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Lean times, long looks

Our skirt hems are around our ankles this autumn ... and that can only mean one thing. No, not a moral revolution, just another economic crisis. By Belinda Morris
Oh dear, I can feel a personal financial dilemma coming on. All the signs are looming around me: I've started gazing wistfully at car boot sales (to buy or sell); I've started to turn the light out when leaving a room and, regretfully, I've cut right back on that expensive 70 per cent cocoa chocolate. But there are other, more telling omens. Dark and disturbing, intimate things that only a fashion person might notice (at first) and they go way beyond the metaphorical tightening of a belt.

It began innocently enough - or so I thought - with the realisation that my trousers were wide enough at the ankle for me to retract my cold bare feet into, while sitting curled up on the sofa (watching re-runs of Dad's Army, which has to be a sign in itself). Then, when I stood up, they were voluminous and slouchy enough to almost hide my feet completely. I started to get that funny cold shiver of deja vu. But so far, nothing too scary.

But what happened next was much more worrying. With the aforementioned fund-raising car boot sale in mind, I began a scourge of my wardrobe, casually throwing out anything that seemed remotely passe - like any skirt on the knee or above. I even started to reappraise some old, calf-length numbers that hadn't seen the light of day for years. A floor-length black velvet skirt, bought at a jumble sale three years ago, was suddenly pulsating with possibilities. Whoaa, wait a minute. What's going on here?

Falling hemlines? It can only mean one thing - monetary mayhem. Will there be a Wall Street crash? Well, all I can say to the financial speculators is: look back in your fashion history books. It's all there.

It's uncanny, isn't it, how the economic affairs of the world (sometimes all of it, sometimes just parts of it) are echoed in the position of a hemline? Going back to the beginning of time, there's always been a relationship between clothes and prosperity but, specific social nuances aside, that's understandable and obvious. This is different. During this century in particular, there's been one example after another of quite deliberate collusion between the money men and fashion designers.

The deal is: when the going gets tough, women should show support by covering their ankles. Witness the Wall Street crash of 1929 saw hemlines dropping drastically; Dior's shamelessly longer-length New Look of 1947 coincided with worsening rationing and fuel shortages (and women went with the look, despite pleas by the Board of Trade to the British Guild of Creative Designers to keep short skirts popular and save fabric). The mid 1970s saw the general financial malaise caused by the oil crisis, which found sartorial sympathy in Biba's long, lean skirts and ridiculously wide Oxford Bags. And now look what's happening. Fashion's big cheeses (Gucci for one, so it must be true) would have us in floor-sweeping skirts and pants again - and for the foreseeable future.

There was a bit of a build-up, which should have been regarded as a warning. As currencies in South-east Asia went into freefall last year, we were introduced to knee-length pencil skirts, while the innocuous enough boot- cut pant (that revelled in a bit of ankle-revealing) was superseded by a much lengthier and voluminous trouser shape. But as the latter didn't quite make mainstream impact, the signs were probably ignored.

Well, there's no ignoring it now. The roubel's in deep doo-doo; Wall Street's got the jitters; the British property market is slowing and every designer worth his salt (Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs, Jil Sander, Paul Smith, Nicole Farhi, Ann Demeulemeester) sent models down the runways swathed in yards of shoe-hiding, floor-trailing tweeds and flannels.

The high street, certain now that it knows a real trend when positively flung in its face, duly responded by offering passably comparable looks at a fraction of the price. Nougat, Oasis, Jigsaw, French Connection, Fenn Wright & Manson, Sisley and Sportmax - they've all come up trumps on this one. The question is - are you ready for the big cover up, and if so, can you carry it off with aplomb?

Naturally enough, it helps if you're tall, young and slim (in which case, you can carry anything off). But there's more than one way to wear a long tweed skirt and keep your self-respect. Street-wise nonchalance comes with the Gucci-esque hip-slung, ankle-length skirt with combat pant-style fly front and, if you wear it with a gently fitted hip-length jacket, it should add some length to the body. A simple white shirt with black leather skirt gives the look a hard edge. Or there's the grand-entrance, a really long coat, over an even longer skirt - but not great for the vertically challenged.

This is a no-compromise sort of trend - it's even being decreed that you cannot help nature even a little by wearing your high heels (the flattest of the flat shoes are the only truly stylish option, apparently). But hey, what the heck - there's a war on and England expects and all that. I for one refuse to be intimidated by this new look. Personally, I'm going for the fluid-skirt-with-drop-dead-cosy-chunky-sweater-boho look in pure cashmere (with cashmere socks and sheepskin booties) and then I'm going to hibernate for the winter with bars of Cadbury's and Steptoe & Son.