everywhere from Michael Kors to Roberto Cavalli, Dolce & Gabbana, Erdem and Marc Jacobs. “Long skirts can be contemporary, they’re so right now, on a lot of different levels,” says Burstell.
Burstell is referring to the Hemline Index, launched in 1929 by Wharton economist George Taylor. His theory was that when an economy is thriving women wear shorter skirts, and when the economy slows down – or crashes, as it did in 1929 – hemlines drop. It made sense during the Roaring Twenties, the decade of the flapper dress, and the Great Depression, when women were wrapped up in long-skirted suits.
In his 1987 book The Wall Street Waltz, Kenneth L Fisher concurred with this view, looking at the Dow Jones Industrial Average from 1897 to the late 1980s and changes in hemlines during the same period. Skirt lengths went up during the economic booms of the 1950s and the 1960s – to then-shocking miniskirt levels – only to drop to the ankle during the 1970s recession. In the 1980s, as the economy took off again, hemlines rose, had a brief bobble downward in the early 1990s during a short recession, and went up again to reach the micro-mini length of the late 1990s.
But, says Michael Kors, whose current collection features a long knit skirt with a high waist and slim hips that flares out below the knees: “How much shorter and more spangled could it get? It’s the pendulum of fashion: if the erogenous zone is cleavage, after a while that becomes old news, and we must find something else.”
In other words, it’s fashion, stupid.
“I’ve always liked a long silhouette,” says Erdem Moralioglu, designer for the London-based fashion company Erdem, whose collection featured a printed long skirt that was fitted at the waist and blossomed out into acres of fabric. “It’s a flattering shape because it elongates. And I wanted to find a modern way to do eveningwear, as opposed to the classic gown.” See, for example, Michelle Obama at a state dinner in New Delhi earlier this month, dressed in a bronze silk tunic and metallic velvet long skirt by Rachel Roy instead of a dress.
Furthermore, as Erdem points out, “A long skirt can have another life because it can be worn during the day as well.” Kors cites the Olsen twins stepping out in sunlight in long skirts paired with jean jackets, and models showing up at his studio in ribbed tank tops and long skirts. “They take it into a more boho vibe,” he says.
“We are no longer in the days of old when an editor would say, ‘Think pink!’ and you threw out everything and bought a new wardrobe,” Kors says, who showed short- and medium-length skirts too. “Women can suss it out themselves and say, ‘This is for me,’ or ‘It’s not for me.’”
“I think the return of the long skirt is a combination of a lot of things,” says Burstell. “There was a reaction to structuralism and minimalism – designers were looking for a way to combine femininity and volume, and long skirts do that. And there was the Yves Saint Laurent retrospective at the Petit Palais in Paris this year – everyone in fashion went to see that and saw his wonderful long skirts.”
Erdem went to the show too: “Saint Laurent was the master of the long skirt – the Russian collection he did in the 1970s was amazing – and he still informs everyone.”
Burstell notes, however, that the trend is not targeted at the twentysomething fashionista who “you see on the high street on a Saturday in a skirt that’s really nothing more than a big belt” – she may never change her mind – but rather at over-35-year-olds, “women who still have money to spend on fashion”. He recently saw a striking older customer on Liberty’s shop floor: “She had beautiful long grey hair, and was wearing a long black fishtail skirt and a tight Rick Owens leather jacket. She looked amazing, just timeless and fantastic.
“There is something a bit mysterious about long and it takes a confident woman to wear it,” he continues. “The sort of woman who would say, ‘Honey, I don’t have to put the goods in the window right away.’ It’s really quite sexy.”
Dana Thomas is the author of ‘Deluxe: How Luxury Lost its Lustre’ (Penguin)