Monday 3 April 2017

Dress Lengths of the 20th Century...

or How Short Can You Go?

The twentieth century saw more radical changes in fashion, than any era before - most strikingly, the amount of flesh that clothing no longer covered, combined with the fit of garments. Today I thought I'd look at hemlines on women's dresses and skirts throughout last century.

Hemlines of the 20th Century - the long and short of women's dresses and skirts. Threading My Way

I've deliberated for a while over this post, as regards the content and the photos. The vast majority of the photos are family, hence, in the main, this is my perspective on the topic, from my little corner of the world - Australia. 

The four photos that are not mine, early on in the century, are in the public domain.

Pre 1900

Family photo - one of my ancestors - mid to late 1800s

The lady above is a family ancestor who lived in the mid to late 1800s - during the Victorian era, when there wasn't much exposed skin, at least on the bottom half. Shoulders and necklines were another matter when it came to evening wear, but that's not the topic for today.

The fashion from the 19th Century Victorian era sets the scene for today's post.

1900 - 1909

1903 - Spencer Sisters 

For the first ten years of the century, most dresses and skirts covered the ankles, with many of them trailing along the ground...

1910 - 1919

Hobble Skirt ~ Postcard ~ 1911

During the 1910s, the hobble skirt became fashionable - jokingly referred to as the speed-limit skirt in the postcard. Hmmm... not exactly practical, but apparently in fashion for several years. Not by working women, I'm guessing.

Due to the First World War, hemlines rose above the ankles.

1920 - 1929

1927 - Norma Shearer

The 1920s saw clothes become less restrictive and more comfortable. Shapeless dresses, boyish styles and the flapper dress were in vogue. Hemlines rose, but still well below the knees.

1930 -1939

1931 - Mary Pickford

Hemlines lengthened during the 30s, halfway between the knees and ankles. Waist lines returned, designs were more feminine and zippers became widely used in garments. Ready to wear fashion had begun, although only for some.

Family photo ~ 1930s - my paternal grandparents

The Great Depression dictated that clothes were less extravagant. Repair, reuse, make do, and don't throw anything away was a motto at the time. Thrift is the spirit of the day. Reckless spending is a thing of the past, is another.

1940 - 1949

Family photo - 1940s - my Mum, Aunty & a friend

The 1940s saw hemlines on the rise again. Boxy shoulders, nipped in waists and A-line skirts to, or just below the knees were the go. 

Family photo - 1940s - Mum in a skirt made from a tablecloth

Dress lengths rose due to the shortage of fabrics caused by rationing and the war. Women were encouraged to Mend and Make Do. Nothing was wasted. Blankets, linen and parachute silks were made into clothing. The term refashioning didn't exist.

Family photo - 1940s - my grandmother & my mother

Clothing was constructed so as to not waste fabric. Suits, with their mix and match skirts, blouses and jackets became popular.

1950 - 1959

Family photo - 1950s - my parents, godparents, and my Nana holding me

After the restrictions of the war, more fabric was used in dresses during the 1950s. Tea length dresses had soft shoulders, cinched waistlines and very full skirts. They were designed to show off an hour glass figure. Foundation garments were worn to achieve the perfect figure.

Family photo - 1950s - family friend making sure I don't fall off the wall

The 50s saw a variety of styles, more so than in past decades. Women did not want to give up the freedoms they had gained during the war years. On the one hand, the skirts of the 40s were largely replaced with pretty, feminine dresses. To a lesser extent, long slim fitted skirts were also worn, as were sack dresses.

1960 - 1969

Me in the early 1960s

The 1960s saw even more changes in fashion than the 50s. Teenagers growing up in the 60s wanted to be as different as possible to their parents, hence the gap in fashion styles for young people and more mature women widened. The latter were content to wear a variation of 50s clothing. Teenagers, on the other hand, wanted change.

Me in the mid 1960s in a baby doll dress

Although the 60s were associated with the mini skirt, it took time to evolve. Short skirts were not really worn till 1966 / 67. As well as the short skirts and dresses, shift dresses were popular, as was the baby doll look.

Me in the late 1960s

As the 60s progressed, hair was worn longer, while dresses became shorter. For the first time, the young were leading fashion.

The invention of pantyhose in the 60s, made the wearing of mini skirts possible. Well dressed ladies still didn't venture outside in bare legs, unless in casual clothes. No more stockings and garter belts to hide and this allowed hemlines to well and truly rise.

1970 - 1979

Early 70s - out to the movies with Mr TMW

Hemlines continued to rise in the early 70s. Dresses were worn so short, they barely covered anything.

School photo - very early 1970s - I'm the one in the middle

Even school uniforms were worn short. In the mid 60s, teachers stipulated that hemlines were to be a maximum of 4" from the ground when kneeling on the ground - and they checked if they thought a dress was too short. In the junior years we'd hitch the dresses up over our belts. As we entered the 70s, rules were relaxed, at our school at least.

Early 1970s - Mr TMW, Mum & me in my going away outfit at our wedding - a hand knitted dress

There was still a wide gap between dress lengths of different generations, as evidenced by my barely covering anything hand knitted dress, and my Mum's dress falling to just below the knees.

Mid 1970s - me in my halter neck mini dress

And here's the photo I've deliberated about showing - a halter neck mini dress worn with my favourite JCs (leather sandals that I wore till they fell to pieces). I made this about the time I was training to be a teacher, but it was a bit too casual for wearing once teaching. The length would have been OK while teaching, just not the halter neck style. Now-a-days, it would barely be considered long enough to be worn as a tunic over leggings.

As a young teacher in the mid 70s, I can remember having to hold down the back of my dress as I wrote high up on the blackboard, so my underwear could not be seen by the students. Hard to imagine, but most of my peers in their mid twenties wore similar length dresses, and no one ever complained.

Funny story - On the first day at a new school, I was wearing wooden Scholl sandals, and the Principal said to me, We cover our toes here at XYZ School. Ha, ha, he wasn't worried about the length of my dress, just my bare toes. I did cover them up for a few days, till I could see most of the other females were showing their bare toes. Said boss didn't say a word when I wore my Scholls again.

Much as you may think I'm making a peace sign - fits in with the era - I'm not. Mr TMW and I were looking at blocks of land to buy and this was block #2 that we looked at. The pink hexagonal sunnies, a present from Mr TMW, were popular during the 70s.

Family photo - late 70s - me in long hippie style dress and Mum 

In direct contrast to the ever so short mini dresses, long flowing hippie style dresses with hemlines just above the ground were also popular, as were halter neck dresses, loose fitting kaftans and palazzo pants or culottes.

Hippie style clothes were often made with cheese cloth fabrics from India. Polyester, however, was the material that gained in popularity. It was everywhere!!! Wish I had a photo of my 70s culottes - polyester from head to toe.

The 70s saw the disco scene and accompanying fashions - think Saturday Night Fever - but that was for night wear. 

High platform heels, adding several inches to height, were worn by both men and women. In direct contrast, flat JC leather sandals were also popular.

Family photo - Mid to late 1970s - Mr TMW's graduation - me in woollen skirt and jumper I made

Hemlines were all over the place during the 70s - micro minis, minis, midis and maxis could all be seen around at the same time and in the same places.

Family photo - Mid to late 1970s - me in a woollen suit I sewed

From the mid 70s on, mini skirts were seen less, and micro minis disappeared almost completely. Hemlines were on the way down.

1980 - 1989

Family photo - 1980s - me at an evening wedding

The 80s began with subdued colours, but they gave way to the colours we associate with that decade - bright fluoro / neon colours. 1980's fashion designers defied conventions, and for the first time, brand names on clothing became popular.

Big hair, slap bands, velour tracksuits, stirrup pants, turtle necks and scrunchies, all made an appearance. Large shoulder pads were synonymous with power dressing. Dresses, skirts and blouses became looser, and pants tighter.

Hemlines varied in length, with minis reappearing in the late 80s. Brightly coloured, flared knit skirts with large roll over waistbands were popular, as were light coloured, flared denim skirts.

In previous decades, evening wear was usually ankle length. From the 80s onwards, it became acceptable to wear dresses which sat just under the knees.

1990 - 1999

The big clothes of the 80s gave way to more fitted. Bright colours disappeared, fashion rules were relaxed and both grunge and minimalism were embraced. There was a move towards comfort during the 90s.

Skorts were invented in the 90s - half skirt, half shorts. The fad didn't last long.

Short tight skirts, made with with either stretch fabric or denim, became fashionable. They were often paired with leggings or bicycle shorts.

Skirt suits were also popular, with both the skirt and blazer lengths shortening throughout the decade.

The last century saw a HUGE range of dress lengths - as high and as low as is physically possible. Do I have a favourite? Not really - from the 50s onwards, each brings back various memories.

Would I be happy wearing all of those style now? NO!!! You'll never see me wearing a micro mini again. At the time I thought I looked cool and loved the look. When I see young girls wearing short skirts now, I have to admit I think they should cover up a little more - and they don't have to be micro minis for me to think this. Perhaps this is my age showing, or maybe it's a matter of perspective - whether you're the one looking out or looking in.

Hemlines will continue to go up and down, but I don't think we'll ever see the extremes we saw in the 20th Century. Women now wouldn't tolerate the inconvenience of wearing dresses down to the ground. It might be OK for special occasions, but not for every day wear. And as far as dresses and skirts that barely cover the backside, I doubt that they will become mainstream fashion again. To quote a family member on seeing old photos of me in a micro mini - You look like a tart! Ha, ha... we certainly didn't think so at the time, but perceptions are very much dependent on place and time.

I hope you've enjoyed seeing and reading about evolving hemlines during last century. I've most definitely enjoyed reminiscing.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on different dress lengths - what you wore, how you felt then and now. If you lived in the 60s and 70s, how short did you go?

If you enjoyed this post, you may find the following interesting...


  1. You sure had me walk down memory lane with your post :)!! How well I remember the days, when we had to learn how 'not' to bend over when at our school lockers because of the length of our dress. I remember the magazine slogans at the time - "Even grandmas like to cut a little" accompanied by a picture of an older lady cutting off about 10" from her hemline! I enjoy much longer hemlines now - or pants! More slimming too - right?! :) Thank you for your wonderful post and all the pictures!

  2. I wore all the same things, LOL!! Super micro minis all the way to maxi dresses. I remember kneeling on the floor to get my hem measured more than once! I like a pretty, full, feminine skirt in pastel florals in the spring, and always will. Knee length is just more flattering, and leaves a bit to the imagination, and maybe you need experience to know that.

  3. Kudos on an extremely well researched post, Pam. Oddly enough, I did not really wear anything "mini" until I was well established in the work force and consulting independently, in the 1990s. It was probably the same thing that led to the Ally McBeal influence. I had a couple of skirts that were well above the knee that I paired with longer jackets and high-heeled pumps, and they made me feel powerful walking into a workplace! (On the other hand, in the same era, I also wore flowing, flowery full midi skirts with boots.) I still have one of those short skirts — and it still fits — but I don't think I could ever wear it again!

  4. What a great wander through 20th Century fashion Pam! I love those boxy 40's suits they look so elegant compared to the clothes nowadays. I think opaque tights have a lot to answer for as regards to skirt lengths here, schoolgirls wear skirts that are little more than a wide belt but it is not so obvious when they are paired with the opaque tights.

  5. Interesting post, Pam! Surprised to read that the teachers wore micro minis and that was acceptable! I wore shorts shorts as a teenager, but wouldn't want my own daughter dress like that. Time has changed and I am old! :D It was fun seeing all those photos!

  6. Loved reading your post and enjoyed looking at all the photo's. I was born 1945 and wore mini skirts in the last 60's, my favourite being a faux leather silver one; very classy I thought at the time :)

  7. I loved this post! So many extremes here! You look fabulous in your short skirts, but I find myself entering the years of teenage daughters and the struggle is real. Our newest dilemma is really over activewear. :/

  8. Very fun to look back at the different fashions and hem lengths! Love the photos! I went to high school in the 80's, so I remember the big hair and Madonna look. Thanks for the walk down memory lane!

    1. I enjoyed reminiscing and looking at old family photos, Pam. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Wow Pam, I have loved looking at your family photos, thanks so much for sharing them.
    I have to say your skirts really were pretty short back in the day. I assume you had to bend your knees to pick things up off the floor!!
    I was a kid in the 70's and my favourite was summery maxi dresses that swooshed when you spun round in them. I really enjoy the freedom we have now a days to have pretty much any hem length we want. (exempt maybe just below the knee which is a difficult look to pull of I think)

  10. Wow. This is so beautiful. It`s like a history lesson, but with your own photos and family. Amazing. Thanks for sharing them with us!

  11. What a wonderful look at fashion... a walk through history and very interesting! Thank you for the work you did on this and for sharing it. I will be sharing your post. :)

  12. Oh, wow! What a great review of hem lines! I love seeing all the photos of you and your family. Thank you for sharing this post at Tuesdays with a Twist! -Marci @ Stone Cottage Adventures

  13. How fun to travel through the century this way!!

  14. This was such an interesting post. I remember half of the century but it is also interesting to see that fashion was dictated by war and how much fabric was available for fashion. Thank you for sharing this with us, I'm sure it took up a lot of your time to put it together.

  15. What a lovely trip down memory lane Pam. This was super interesting post to read and seeing all your photos made it so much more real too. It's so strange how we change over time. I won't let my daughter out the house wearing a mini skirt that's too short, but looking back her mini's are still longer than the ones I wore, LOL. It doesn't seem fair somehow, but things have changed. Thanks so much I really enjoyed this.

    1. Maybe, one day, micro minis will come back again and we'll all think it's OK. I hope not, though. In the meantime, our daughters can wear longer skirts!

  16. Pam I loved this post so much I am commenting twice. You are my feature this week at Sweet Inspiration Link Party!

  17. Love this post and seeing how fashion has changed throughout the years. I was born in the early 70's and have pictures of myself wearing some of those micro mini halter dresses as a little girl. After surviving the 80's crazy outfits and big hair I am very grateful for the relaxed, comfortable style we have today! Thank's so much for this post it was a great walk down memory lane!

  18. Pam, I really enjoyed this post, and looking at your family photos. I can't believe you have one from the 1800s!! That is such a treasure to have in the family. But it's so true about the short skirts as my mum was saying everyone wore them but nowadays when you wear one, there will be complaints and staring and "you're asking for it!". Well at least in this part of the world :)

  19. I wore minis but not micro minis. I wear trousers most of the time now with comfort tops. I prefer casual wear as I find it comfortable.

    1. I'm with you on wearing casual clothes now-a-days, Clare.

  20. I just went down memory lane,i remember wearing a moo moo in the early 60s does anyone remember the moo moo?

    1. Yes, I do. I can clearly remember a green one I made.

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