Apr. 28, 2016

Pencil Skirt: To Knee Or Not To Knee

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.

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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!


Add yours
  1. labisqwee says:

    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.

  2. […] 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 […]

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Pencil Skirt:  To Knee Or Not To Knee