Skirt History

What Is The Skirt?

The skirt is one of the more interesting garments in history, as in comparison to say, the shirt or hat, it has changed several times in its functional use as well as its use by the sexes. The history of the skirt stretches back to the very beginning of clothing, well before written history.

In its most basic definition, a skirt is a tubular garment that hangs from the waist or hips and covers parts or all of the legs. The idea of covering the body below the waist with a loose-fitting material must be a very old one, perhaps so old as to be brothers with the humble loin cloth.

history of the skirt

The skirts of a piece of clothing can also refer to the lower, free-hanging part of a garment below the waist. This is what is referred to in the skirts of someone’s coat, or the bottom of a robe. We’ll limit our discussion to the first type of skirt as if we include all skirts we’d have to talk about the history of robes, coats, cloaks, jackets, and so much more.

The Skirt In The Classical World

Loose-fitting garments of all sorts were a mainstay of ancient fashion. The famous toga of the greeks is a good example. In fact, the toga served a very similar role to the modern business suit, a garment used almost exclusively for ceremonial purposes and for displaying one’s wealth. In everyday affairs, the Greek-style fustanella would be a very common sight.

history of the skirt

All across the Mediterranean and Black Sea peoples, different variations of a pleated or loose skirt would be worn by men and women. Perhaps the most famous skirt of the ancient world is the style worn in the Roman legions. Usually of a hardy leather reinforced with iron studs, these garments provided warmth or coolness (depending on the density of pleats, which could be added or thinned), mobility, and protection.

Unlike later periods the length of the skirt appears to have more to do with the use or formality of the situation. Whereas in later times the longer length of the skirt or skirts would be more associated with women.

The Skirt In Medieval Times

By the medieval era, there was already the beginning of a general split in the use of the skirt. In many places across Europe, the skirt retained its ceremonial value in men’s wear but generally transitioned to be a garment exclusively for women. There are of course many exceptions in Europe alone, including the famous kilts of the Celts, and the continued popularity of the fustanella in the Balkans.

In general, the fashion of the western medieval period was one of tall, narrow lines and figures. Trousers or leggings for men and long but practical dresses for women. The skirt as an article of clothing in itself, particularly a short one, did not suit the morals or practical necessity of the times.

In the East, the traditional Chinese dress of the Han, the Chang (裳), a skirt for men, and the Qun (裙), which depending on the period could mean a type of pleated skirt or the lower skirts in general of the full HanFu dress, would’ve been a common sight.

The history of fashion in the East is so varied among cultures and so different from the West that it is difficult to even discuss it at a superficial level. But in general, and using China as the prime example, formality and rank were the main factors in dress, while gender did play an important role, it was a lesser one.

The Skirt In The Early Modern Period

The early modern period (1400s+), saw a great reversal to the practical and slim outlines of the Classical and Medieval world. Large outlines, frills, lace, and the like was common throughout both men’s and women’s fashion in high society.

history of the skirt

The large and sturdy overskirts became popular for women. These bulky but protective garments helped to shield their expensive and impractical gowns from the dirt and filth of the roads. The heavy gown was very popular among women, changing in outline and form several times.

By this time in the West, the skirt or dress in any form of men’s fashion was almost entirely gone, being relegated to traditional dress, or for specific occupations.

This transition in Western European fashion deserves to be discussed in more depth, as not only are there great changes but interesting differences between the nations (usually around religious lines) that create a very curious contrast. As a simple example, look at the dark and almost foreboding colors and cut of a Spanish or English dress, compared to the light and revealing fashions of the French and Italians.

The Skirt In The Modern World

By the late modern period (1800s+), the skirt in the West undertook a series of rapid changes in women’s fashion. So far there have been dozens of variations of the skirt in modern fashion, varying length, fabrics, cut, outline, and more.

history of the skirt

Using the United States as an example, the decades since 1920 have had relatively sudden and abrupt changes. Lengthening, shortening, filling the figure, slimming the figure, shortening again, the changes usually (like all fashion) reflected the times and ideas of the era.

history of the skirt

To this day the skirt remains a primarily female, and feminine article of clothing. The most common cuts are of the shorter varieties (midi, knee-length, mini, and micro), with a great variety of fabric and patterns. Like most modern fashion, the general trends are fairly cross-cultural, particularly at the business and high-end levels.

The Future Of The Skirt

Without a doubt, the skirt will retain its position as one of the most popular types of female clothing. The last few decades have seen a variety of attempts to bring back the skirt, or skirt-like garments to male fashion, but to date have been unsuccessful. When one sees how long ago the division between male and female fashion occurred, it is easy to see why bringing it back is not so easy.

skirt history

Let me know if you’d be interested in more history articles, particularly any that are in more detail. A topic like this, for example, is fun to skim over, but there is so much to it that we can only get to a superficial level.

There are many articles that could be made about just the skirt in various cultures and time periods, let alone other types of garments.

Let me know what you thought in the comments below, see you next time.


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