The Midi Skirt, Divider of Nations

The demure look returning to runways this year once sparked a cultural uprising as it edged out the mini and angered feminists.

Mini-skirted women protest the midi in Miami in 1970  (Jim Kerlin/AP)

When it made its first blushing appearance in the Spring 2014 collections, the midi skirt brought all the trappings of retro girlishness: flowers, gingham, eyelet, chiffon, pleats, and polka dots. Evoking the demure, ultra-feminine look of the 1950s, it came as a wholesome change after a long winter of dressing for the polar vortex, and it’s back for fall in more iterations than ever.

But few followers of fashion realize that, far from being a ‘50s flashback, the midi is actually a revival of a style that was launched in the late ‘60s and flamed out—spectacularly—in the early ‘70s. The original midi heralded a political and aesthetic revolution in womenswear, and a turning point in American consumer culture.

Richard Chambury/AP

In length and name, the midi of the late 1960s was a direct riposte to the mini, which had arrived in the U.S. from London in 1964 and quickly spread from nightclubs to college campuses and office buildings. Cynics predicted that the shocking style wouldn’t outlast its first summer, but, as temperatures dropped, hemlines stayed put. Women determined to brave the cold in miniskirts simply added thick, colorful tights and boots. The mini endured for years, getting shorter and shorter along the way; first it bared the knees, then the lower thigh, then the entire leg. By 1967, it had no place to go but down.

On June 10, 1968, Women’s Wear Daily banned miniskirts from the office, explaining in a memo: “We all know minis are dead.” Vogue editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland immediately countered: “Vogue has made it quite clear that we believe in any length skirt that is becoming to the wearer. The miniskirt looks delicious in the summer with the right legs and the right girl.” This heavily qualified endorsement failed to convince readers. It was the beginning of a slow but inexorable backlash against the mini, which Women’s Wear dubbed the “hemline war.”

As the decade spiraled into social and political chaos, hemlines careened from thigh-high to floor-length. Designers (and customers) reluctant to commit to one length experimented with asymmetrical hemlines, handkerchief hemlines, and long coats paired with short skirts. Some found fashion’s infinite variety freeing; others were frustrated by the constantly changing rules. But the confusion reflected the turbulent, uncertain times—times not unlike our own.

Amid this hemline hemming and hawing, the midi emerged as a chic and cerebral compromise. Today, the term “midi” is applied to knee-length skirts as often as tea-length skirts, and pencil skirts as well as flowing A-lines. But it originally denoted a specific, unforgiving shape: not mid-leg, but mid-calf, widening from the waist to four inches below the knee. It was (and is) a tricky silhouette to pull off without looking stumpy or frumpy. With the wrong shoes, it was a disaster. While not as obviously youthful as the mini, it looked best on young, tall, slim women with the confidence to cover up. Like so many fashion trends, it won style points for degree of difficulty as well as for execution.

A midi from the Italian house Heinz-Riva in 1970 (Torrisi/AP)

Many in the American media blamed the midi on the French, who had championed the “longuette” look in the Fall 1969 Paris collections. But a more likely source of inspiration could be found closer to home, in Theadora Van Runkle’s costumes for the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, set in Depression-era Texas. Faye Dunaway’s instantly iconic berets, clinging sweaters, and calf-length skirts in earthy shades and textures proved an irresistible alternative to micro-minis in synthetic fabrics and day-glo colors. In 1970, Show magazine reflected: “Probably no one imagined at the time that the most far-reaching contribution Bonnie and Clyde would leave to our acid-rock-pop generation was its influence on fashion. Nor that Theadora Van Runkle ... would become responsible for the midis and braless bosoms that are the trademark of the early seventies. But that’s just what happened.”

Warner Brothers

Far from saccharine nostalgia, then, the midi represented gritty glamour for fashion outlaws. According to designer Chester Weinberg, who made the midi his signature, it was “almost as a direct reflection of the women’s moment. It’s for those who don’t particularly care about what men think about the way they dress.” By 1970, the midi had replaced the mini in fashion magazines and boutiques, if not necessarily in the hearts of consumers.

While some praised the midi’s intellectual or feminist qualities, Time magazine condemned it as “ungainly, unflattering and unwarranted.” Coco Chanel called it “awkward” (though she reserved her strongest vitriol for the mini). For many men newly accustomed to seeing the female leg on full display for the first time in history, it was an unwelcome step backwards.

Midis in The Australian Women's Weekly, 20 September 1978 (Bess Georgette/Flickr)

More offensive than the midi’s appearance was the marketing juggernaut behind it, which seemed oblivious to public opinion. On October 2, 1970, the Wall Street Journal summarized the “much-scorned but also much-promoted” style in a damning headline: “Women Call it Sleazy, Dowdy, Depressing; but Designers Say It Will Catch On Yet.” Indeed, the New Yorker warned that “no amount of protest will stem the tide of the longer skirt”—the fashion industry had too much invested in it. Shoppers looking for miniskirts found racks stuffed with midis, with a few maxis, pantsuits, and gaucho pants (whose full, calf-length silhouette mimicked the midi) thrown in for variety. Bonwit Teller even banned its saleswomen from wearing minis on the shop floor.

Ironically, feminism became the midi’s worst enemy; liberated women refused to purchase whole new wardrobes just because fashion magazines told them to. In an October 1970 article titled “Fashion Fascism: The Politics of Midi,” the San Francisco counterculture fashion magazine Rags decried the midi as a capitalist “conspiracy”; in addition to being “cumbersome and matronly” it had “built-in obsolescence.” (How this differentiated it from any other fashion trend, the magazine did not specify.) With inflation on the rise, the midi was an economic encumbrance, too; the longer length required a higher price point.

The warring interests of consumers, retailers, and the fashion press culminated in what Newsweek called “the midi-skirt debacle of 1970.” One midwestern shopkeeper complained in a letter to Women’s Wear Daily in mid-August: “You are doing quite a disservice to the manufacturers and retailers by trying to promote a fashion that the customers are not ready for.” Vogue suffered a 38 percent drop in ad revenue in the first three months of 1971; many of its advertisers had been burned by the backlash. Vreeland was unceremoniously demoted to consulting editor in May, but the damage was done: Consumer confidence in fashion magazines—and the fashion industry in general—was replaced by a rebellious cynicism.

Richard Garlinghouse protests the midi in a billboard in San Francisco in 1970 (Sal Veder/AP)

In spite of resistance to the midi, the fashion for miniskirts did wane, if only because it was virtually impossible to buy one. For many women, pants provided an attractive and suitably feminist alternative to the much-maligned midi. As Halston told the New York Times in 1971: “It’s all part of women’s liberation. Pants give women the freedom to move around they’ve never had before. They don’t have to worry about getting into low furniture or low sportscars. Pants will be with us for many years to come—probably forever if you can make that statement in fashion.” His words proved to be prophetic. However, at a time when women in pants were banned from many restaurants and offices, they were not quite the practical solution he described. The midi still had its uses.

In August 1974, the New York Times sounded the death knell for the midi, reporting that “women stayed away in droves, forcing several couture houses and small manufacturers into bankruptcy and the apparel industry into a tailspin.” Weinberg’s label was one of the casualties. Other retailers reportedly chopped off their unsold midis and marketed them as minis. The Fresno Bee even printed an obituary: “DEAD: THE MIDI DRESS, FROM ACUTE REJECTION BY THE AMERICAN WOMAN.”

This fall, the ladylike midi of the spring collections takes a more sophisticated, streetwise turn, in tweeds, tartans, and jewel-toned satins paired with tall boots and turtlenecks, perhaps with a sliver of skin showing at the waist. Gone are the flowers and polka dots; the new midis are darker, weightier, with a look that is more feminist ‘70s than feminine ‘50s. And the fashion industry has learned its lesson; midis are just one of many fall silhouettes. Whether to scare us or reassure us, gaucho pants are back.