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Review of Skirts: Fashioning Modern Femininity in the Twentieth Century by

Skirts: Fashioning Modern Femininity in the Twentieth Century

by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Much like author Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell discusses in the preface to this book, I adore wearing dresses (and skirts, though I find them slightly more difficult because you then need the right top). She’s preaching to the choir when she talks about wearing them pretty much exclusively. For me as a trans woman, dresses are my way of embodying and expressing my femininity (they are not, of course, the only way to be feminine). I’ll talk more about that later in the review. For now, I’m happy that NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press provided the eARC! Skirts: Fashioning Modern Femininity in the Twentieth Century is a thorough overview of how skirts and dresses have evolved in response to our changing society and cultures. I learned a lot, and it gave me a lot to think about.

This book is not for the fashion faint of heart! Now, it’s ok if you are a fashion neophyte like me! I don’t know much about fashion. I recognized a couple of the bigger names dropped here—Chanel, Dior, Versace, et al—but Chrisman-Campbell demonstrates why she is the fashion historian and I am not with the effortless way she elucidates connections among fashion designers, fashion houses, and various other parts of the industry. I added a great many words to my vocabulary as I read. So unless you too have studied fashion history already, be prepared to be immersed in a whirlwind of new ideas and concepts.

The book is structured into ten chapters, each of which is named after a particular garment: the delphos, the wrap dress, the little black dress, the mini skirt, etc. Upon this structure, Chrisman-Campbell layers and drapes and pins on the development of milestones in dress and skirt fashion. Though the chapters are arranged in a loosely chronological way, Chrisman-Campbell continually revisits important touchstones in history, such as the two world wars, to connect their dramatic reshaping of Western society to the particulars of the garment she’s discussing at the time. Hence, Chrisman-Campbell spends much of the wrap dress chapter commenting on Diane von Furstenberg’s iteration of it, she does trace its origins to the taxicab dress earlier in the century, created in response to women needing to get in and out of their dresses more easily and with fewer hands to assist.

It’s somewhat of a truism that the world wars, particularly the Second World War, upended the social order. For that reason, much of what Chrisman-Campbell has to say might feel at first glance very obvious. What makes Skirts so enduringly edifying, then, are the particular facts that she brings to bear in each moment. It’s one thing for an historian (or even a grandstanding layperson holding court at a dinner party) to make sweeping proclamations about how the Second World War liberalized clothing customs or whatever. It’s another thing entirely to drill down into the details and the nuance—the way that hemlines fluctuated over the decades, for example. Shorter hemlines were a response to rationing of fabric during the war, and longer hemlines took over afterwards as a sign of prosperity, only to rise again as fashion designers carved out a new category, teenager. As Chrisman-Campbell tracks these decade-by-decade, sometimes year-by-year, changes, she names names and even goes so far as to cite specific shows, catalogues, or photographs that incited new fashion. It’s so much more complicated than “shorter hemlines correlate to women’s liberation.” It’s a complex ecosystem of designers, celebrity models, advertising campaigns, parties, entertainment media, and yes, the economy.

As the subtitle of the book suggests, and as Chrisman-Campbell refines in her introduction when she traces the metonymy of skirt, ultimately she is trying to unpack the complicated way in which skirts and dresses are linked to each era’s concept of femininity and women’s bodies. Women’s dress has historically been a tool for exclusion, for titillation, or even for asserting power. The shifting nature of what is acceptable, when, and where reveals a lot about how our society polices women’s bodies. There’s also a need to be intersectional in this conversation, for Black women, fat women, and disabled women receive more scrutiny and censure than white, able-bodied, or thin women.

Ultimately, I’m not sure how successful Skirts is at having that intersectional conversation. That probably means it’s not as successful as it should be. To her credit, Chrisman-Campbell signals that she is aware of the need for this intersectionality and brings it up on occasion. She mentions the misogynoir that Serena Williams has faced on the tennis court over. Later, she touches upon the queering of fashion, from dancehall and Pose to male celebrities like Kurt Cobain and Harry Styles wearing dresses. All in all, I think Chrisman-Campbell tries to be inclusive, but she could do more to acknowledge how the fashion industry has historically been white and cisnormative—partly because fashion was, until the middle of the twentieth century, very much a rich person’s game as well.

That’s the other area in which I was expecting more from this book: commentary. Each chapter is very illustrative and comprehensive in tracing influences, developments, etc. Yet Chrisman-Campbell mostly saves her editorializing for the introduction and conclusion. I can understand the possible reasoning behind this writing decision, yet for a book that seems to aim broader than an academic audience, it doesn’t do much to establish Chrisman-Campbell’s voice, as a writer, throughout. Consequently, I was less excited in the reading of the book than I was by how much I had anticipated reading it!

I was drawn to Skirts because I was drawn to skirts. Well, mostly dresses. I came out as transgender two-and-a-half years ago. Part of my social transition has involved redefining my wardrobe in a way that authentically represents my gender. For me in particular—not, I want to stress, for all trans women—this means dresses. I really identified with what Chrisman-Campbell says about how comfortable they are, how easy it is to slip into one before you go about your day … I love dresses. Embracing the dress was a way of embracing the womanhood that had, until recently, eluded me. Replacing my old wardrobe with a new one full of dresses was a transcendent experience: gone were a couple of mix-and-match separate sweaters and jeans and dress pants (for work); in came the dresses in a riot of colours and patterns and prints, particularly polka dot. I love polka dot. Also, because I’m a knitter, I have now knit myself two skirts, projects which have once more helped me connect with and reaffirm my femininity.

So reading this book was, for me, an important way of connecting with traditions of femininity that are my heritage but were denied to me as a result of being assigned male at birth. When I put on a dress in the morning to go to work—whether it’s a comfy wrap, slinky sheathe, flowing midi, etc.—I’m joining a long tradition of women embracing not just fashion as it exists in this moment in time but echoes of fashions past. (In my particular case, I have quite a late ’50s/early ’60s vibe in a lot of my wardrobe aesthetic—I adored hearing about how tights took over in the 1960s as hemlines rose again.) In an era where we are, hopefully, all starting to become more aware of the harms of fast fashion, learning about the history of our clothing is as important as understanding the present state of the fashion industry.

Skirts is therefore one of those books I would recommend in this way: if the description sounds like it’s a book for you, then it’s going to be a book for you. It is exactly what it says on the tin.


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