Concealed or revealed by the staple item, the patella takes your style two different routes.
A reader submitted this shot (she didn’t provide the source) explaining how she would love to spend her summer dressed like this, but doubts it will work for her. She describes herself as a 5’6 tall girl with fragile shoulders, long limbs and heavy hips and laments that she typically has problems with pencil skirts. The only way for her to sport one is to go with opaque matching tights and matching top. How very dull. This is such a typical conundrum for all classic beauties out there!
In the slide show I offer my first-hand experience of making a pencil skirts work for the described body type. And in the entry below I am digging into the evolution of the pencil skirt and explain just how come one simple skirt can work so differently for different body (and beauty) types along the way.
Sweatshirts make great company for a prim pencil skirt, regardless of one’s beauty type. But in this combination everything is put together to celebrate the athletic, Amazon beauty.
During the 2013-2015 sweatshirt rage, lots of sweatshirts leaned toward more polished, elevated styles, but the terry fabric, raglan sleeve, and necklines’ crisscross stitch makes this one a decidedly sporty item. Once juxtaposed with the elaborate lace of the skirt, such simplicity totally makes sense. The bag gently supports the polished mood, but overall, with its simple take on hair, armory looking accessories, and rustic shoes it is a sporty look. Just a slightly elevated one.
The simple sweatshirt skims over her athletic torso while skirt’s elaborate lace provides balance for narrower hips. If your most important asset is a well defined waist and fragile shoulders, while your thighs are on the heavy side, then you need some reverse engineering: namely, a more elaborate sweatshirt and a simpler skirt. Don’t use raglans as they are designed to soften strong torsos. If your shoulders are fragile and your torso is snake-like, then the last thing you need is a raglan sleeve. This is counterintuitive, but you need to part with your waist and put more volume on top. This will create a favorable proportion for a knee revealing pencil skirt. Then you might still need to add an extra something to further enhance your neckline. All this might mean switching out rustic shoes for something more urban.
Parting with your waist. For some of my classic beauty clients this is a difficult transition. It feels like putting on a chastity belt. A pronounced waist is a blessing. I have one too and I assure you that if you want to play this card, you have to go with a knee-concealing, tapered, ‘J.Schatzberg-length’ pencil skirt (see text below for the explanation). Good luck finding one. The knee covering A-lines are a different story. They won’t do.
But, if it is 8:15 am, and this entry finds you in your bathroom with a toothbrush and a knee-revealing pencil skirt in hand and you still hope to have your morning coffee before you clock in, then know that your snake-like torso has just signed up for a sport camp and it needs to adjust.
I know. I was weeping too. It will all change one day. Believe me.
An athletic girl can wear her knee-revealing pencil skirt any way she wants: with knits, girls blouses, and husbands shirts. She can go tucked in, untucked, semi-tuck, quarter-tuck, or you-name-it-tuck- anything works. For the ladylike (bottom heavy, low hip), not so much. Most of the time, the knee-revealing pencil skirt means knits. And going untucked to create the necessary volume.
Finding knits that are neither clingy nor baggy can be quite an ordeal. I rely on men’s sweaters heavily.
Clingy & semi-clingy knits, widely available from the female departments, typically work well on athletic torsos, but if you are in the opposite camp, then having your bust, waist, and a knee exposed all at once creates that drastic effect that chased you away from the world of skirts in the first place. Some men’s sweaters drape nicely in the abdominal area, featuring a fragile torso underneath the fabric in softer manner, without clinging. I like XS and S men’s sweaters better than female knits sized up, because the latter tend to be too long and baggy, creating a shapeless ‘babuska’ look and short legs. Cut for a shorter male’s torso, mens’ knits provide better proportion and necessary drape.
If you are well endowed in the chest area,then a lot will depend on your bra. If you don’t like what you see in the mirror, it might not be the sweater. It is the bra. You’ll need a good one here. You always need a good one, but some clothes will let you cheat a bit. This is not the case.
When picking your sweater, pay attention to all the construction details. Raglan sleeves and V-necks are typical measures to soften up a strong, square torso and add an inch to a short neck. A V-neck from the men’s department may work on a full, hourglass body, along with an “Italian length” skirt (see the text below for explanation). But slender girls with long, snake-like torsos who are outfitting their knee-revealing pencil skirts are up against the opposite problem: they need to equip their delicate torso against their heavy thighs. Make sure you have a good solid crewneck and your shoulder seams are more pronounced and placed closer to your shoulder bone.
Having said that, it is the raglan sleeve, a decidedly athletic construction detail, that makes the combination with a prim pencil skirt interesting and fresh. It invites those feminine, bucolic designs for an intricate contrast, which is exactly what looks so now. Losing the raglan makes such a duet lifeless and obsolete.
Because the raglan sweater is such an Amazon beauty thing and won’t do for me, I play with brighter colors and stronger textures to make up for the loss.
Once in a while you come across a good knit from the ladies department. J.Crew’s SS 2015 linen beach sweater, cropped in the front with an elongated, draped back, turned out to be one of those skirt friendly items for me. I will have a lot more to say about it with a close-up in the next slide, and will use an extra space here to add my two cents about hosiery.
For the classic type, the knee revealing pencil skirt is a predominantly summer, bare-leg item, (that swimming suit, remember? See text below). If you need such a skirt for your strict office attire, then either put an extra volume, chunky sweater on top or go with a slightly longer version, a knee-length (mid knee) pencil skirt. If you use opaque tights for warmth or style then go with an even shorter skirt in thicker, wool fabrics.
Athletic and natural types wear their knee-revealing pencil skirts with opaque tights beautifully. They usually parted with sheer hosiery long before they got to this write up. If you consider yourself an athletic type and need sheer hosiery for the office, then go with sheer light grey or light brown. Gamines will wear these skirts with dotted sheer hosiery to everyone’s enjoyment and no additional effort required.
With this SS 2015 model J.Crew also nailed it with the shoulder seam and sleeve tailoring. It does contradict my previous recommendation, but this is not a raglan. They lowered the shoulder seam to a mid bicep area, which creates the illusion of a tapered effect on the sleeve, to which classic beauty responds really well. This tailoring also pushes volume up to the shoulders, which is exactly what is needed here to create favorable proportions. Amazingly enough, it also helps soften up some top-heavy body types. 2015 saw a lot of these sweaters, with Stella McCartney and Vince, among the designers experimenting with style.
Another secret of this sweater is its linen fabric. The linen thread is coarse and light, which in most clothes translates into a strong casual effect. It really helps natural and athletic beauties look effortless and fresh, but does nothing for classic beauties other than make them look unkempt. The moment linen turns into jersey, everything changes. This is when linen’s coarse, lightweight thread works for not against the smooth lines of a classic body. It strongly supports my DD case in its casual-wear endeavors. Whenever I come across linen jersey, I buy it in every color.
Poncho sweaters can be a great ally, but you need to find one with tapered effects. A snug neckline and a cocoon shape are essential if you want to wear your ‘Millennial’ length pencil skirt with flats.
Speaking of flats… All pencil skirts come in two general shapes: a tighter, snug one and the one with a little give for a slight A-line effect. If you are a classic beauty who is in need of comfort of flats, then go for a former. You will be rewarded with better proportions.
Enough sweaters. Let’s talk about some less obvious and more interesting things. Bombers and boxy, cropped jackets are such a joy. Just make sure you find one in a non-sporty fabric. Go with velvet, wool, or boucle, otherwise the athletic component may get overwhelming and those delicate features will sink.
The Amazon beauties usually pair sporty bombers and bikers with their knee-revealing skirts to great effect. The knee revealing pencil skirt serves as a polished item for them and combined with a tough layer it allows them to feature their femininity in a totally new, unconventional way. But for more gentle beauties, a knee revealing pencil skirt is not elegant; it is a sporty item. Don’t overdo it with another openly sporty number on top.
I pair mine with an unlined wool biker jacket. It brings the necessary touch of casual and creates the sought after volume, while providing more structure and shape than jersey. It feels like a sweater (it’s unlined), while connecting my features to the old world they belong to with the fabric, while allowing me not to worry about my bra. For once I can wear my dear old, worn-out one, phew.
Tucking frill blouses and office shirts alike into a knee-revealing skirt works great for athletic and gamine types. They usually tuck their tops in automatically and truly enjoy what they see in the mirror. The new shorter pencil skirts’ hem allows them to make the blouse and skirt look updated and quirky. They would be genuinely surprised to find out that there is species out there for whom this fool-proof look does not work.
There is. The soft, feminine types who seem to have been born into all these fitted, ladylike button-ups are the ones who, in the new order of things, are inevitably failed by them. All they get is the dreadful secretary look. As I have outlined in my essay below, when pencil skirt hems raised, the proportions changed and everything shifted. If you are a classic beauty type then most of the time your knee-revealing pencil skirt means jersey tops that go over it, untucked to support the casual, sporty vibe ignited by a new length.
Very rarely you come across a silk blouse or shirt that creates the necessary volume over a delicate torso. So when you do, you jump on it. Mine does the right thing with its extended tapered (again) sleeve cuffs that push the fabric up creating the extra billowy effect, which helps the childbearing hips look svelte.
I know, this looks anything but sporty, but if you give it a closer look, you will realize that with the cuffs and solid front, the blouse echoes a masculine, Musketeer shirt rather than a traditional female button-up. Gotcha!
Well, it was a button-up in the first place. Designed with an athletic torso in mind, it certainly used the Musketeer sentiment to highlight an independent, emancipated beauty. But I have appropriated the blouse for my very own needs, wearing it backwards. Always check to see what you can squeeze out of every garment (made of good fabric.)
Before we say goodbye I will say a couple of words about shoes for the classic, soft beauties out there who are getting ready to face their knee-revealing pencil skirts. Matching shoes with skirts is a whole separate topic, but for now I will just say this: keep shoes neutral to your skin (unless you are partying after 6 pm and being transported in a limo). I employ an entire fleet ranging from sexy pumps to sensible oxford flats, picking the right ones based on a particular combination. The only thing they have in common is that they are all skin-neutral. They do their share in maintaining favorable proportions.
Ah, I know I said goodbye already, but for those of you with a long attention span, here is a little extra. If I was not convincing enough, then Miroslava Duma should be. The renowned street style star’s physique combines features of both the athletic and soft, classical beauty with an elongated torso that produces a heavier thigh with a soft knee. She is definitely fit and has hordes of street style photographers picking the best shot from the pile of their continuous shoot, but if you research her summer looks you will see what I am talking about. You will also see her employing a lot of techniques described here (purely intuitively, as most style mavens do). Mira’s example should serve as a great illustration that well-coordinated clothes and shoes can make the soft knee take a back seat. Then only haters and maybe an amateur anthropologist should be noticing the-not-industry-standard knee while looking at a beautiful woman. However, for now I picked an outfit that defies some of my very own advice to you. With her knee-revealing pencil skirt Mira wears contrasting pumps and- oh, dear!- she accentuates her waist. And no, I am not going to leave you with the industry standard ‘well that’s because she is Miroslava Duma.’ I picked this look for a reason. Everything I described in the preceding slides is mostly style 101. Something nobody told us or our mothers. Well, presumably, the French grandmas had passed this sort of advice on their daughters and granddaughters, resulting in the legendary ‘French Style.’ So, here I am, being your (French) grandma. But then I rely on Miroslava to help you further expand your horizons. Click for more!
Though Mira’s pumps are far from being neutral to her skin, the contrast is softer than if she wore black. The shoes match her skirt, creating a framing effect inherent to classic tradition, while the fierce color makes it modern and fresh. You are not getting the same effect with black. And then, let’s not forget that for all her fashion week outings, Mira is being transported in a limo which accommodates the depth of her toe cleavage, the height of her heels, and the afternoon glitter. It’s all in the context. Mere mortals, check the shoe tip in the previous slides.
As for her seemingly pinned waist, this is not a classic belting technique. The pencil skirt features a paper-bag waist, a detail borrowed from sport and casual wear (which was trending in SS 2014) that harkens back to the aforementioned swimming suit and provides supporting sporty moods for the exposed knee.
The next landmark of her outfit is an oversized Lagerfeld-like collar buttoned all the way up. This is what creates the thigh balancing ‘volume’, while a statement necklace and a thrown over trench is nothing more than a finishing touch.
Some would call this an example of artful rules breaking. I view things differently. For me, this is a great illustration of how beautifully flexible the sartorial rules are. They are all game to accommodate your body once you are open enough to get to know them more closely and are diligent in digging into all the nuances. Happy digging!
Concealed or revealed by the staple item, the patella takes your style two different routes.
Like the beige coat, the pencil skirt is catered to women as a must-have staple item that should work for anyone unconditionally. And, like the beige coat, for many of us it just does not. Because, just like the beige coat, the pencil skirt is an umbrella term used for an array of species. Fortunately, unlike the camel coat’s hues, the pencil skirt’s variety is more comprehensive. It basically falls into one of the two categories: the knee concealing and the knee revealing, with the mid-knee vacillating between the two. Your body type and overall proportions dictate what to do with each of these lengths. For today I will focus on the knee-revealing pencil skirt. I want to set it apart from the mid-thigh minis and all the jersey dresses and skirts as these deserve a separate entry. Today the knee revealing pencil skirt will take center-stage.
In her fascinating, and what is arguably the best account of modern fashion affairs, book The End of Fashion, Teri Agins, a style journalist and a WSJ senior writer, described in great detail the process of the garment industry turning into a marketing ploy. In the series of episodes that wrested control away from the forces in the fashion industry she singles out 1987, when “…designers missed the boat when they failed to sell women on short skirts…” Well, by now you can say they have certainly caught up. Today nearly all pencil skirts are knee revealing, creating yet another void.
Jerry Schatzberg 1950s-1960s
But let’s backtrack a bit. The pencil skirt first showed up in glamorous black and white images immortalized by the likes of Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, and Jerry Schatzberg. It fell below the knee or even mid-calf, the perfect length to enhance everything fabulous about classic feminine beauty: a long neck, fragile torso, delicate wrists and piano fingers, a well-defined waist, and sassy ankles. The skirt was tailored to disguise the heavy hips that typically accompany that very fragile torso. But it did very little for athletic bodies, which tended to look matronly in these intricately tailored confections. It hid their best assets- toned, athletic gams- and undermined their femininity by making their strong torsos look stumpy. When the mod silhouette with its emphasis on the knee came along, the athletic girls cheered and in the boho inspired 1970s they cheered even more. In the following decade the mod silhouette took it to its maxima tight minis, while longer skirts experimented with volume. By the turn of the century a new group of skirts, currently known as the wardrobe staple “pencil skirt,” emerged. It can be knee-concealing (slightly below the knee), knee revealing (slightly above the knee), or something in between. In my native Russian, this in between length is known as “the golden length” or “the Italian length.” With an overall tendency towards sporty looks these days, knee revealing pencil skirts dominate the American market. “The Italian length” is a runner up and the tapered, knee concealing ones- I am going to coin them “the J.Schatzberg length”- are the hardest to find.
Signature J.Crew pencil skirt styling inherent to ‘outdoor’ beauty types.
If you are on the athletic side or consider yourself top heavy then you probably wear your knee-revealing pencil skirt out and about and cannot possibly understand what on earth can be hard about it. If you are bottom heavy then you’ve probably fallen into a jeans rut because after numerous attempts you came to the conclusion that skirts just don’t work for you. Deep inside you may feel that jeans don’t work either, but at least it is not as apparent and allows you to sport your devil may care attitude. With skirts you look like you try too hard. And fail.
Come over here, my little bottom heavy girl, I have something to share with you about your classic beauty. This is what happened. The moment that the “J. Schatzberg length” skirts became knee revealing they stopped being elegant and became sporty. By doing so they became inherent for an athletic top heavy body that often comes with a high hip (a body morphology in which the heaviest part of the hip is located above the crotch and constitutes heavier torso and lithe thighs). This is when the athletic gal finally received a go-to item for all her business wear, formal wear, and beyond, something she had been deprived of before, because the decidedly elegant “J. Schatzbert length” pencil skirt simply went against her physique. But with the millennial-length pencil skirt emerged in the 1990s she wears it with knits, jackets, frill blouses, and her husband’s shirts alike. She goes tucked and untucked and truly believes this is a fit-all, must-have item. And for her athletic body it really is. But for you, my dear snake-like torso, bottom heavy babe, that knee-revealing pencil skirt lost the graceful élan of Cecil, Irving, and Jerry’s photography when it lost those couple of inches and rose slightly above the knee. You switched spots with the athletic gal; it is now you who look ridiculous in a classic pencil skirt, because this new knee-revealing length does not favor the fragile torso-heavy low hip combination.
The snake-like torsos, immortalized by Beaton, Schatzberg and Penn, typically come with a heavy knee, which looks out of proportion. This is a so called low-hip setup, a body morphology in which the heaviest part of the hip is located below the crotch and creates that very heavy knee. That’s why it was disguised for the most part of human history. When Chanel went outrageous in the 60s about raising hems and revealing knees, she wasn’t just disconnected with the pace of fashion, she actually had a point. Chanel did not have a fragile torso herself and while accommodating her very own body type, did her share in dismissing the waist, but she had a low-hip and a heavy knee. And she knew firsthand just how unflattering the knee-revealing length might look. What she did not realize though, was that there was a treasure buried under some classic women skirts. That treasure was a sharp, angular patella which inevitably accompanies what for centuries was considered a major woman’s curse: a compacted, heavy torso and a strong, short neck. Squeezed into corsets and petticoats those women were deemed misfortunate and nobody bothered to take a closer look at their stronger sides. Well, let’s face it, it wasn’t that easy to do. In the XX century when hems finally rose, it became possible for the knee to be discovered. Those who had literally unearthed it, must have felt like they came over a source of alternative energy and they set about making the most of it. Everything that happened to fashion starting at the Cuban Missile Crisis and after, aimed to accommodate the sharp patella and disguise the strong neck that often times comes with it. Resting on the premises that a classic feminine body is so beautiful that everything works for it, fashion bit off piece after piece leaving classical beauties with nothing to wear. The knee-concealing pencil skirt was just one of the casualties.
With the new knee-revealing pencil skirt the athletic gal got herself a polished item while the classic glam puss lost one. One drastic mistake that women of soft, classic beauty make these days is to keep taking this new easy going breed of millennial knee-revealing pencil skirt for the glamorous item poeticized by Penn-Beaton-Schatzberg. They tuck in their tailored shirts, slip into clingy knits, accessorize dutifully, sometimes even coiffure their hair and cannot understand for a life of them just how on earth they still look so ridiculous and unnecessarily exposed while wearing such a basic and conservative garment.
George Hoynigenn Huene 1930
The answer is it’s the knee. There is nothing glamorous about the knee. Knee is all about casual, easy going, and sometimes even outright sporty attitude. The athletic beauty’s strong torso does this job naturally, while the classic ones need to pivot. In other words, when an athletic girl received her new polished, formal garment, congruent with her physique, the soft, ladylike beauty was presented with a sporty one. And she needs to treat it as such. The picture on the left of the 1930s swimming suit by Hoyningen-Huene could pass for a millennial partygoer look; it basically serves as an archetype for the modern skirt. While the pencil skirts in question definitely cover more thigh, the very fact that the knee is revealed makes any pencil skirt look harken back to this swimming suit, rather than to Penn’s and Schatzberg’s images of the 1950s. That is why the athletic gal can sport her knee-revealing pencil skirt with more feminine tops (or boyfriend shirts), clingy knits, and sexy shoes and look great. Her balance is just right, but if the ladylike does the same, she will look like she could use some cover up, which is exactly what’s needed.
So what the classic beauty types need to do now is let go of their glamorous sentiments a bit and embrace their sporty side. Don’t worry, you will still keep your ladylike appeal- it’s in your veins. You just need to even things out for the right balance.
The millennial-length, knee-revealing pencil skirt adapted for the ‘indoor’ beauty by J.Crew styling.
By embracing your sporty side you are basically trying to mimic the athletic girl’s torso. She knows that her waist can get lost in the clothes, but her gams, with their feisty knees, are always there for her. If you are that very athletic girl and feel that you are struggling with the pencil skirt, then check to see whether it is in fact too long for you. Fold it an inch or two and see if things improve. They should. If they don’t, get busy with colors. If you feel that both your upper and lower body can betray you then go for the mid-knee “Italian length” pencil skirt.
In the slide show above I put together a couple of graceful ways to bring a ladylike torso to the new sporty knee-revealing length. Go and check them out. You will see how these new knee-revealing pencil skirts can make your wardrobe both, versatile and comfy.
Digging deep into a Russians psycho to find a complex version of a Bond Girl in there. Angie, think twice!
I recently engaged in a conversation with my American friend about Russian culture which ended up with a story that I feel compelled to share here. I think it could fit well in a “Russia Beyond the Headlines” section. This is about a core female archetype in Russia that is called “the Decembrist wife.” Ask any […]
I adored the extent to which you pay attention to details in this one. It made me remember how I discovered the very same concept while randomly pairing my short-but-oh-so-beautiful embroidered skirt with casual slouchy jumper, after giving up hope on both of these items to do any justice to my inflection-accentuated body, and was amazed how the combination of them did exactly what they failed to achieve. The sporty vibe was present so strongly I could easily imagine trading the ankle boots for sneakers. https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/-kglemvTiHu8/VzrNBWO8L1I/AAAAAAAAIe4/-sjUCm1mUAgY-73q63Tz4gC4pfWNgSJfgCCo/s600/violet_sweater_.jpg
This is what I worship your blog for: even if one does have all the knowledge concerning a certain topic, reading your take on it still feels divinely entertaining.
thank you, my dear!
[…] than not all this will happen at the expense of neck length. This build opened the door for the millennium length pencil skirts, wildly exposed knees, boxy cuts, and athletic-utility footwear. All of these are used not only to help marathoner’s legs take […]