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What goes up must come down. By Mary Killen

Blog | By Mary Killen | Jul 08, 2024

Queen Elizabeth, Racing Club Meeting (1953), Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Hemlines used to go up or down, according to whether the economy was in boom (short) or bust (long). Even HM the Queen wore a skirt above the knees in the booming 1960s.

Most women happily went along with whatever was decreed to be the current fashion. Today, in line with other cultural confusions, there are no rules. Women wear the skirt lengths they feel like wearing.

That’s all very well. But they should bear in mind the golden ratio – also known as the divine proportion*. It was espoused by Leonardo da Vinci, who observed that, in art and architecture, certain proportions are universally pleasing to the human eye – while others jar.

And so it is with women’s clothes. Certain clothes’ dimensions are more attractive than others on different- shaped bodies. As a short, squat person aspiring to a more divine proportion, I must stick to the mid-calf-length hemline. This will make my outline seem more streamlined and less like a barrel on stalks – which is how it would look if I dressed in a miniskirt.

But there’s no need for other, ‘right’- sized, oldie women to reject the miniskirt for fear of looking like mutton dressed as lamb. Miniskirts can look good on the over-35s but only when accompanied by thick black tights.

The tights are key because, even if your figure is as taut and erect as an ironing board, the knees will have issues.

Like the nose and ears, knees change shape as life rolls on. In childhood, they are little more than three-dimensional dimples marking the boundary between calf and thigh. Then, before the growth spurt is over, our knees inevitably sustain injuries when we run without looking where we’re going and fall on them. As adults, we stress the patellar ligament. Callus, or thickened skin, is grown as part of the healing mechanism.

Result: knobbly knees. Moreover, ageing knees become crêpey. Best to screen them off with thick black tights.

Some skirt lengths signal superior genes. At competitive social events, such as school speech days, the genetically favoured will be able to look chic in a close-fitting skirt, ending just below the knee, worn with skin-coloured tights. This length is quietly boastful because it wouldn’t look good on anyone hosting excess weight, varicose veins or cankles (ankles that merge seamlessly with calves).

Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac defied the convention that female titans of rock should be nearly nude on stage. With no reduction in star quality, Nicks covered up with long sleeves and a mid-calf hemline. Carrie Symonds also channels the grown-up- little-girl look with lots of flounces, puffy sleeves, high necklines and mid-calf hemlines.

Yet mid-calf, which can be so flattering to all shapes and sizes, is a curiously hard hemline to find. Time was when only Sophie Dundas, selling mainly online or at pop-up sales in private houses, could cater for the needs of those of us seeking non-hippie, semi-smart, long-sleeved, tastefully patterned mid-calf dresses. Cottoning on to this cult success, Rixo and Ted Baker now produce a range of mid-calf hemlines.

Laura Ashley once produced the right sort of floral printed dresses at the right length to flatter all wearers, but the company lost its way following the death of its founder in 1985. As those who eventually took the reins found out, there was more to the magic than just following a formula.

Cath Kidston stepped into the breach for a while, supplying vintage-style, mid-calf floral-print dresses. When Cath sold up, the new owners produced lookalike designs but, in a misguided bid to attract younger buyers, served these up as minidresses.

Problem: the young turn their noses up at small floral prints and the hemlines were now too short for oldies.

Maxi skirts had a moment during the (bust) ’70s when colours were uniformly dreary. At Cranborne Chase girls’ school, the building was so cold that the girls, who were obliged to wear skirts in the morning but could change to trousers in the afternoon, used to wear skirts on top of the trousers all day.

Maxi skirts provided warmth but otherwise have always been more of a liability than a style statement. You rarely see one these days – except in Marlborough High Street, where they are the compulsory uniform for the sixth-form and upper- sixth girls of Marlborough College. Worn in her day by the then Kate Middleton, they are known as ‘puddle skirts’, as each hemline is characteristically caked in mud. But tradition must prevail.

* The ratio is a special number (equal to about 1.618). It’s calculated by the division of a line into two parts, such that the whole length of the line divided by the long part of the line is equal to the long part of the line divided by the short part of the line. The divine proportion predominates in natural forms and we feel at home with it.