REVIEW: Skirts: Fashioning Modern Femininity in the Twentieth Century by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell
In a sparkling, beautifully illustrated social history, Skirts traces the shifting roles of women over the twentieth century through the era’s most iconic and influential dresses.
While the story of women’s liberation has often been framed by the growing acceptance of pants over the twentieth century, the most important and influential female fashions of the era featured skirts. Suffragists and soldiers marched in skirts; the heroines of the Civil Rights Movement took a stand in skirts. Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keeffe revolutionized modern art and Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes in skirts. When NASA put a man on the moon, “the computer wore a skirt,” in the words of one of those computers, mathematician Katherine G. Johnson. As women made strides towards equality in the vote, the workforce, and the world at large, their wardrobes evolved with them. They did not need to “wear the pants” to be powerful or progressive; the dress itself became modern as designers like Mariano Fortuny, Coco Chanel, Jean Patou, and Diane von Furstenberg redefined femininity for a new era.
Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell’s Skirts looks at the history of twentieth-century womenswear through the lens of game-changing styles like the little black dress and the Bar Suit, as well as more obscure innovations like the Taxi dress or the Pop-Over dress, which came with a matching potholder. These influential garments illuminate the times in which they were first worn—and the women who wore them—while continuing to shape contemporary fashion and even opening the door for a genderfluid future of skirts. At once an authoritative work of history and a delightfully entertaining romp through decades of fashion, Skirts charts the changing fortunes, freedoms, and aspirations of women themselves.
Once again I got off to a rough start with another book and had to power through the first chapter or two before I felt more at ease. This book should maybe be called “Dresses” because that’s the focus though I’ll admit that the changes in the hemlines of the skirt parts of dresses and later the chapters in minis and midi skirts are important.
Chrisman-Campbell is a “fashion historian, curator, and journalist” and she approaches the subject as a lesson in the changes in women’s status/jobs/freedom/etc as told via the clothes of the 20th century though now (2022). It started off a bit dry and technical, more like a textbook or thesis in the intro and first chapter. Then either I got used to this style or she relaxed a bit and it became more interesting to me.
I certainly learned a great deal about fashion designers I’d never heard of including Mariano Fortuny images of whose Delphos dress make me want to have one. I had seen pictures of Suzanne Lenglen displaying her amazing athleticism on tennis courts but didn’t realize how she revolutionized what women wore to play the sport and indeed, along with other tennis players, helped open a new type of fashion – ‘sportswear.’
Whatever is in fashion one decade will almost certainly spark the opposite the next ten years. World War I caused women to turn away from the strict mourning of the Victorian age as after 1918 too much of the population would be in black but then along came the first LBD. Bias cut (using lots of fabric) dresses of the 30s and the first strapless dresses both fell victim to war rationing only for Edith Head’s dress that Elizabeth Taylor wore and Dior’s first collection to reinvent them. Bar Dresses, Taxi Dresses, and Wrap Dresses all came along. Some stayed or were reimagined. Mini skirts were initially more about youth than sex. They were followed by midi skirts in the 70s that caused mass rebellion against fashion houses dictating what women would wear.
Though there were a few nods to women of color (Serena Williams’s daring tennis court styles) early in the book, it took until almost the end before Chrisman-Campbell began talking about them, and anyone other than white and skinny women, again. Jennifer Lopez and her famous Versace gown was instrumental in getting Google to work on Google pics. Marilyn Monroe might have done her iconic “nude” dress in 1962 but Rihanna’s statement “naked dress” in 2014 brought the style forward 50 years and amped it up. Wither dresses? Well men are wearing them now, too.
The arc I read did not have any images but the publishers promise that the finished book will include them. This might be a better book for scholars rather than the casual reader but I did learn quite a bit. B-