Pencil Skirt History

If you love the pencil skirt, you’ll enjoy the unusual history of this timeless fashion.

hobble skirt

In 1908 Wilbur and Orville Wright chose the wife of an associate, Mrs. Berg, to be the first female aeroplane passenger. As chains and propellers whirled and cranked close to her blowing and billowing skirts, the brothers tied a rope above Mrs. Berg’s ankles to avoid disaster.

Wright Brother’s Flight Inspires The Hobble Skirt

hobble skirtThe flight was historic. Photographs ran in papers and magazines around the world, and post cards sold faster than they could be printed.

It didn’t take long before Paris designers adopted Mrs. Berg’s rope-tied skirt. Dubbed the hobble skirt, the style spread like wildfire.

By 1910, the hobble skirt was all the rage from Paris to New York. It was popular attire not just for “bird” women, but among the style conscious from Europe to North America. The speed limit skirt, some jokingly called it.

Bound around the knee not unlike a pencil skirt, the hobble skirt required practice to walk in gracefully and created a wiggle in the walk of the wearer.

An impractical fashion that would later inspire the tight mermaid gowns still seen on Hollywood’s red carpets, the original hobble skirt was short lived.

WWI Paves the Way for the Pencil Skirt

women WWIWWI had a profound effect on fashion. Hobble skirts were quickly jettisoned for practical skirts. Hemlines rose from floor to ankle and then to calf length due to fabric shortages. Trousers, protested as sinful and ugly before the war, became practical for working women.

Shortly after the fighting ended, in 1918, the Suffragettes finally won the vote in the UK. American women won the right to vote in 1920.

In the aftermath of war, the younger generation questioned the values of the older generation, including not just politics, but also their fashion. Flapper dresses and dropped waistlines became all the rage in the post-WWI youth inspired culture.

1940, Christian Dior Introduces the Pencil Skirt

Pencil SkirtIn 1940, Christian Dior created the first pencil skirt, a shortened adaptation inspired by the provocative shape of the 1910 hobble skirt.

After the shapeless gowns of the flapper era, and decades of covered legs and ankles, women immediately embraced the curvy shape of the classic pencil skirt.

The earliest pencil skirts were part of a woman’s suit ensemble, worn with a jacket or tunic.

Eventually, the pencil skirt was worn with fitted blouses and soft sweaters, accentuating the female form with nipped in waists and round curvy hips. Corsets, once abandoned, re-gained popularity to enhance the pencil skirt shape.

Dior’s design capitalized on dressing women fashionably in the post WWII cultural movement. Again tired of wartime clothing, women embraced a more curvy and feminine look.

In the era of post WWII prosperity, ready to wear was affordable. Almost everyone had the ability to afford new clothing.
Pencil Skirt

Celebrities Fall in Love with the Pencil Skirt

After the release of the Dior Classic in 1940, celebrities fell in love with the pencil skirt. The pencil skirt was strutted by notorious pinup Betty Page (1923–2008), screen goddess Ava Gardner(1922-1990), Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993) and became a staple in the classic wardrobe of Princess Grace (1929-1982).

Marilyn Monroe Pencil SkirtsThe original blond bombshell’s off-screen wardrobe was chic, very simple, and always sexy.

The very first playboy model, Marilyn Monroe loved button down shirts, pencil skirts, capri pants, slim and silky dresses and soft sweaters.

In the 1959 movie, Some Like It Hot, there’s a great scene where Marilyn sashays by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon at the train station. She’s wearing a pencil skirt. They watch in awe, mouths gaping open.

Finally, Jack Lemmon says, “Look at that! Look how she moves!” — a sentiment that’s kept the pencil skirt alive and popular for decades.

Grace Kelly Pencil Skirt

Fond of pencil skirts off-stage, in 1959, Audrey Hepburn wore a pencil dress in the classic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and created another pencil skirt rage. The pencil dress would later become known simply as the fashion staple known as the “little black dress.”

Pencil Skirts go Mini

One of the most influential designers of the 60s, John Bates, dressed celebrities such as Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Dusty Springfield and Diana Rigg in The Avengers series. Bates was making mini skirts before most other designers, though he is not the most well known.

In 1964, Courrèges was also designing mini-length pencil skirts, also to little acclaim. However, his designs inspired Mary Quant, who became most well known for the launch of the 1960s mini pencil skirt.

By 1966, Quant was producing short pencil skirts 6 or 7 inches above the knee. The invention of pantyhose, comparable to ladies “tights” today, made the short pencil skirt feasible. No more worries about stocking lines showing with short skirts.

The 1980s Pencil Skirt

Madonna 80s Pencil SkirtThe pencil skirt faded away for a few years in the 1970s, only to surge again in the 1980s.

The look was more dramatic; the 1980s pencil skirt was often paired with cropped or nipped-waist jackets with huge padded shoulders. Another popular 80′s look was to pair the sexy pencil skirt with a barely-there camisole with spaghetti thin straps.

Though conservative didn’t fade away entirely, the leopard print pencil skirt was all the rage, along with pencil skirts in zebra, metallic fabrics, leather and wildly colored prints.

Celebrities and models alike were rocking the 50s pencil skirt look. Performers including Madonna and The Spice Girls wore the look, while classic models like Cheryl Tiegs sported the Grace Kelley classic pencil skirt look.

The Pencil Skirt Today

Pencil Skirt 2010

During the 90s, the pencil skirt faded a little, retained mostly as a classic suit skirt for it’s slender lines and lack of bulk with a suit jacket. In the 2000s, the perennial favorite is back.

The 80s leopard pencil skirt by Yoana Baraschi (Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s) and other “Vintage 1980s” skirts are all the rage, again, along with the leather pencil skirt, the classic 1980 pencil skirt and the denim pencil skirt. If you Google “celebrity pencil skirt” you’ll find no shortage of celebs sporting the pencil skirt in all it’s glory.

Not bad for a fashion that started with a rope tied around the skirts of the first woman to fly in an aeroplane. 100 years and going strong. Long live the pencil skirt!

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