Short Skirts
Nothing Happens in a Vacuum

September 9, 1999

Graphic artists are part of the greater pool of designers who wrestle with the real, trying to draw it towards an ever-shifting ideal. Architects design buildings; graphic designers present words and images to woo the hand and eye; industrial designers decide what cars and can openers should be; and fashion designers try to second-guess what people want to look like. All of us do part of the same thing: we make the world. But, it would be wrong to think that we have anything like control over fashion in any of its myriad aspects. Fashion, just as any other aspect of human endeavor, comes from someplace and has a history that owes little to the frenzied activity of designers.

Designers are not prescriptive--that is, they do not tell a sheep-like public what to do. The public does what it wants the very minute it is able to do so. Good designers recognize change and react to it, so quickly in some cases that they seem to have caused the change. But, the mill does not make the water run. The best designers are reactive to their environment, and present the public with exactly what the public is ready for, wants and is already doing. The famous "does she or doesnt she" ads did not change Western womens attitudes toward hair coloring. The advertisers (knowingly or unknowingly) instead reacted appropriately to a market that was already changing. Technology was ready with a quality hair dye and American women were eager to use it. Clairol just happened to be in the right spot at the right time. (1)

With this in mind, let us examine a seemingly random and incomprehensible fashion change. Why, in the early 1920s, did women begin to wear short skirts?

The first thing to ask of this or any other question is, "Is this so?" When asked, for example, "Why does God want us to suffer?" dont just assume that the question contains within itself a correct statement that is worthy of examination. Fabulous amounts of philosophical lumber could be cleared away by this simple approach.

First off, did women, in fact, begin wearing short skirts for the very first time in the 1920s? Leaving aside nymphs and dryads and a few dribbles of archaeological evidence for Amazon warriors, grown women basically did not ever at any time in history show any part of their legs in public. That is, until just after World War One, when quite suddenly, little was left to the imagination. Why was this?

Well start with another question: What else was going on? A great deal was going on. Seventy-five percent of the population of America lived in cities (as opposed to 25% one century earlier.) From the 1890s, the bicycle exerted a considerable influence on both fashion and society, and was about as popular as anything could be, creating an independence for both men and women that was lost on neither the youth of the day nor their alarmed parents. Both men and women of the middle class exhibited an increasing interest in sports such as golf and tennis. Furthering the independence of young people, the automobile had by the twenties become so common that most members of the middle class had one. In response to the demands created by bicycles and motorized transport, great public works projects were initiated, resulting in tens of thousands of miles of mapped and paved roads. The airplane had been improved to a point where it was actually useful. The Great War had just ended, and the world was still not in tip-top shape. Worldwide, ten million had died as a result of war, and an additional twenty million people had just died of influenza. Prohibition had been enacted, and was perhaps the least honored bit of legislation in the history of the human race. An entire nation of law-abiding Christians was turned overnight into an army of scofflaws, and the amazing part was that everyone seemed to be enjoying it. It was chic to be immoral. Women had just gotten the vote and were feeling their oats. The Gillette safety razor had recently been invented. Lighting was electric, and people stayed up later and went out more. The radio brought the whole world to your ears. The motion picture was a popular new form of entertainment and a near instantaneous disseminator of fashion information. Many people had telephones. The phonograph was ubiquitous, bringing to the popular ear new music in a new manner. Man-made cellulose products were increasingly available, including rayon, an artificial silk. The Russian revolution had just occurred, with Whites battling Reds in a seesaw that entranced the world. Cubism, Vorticism, Dada, Surrealism, Jazz and the Bauhaus had turned the art world on its head. The out-of-date, and by that was largely meant anything at all that had been around before the war, was on the run, relentlessly pursued by the new broom of men and women as old as the century.

People were excited by speed, by the rapid pace of progress, by the overthrow of the old and the breakneck introduction of the new, even at the cost of the destruction of whole social orders.

So we ask ourselves, Is there a relationship between these events and short skirts? Like anything else, fashion changes are a process with more than one cause. Skirts did not leap up all at once: the 1915 Sears catalog showed skirts that were several inches above the ankle; in 1916, skirts were illustrated that were slightly shorter yet.


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Nothing Happens in a Vacuum

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