Keep your eye on women; there’s history in hemlines, says this expert. Weird, skimpy clothes portend trouble — grandma’s styles mean peace

LIDDELL HART February 15 1949


Keep your eye on women; there’s history in hemlines, says this expert. Weird, skimpy clothes portend trouble — grandma’s styles mean peace

LIDDELL HART February 15 1949



MADAM, your fashion foretells our future. What you women choose to wear forms an advance warning of the world’s political weather—if it is going to be stormy or peaceful. In recent centuries, the prevailing style of women’s dress has repeatedly proved a reliable barometer for those who can read it. The line of the mode is the sign. If it tends to become “vertical,” the wind is rising. If “horizontal,” settled conditions are likely.

Fashion is not a trivial matter, a feminine fancy, as is commonly supposed. It deserves the close attention of statesmen and sociologists. The more deeply that history is studied, especially the course of war and revolution, the clearer becomes the importance of fashions in dress.

Women appear to be particularly sensitive to the atmosphere of the moment, and register it barometerlike in their styles. (This has only been seen of course, when and where women take an active and prominent part in social life. When confined to the harem, or similar seclusion, their style of dress has been consistent and featureless.,)

The idea that the fashion turns on women’s whims is as mistaken as the belief that it is decided by the big fashion houses. These can launch a style, but whether it catches on or not is a matter that lies outside their power and often outside their ken—if they had a better understanding of the causes their losses would be lighter. Equally mistaken is the charge that women’s changes of fashion are evidence of their shallowness. Details and trimmings may be due to the play of fancy, but that is not true of the more basic changes. These only occur when women are moved by profound influences and show their responsiveness to the deeper political currents.

The changes which are of real significance are changes of outline, or form. The key points are the waistline, the skirtline and the headdress. They bear an important meaning as signs of storm or calm.

It has repeatedly happened that in a time of acute political discord, making for a great social upheaval, the waistline tends to shift from its normal position—upward or downward. In the movement, the waist itself is loosened—like the ties by which human society is held together. Thus the line becomes vertical, flattening out curves.

The effect is accentuated by a narrowing of the skirt. This has been a very marked symptom of political “earthquakes” in the last two centuries, when a shortening of the skirt has accompanied and emphasized its straightening line. Conversely, a horizontal spreading of the skirt has been a feature of settled periods and at such times it has

Keep your eye on women; there’s history in hemlines, says this expert. Weird, skimpy clothes portend trouble — grandma’s styles mean peace

repeatedly been held out by hoops in a way that gave the wearer an air of broad-based stability.

A third sign has been the style of hat, or headdress. This has become fantastically exaggerated— or else vanished altogether—when trouble is looming.

A growth of formality in dress spells settled weather, while a lapse into informality is a storm signal. In this connection some of the accessories of dress are significant, particularly gloves. But a bad-weather prospect is also shown by breaks or unevenness in the line of the dress.

Queenly Fashions

FASHION only began when Europe emerged from the Dark Ages. The love songs of the troubadours in the 12th and 13th centuries frequently praise the charm of ladies with “middles small.” These were produced by the lacing in of the “surcoat,” a kind of sleeveless jacket from which evolved both women’s corset and men’s waistcoat. It implied an outcurving skirt as well as an in-curving waist.

An interruption of this graceful yet simple line took place early in the 14th century. Referring to Mortimer’s party who, returning from Flanders, dethroned Edward II and put the aggressive young Edward III in his place, Chaucer relates how these “Hainaulters” introduced “divers shapes and disguisings of clothing . . . dragged and cut on every side, slashed and loose . . . and hoods over long and large and overmuch hanging; that they were more like tc tormentors and devils than common men; and the women more foolishly surpassed the men in array . . . the which peradventure afterwards brought forth and enea used many mishaps and mischiefs in the realm of England.”

This distorted fashion was followed by the outbreak of the “Hundred Years War” between England and France which slashed and tore the fabric of medieval civilization. That devastating struggle was followed in the 15th century by

violent internal upheavals in both countries. Fashion signalized them by running riot in fantasy, with extravagant “horned” and “steeple” headdresses, while the waistline shot up toward the armpits or dropped down to the hips.

More settled conditions came in the 16th century with the Tudor line of rulers, and were manifested in the line of fashion. The waist settled back into its normal place again and became increasingly defined, while the skirt widened into the shape of a bell. In what we call the Elizabethan Age, an era of great queens both in England and abroad, women’s dress became majestically proportioned. It was then that the wide hooped skirt, set off by firmly molded bodice, was introduced. It would have been hard for women to behave like tomboys or “cut a caper” in such dresses, but it was easier for them to inspire respect than ever before.

It is significant that this style has come back whenever a woman has sat on the British throne. Its last long spell was during Victoria’s long reign. That chain of rejjetition raises the speculation whether it will return again, and peaceful conditions with it, when we have another Queen Elizabeth.

The next interruption in the line of fashion came in the 17th century, preceding and accompanying the bitter civil wars in England and France. Here again the waistline started to become shorter and looser, the skirt narrower, in advance of the event. An air of negligence in dress also came into fashion before the outbreak.

With the re-establishment of order in France under Louis XIV and later in England under the joint regime of William and Mary, the waisf. and skirt of fashion returned to the same shape and stiff form that had prevailed at the start of the century. The time lag between its return in France and England is symptomatic. When Charles II came back to the throne, after the English Civil War, London fashion appeared to hover in uncertainty as to which way it should turn. The women of his court dressed in a style that made them look as if they were starting to undress. That style was characteristic of

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them, since their morals were as loose as their dress. But it spelt more than that. For in less than a generation the so-called English revolution followed. Once James II was turned off the throne the country soon settled down under William and Mary. So did fashion. In the succeeding reign of Queen Anne the Elizabethan shape of dress, gently modified, was confirmed in a new long lease of life that lasted until nearly the close of the 18th century. This was a period of relative tranquillity, succeeding the bitter civil and religious struggles of the 17th century. Although there were wars, these were conducted in a gentlemanly way compared with the brutal violence of the past. Thus, the prevailing fashions symbolically expressed the orderly and well-mannered spirit of the times.

All this was ended by the French Revolution and the world-wide war it produced in the last decade of the century. Its coming can be followed in the fashion barometer. Toward 1780 the gat hering clouds were foreshadowed by the top-heavy appearance of women’s heads. Their hair began to “stand on end” as if frightened by a spectre—actually, it was drawn up-

ward to help in forming elaborately decorated headdresses that were often a yard high. When these subsided they were replaced by hats of similarly swollen size, though more in breadth than in height, while a growing informality of dress was a further sign of unrest. The women of the “intelligentsia” and of the “smart set” alike took the hoops out of their skirts and the bones out of their bodices. The waistline began to rise, and as it became higher it naturally became looser. Dress began to take a vertical line.

There was a craze for “back-tonature” styles that were supposed to express a desire for primitive simplicity. Seen in the paintings of the time, the new style has a negligee charm, though the out-of-normal level of the waistline and the more juvenile look of the dresses have an air of suggesting that restlessness was developing into recklessness.

A few years later the revolution broke out. At once all these symptoms multiplied. The new sense of freedom swamped all sense of order. Everything ran to extremes, abandoning restraint. It is not easy for civilized people to revert to the primitive without becoming barbarous.

In the sphere of politics the violence that marked the internal changes developed into a wave of external aggression which spread war every-

where. In the sphere of dress the waistline shot up toward the armpits; corsets were discarded; skirts became narrow and flimsy; underclothes were almost abandoned. The entire clothing of a woman of fashion weighed less than eight ounces. Many women cut their hair short.

This style soon spread from France to other countries where no political revolution occurred. Moreover, its basic outline persisted long after the new democracy of the French Revolution had given place to Napoleon’s autocracy. This shows that the fashion was not merely a product of French republicanism, but a way of expressing the general feverishness and instability of the age.

In England, though, court dress preserved the tight bodice and hooped skirt of the traditional style and thus symbolized the manner in which Britain itself had stood out, a “tight little island,” against the waves that swamped all the surrounding lands.

When Europe emerged from this long nightmare, woman emerged from her “nightdress” style of daywear. Within a few years after the overthrow of Napoleon, and the return of peace, fashion began to swing back—from straight lines to curves, from looseness to tightness. The waistline came down to normal and the skirt billowed out. That new-old outline remained dominant throughout the rest of the 19th century, an age that was relatively peaceful and increasingly prosperous.

When Gloves Mattered

It becomes clear from this survey of the centuries that there is a “normal” outline, which is occasionally interrupted by great political and social upheavals but to which women return whenever the human temperature returns to normal. That normal outline is an accentuation of woman’s natural shape—her width of hip and slenderness of waist. By contrast the abnormal outline that appears in times of unrest is one that exaggerates the size of her head and then tries to flatten her figure into a masculine shape. Curves signify contentment; the vertical line expresses discontent:.

The Victorian return to the Queen Anne-Georgian form was reinforced by renewed formality, both of dress and manners. The dignity and ceremonial of Victoria’s court spread down through the successive layers of the nation and the restraining code of etiquette carried it securely through many difficult passages. Much that is imagined to have been inspired by an extreme of modesty was really based on a sense of the value of formality in curbing dangerous emotions and smoothing human relations. For instance, more emphasis was placed on the glove than ever before; no self-respecting woman would have been seen outdoors without gloves, while the occasions on which it was proper to wear them indoors were numerous. Men and women who grew up in such a framework developed a discipline that enabled them to live together as a people without needing a dictator to keep them in order.

The 20t.h century has seen a fresh “earthquake,” of even vaster scale and longer duration than any that our civilization had suffered. Once again the fashion barometer proved correct as a warning of events to come.

A few years before 1914, women’s hats became like cart wheels, sometimes nearly a yard across. The line of the dress suddenly began to straighten, ironing out the Edwardian curves and becoming narrower round the hem of the skirt, than at the hips. The waistline began to rise in the “Directoire” style—the name that this style had

derived from the revolutionary 1790’s.

The war that followed was waged with an abandonment and blind passion, regardless of what might ensue, such as had not been seen in Europe since the French Revolution. It broke down the restraints on violence that had been gradually built up in the 18th century and rebuilt in the 19th century. In the aftermath of that war there was no such realization of the importance of restoring order and trust as had inspired the settlement after Waterloo. “Self-determination” was the new catchword. It was carried far beyond the political sphere. There was a general breakdown of manners and of moral standards. Fashions became more abnormal than those of the French Revolution.

The Flapper Era

Once again women cut down their clothes to a minimum, threw off their corsets and cropped their hair. But this time they also cut short their skirts. Moreover, in seeking to achieve a completely straight line, they not only let go their waists, but tried to flatten their busts and their hips. The chief difference from the French Revolution was that, instead of rising to the armpits, the waistline slid down below the hips. The effect looked the more ludicrous since the skirt simultaneously rose to the knee. Women’s dream was to look like boys.

To anyone who studied the fashion barometer, it was a safe bet that more trouble was in store for the world. During the chaotic 1920’s the seeds of another and worse war were fertilized. Sloppiness opened the way for brutishness and nudism was followed by Nazism. A belated swing back to normality, embodied in “peaceful” styles, developed in the 1930’s, but came too late to curb the elemental forces that had been unloosed.

Skirts, after lengthening, began to shorten again. Bare legs, bare heads, bare hands became an increasingly common habit. These were all storm signals. The iron hand of the dictator had superseded the gloved hand of the mother in control of the rising generation. Gloves had been the badge of woman’s civilizing influence in gentler times and her abdication was made evident when she abandoned them.

Where do we go from here? Is the prospect for 1949 any better than that of 1919, 1929, or 1939—and what does the fashion barometer show?

When the war ended some of the greatest experts on fashion predicted that the postwar fashions would be similar to those that followed World War I—extremely “juvenile,” with scanty skirts and without any defined waist. I ventured to dispute that conclusion, feeling that a different tide had now set in. It seemed to me that among most people, especially women, the dominant desire was for a return of stability, rather than for radical changes; that the world was tired of juvenility; that men craved for femininity in women; and the younger generation of women wanted to be feminine, rather than feminist.

The New Look that I had anticipated became visible in bud the year after the war—the skirt widening and lengthening while the jacket and coat curved in at the waist. By the summer of 1947 it had definitely flowered into very full skirts, reaching almost down to the ankle, blossoming out from the slender stem of a narrowing waist. The majority of women in the West welcomed this new look with an eagerness that showed their deep desire for a new stability and tranquillity.

To my amused surprise I found myself being hailed as the “father of

the New Look.” A father produces a child, not merely forecasts its coming, and I felt that Christian Dior had more claim to be thus described! However, last spring I was asked to preside at a big gathering in London to discuss the New Look, attended by most of the leading dress designers on the one hand and by stage and film stars on the other.

If the audience expected it to be an occasion for mutual congratulation, they must have been disappointed, for I ended on a note of disquiet, saying: “The New Look seems to be a Two Look. It tends to be two-faced. Skirts that curve out, with waists that curve in, have been signs of peace. But the latest models shown also include some with extremely narrow skirts and loose jackets. More ominous still, I read in the papers that the spring fashions show a studied air of carelessness— that ‘nothing is ever quite neat or symmetrical’ . . . Disorderly dress foreshadows disorderly times.”

Within a few months an acute crisis had arisen with Russia over Berlin and the war clouds had gathered again. Fashion had evidently felt the change of atmosphere before the clouds were actually visible, for the autumn styles that were shown almost simultaneously with the crisis featured the “tube” line as a rival to the curves of the original New Look. Some of the models have a rising waistline and most of them a shorter skirt. Fashion is hovering in the balance—and so is the issue between peace and war.

A Clue to Communism?

There is, however, one important factor that may influence the issue in the fashion field in a different way to the course of international affairs. Conflicts with an external foe have not affected fashion as much as internal conflicts, except when there has been unrest in the other countries and a strong current of sympathy with the ideology of the aggressive nation.

It is thus possible that the spreading skirt and tightly girt waist of the New Look might become the banner of the West in its opposition to Russia— especially as Russia’s rulers have put a veto on the adoption of such a style there. For the women of the West to give it up would be palpable evidence of fear and weakness, both in facing the danger from Russia and in resisting the growth of Communism in their own countries. The Tube Look is a fifth column in the western camp and its adoption would be a signal of surrender. So women may decide to stand firm on their renewed Victorian line instead of retreating to the insecurity of the thin line behind, on an impulse of appeasement. For a return to the vertical line would show they had the “wind up.”

If they do choose to stand firm, the effect would be interesting to watch— like an open vote at a public meeting. For a skimpy skirt and a shapeless dress would clearly label the wearer as having Communist inclinations. So would such accompaniments as bare heads, head scarves, close-cropped hair, bare hands, bare legs, sandals and flat or wedge-heeled shoes. It would be hard on feminists who favored such styles from a dislike of womanliness rather than a liking for Communism.

Yet, in contrast to many labels, it would be fundamentally true. For all these features were originally introduced by the “intelligentsia” of the extreme Left as a demonstration of “Red” sympathies and revolutionary desires before they were taken up by women of fashion, quite unconscious of their meaning. The same thing happened before the French Revolution. it