Going to great lengths: The long skirt is back

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After years in the style wilderness, the long skirt is back. But it can be a tricky look to master, says Harriet Walker

The art of trend-forecasting in the Twenties may have been less finely honed than it is now, but the public were just as cynical.

On a lecture tour of America, designer Paul Poiret – who liberated post-Edwardian women from their steel-reinforced corsets and bustles, and introduced the hobble skirt – foresaw fashion's next big thing. "When I announce today that short skirts have ended their reign," he began, "and I prophesy long skirts, I produce feelings of anxiety and disquiet. I am told that I am mad. Women swear they will never again wear long skirts."

He wasn't wrong – at least, not in his analysis of women's attitudes to their wardrobes; his fashion prediction was a little further from the mark. Since Poiret's day, hemlines have been up and down like the stock exchange (indeed, the correlation between the two is well documented), but very rarely have they hung below the mid-calf region. And in these fleshy times, anyone who doesn't show their knees is considered a prude.

So it was with a mixture of trepidation and disbelief that the fashion set noted the return of the long skirt for summer. There are always a few floating around the collections to be slung on over bikinis for beach holidays, but when the trend continued at the autumn shows, we knew this was different.

"The long skirt has made a welcome return," says Topshop's skirt designer Mary McCarthy, "and it looks stronger and more versatile then ever. Whether worn with a distressed crop T-shirt for a rocky approach, or you choose a Woodstock vibe with a pretty vintage vest, the long skirt looks new and fresh."

But not too fresh – the look needs to be more grunge than boho. As soon as a floor-length skirt resembles anything akin to pastoral, it starts to look dated and ridiculous. Keep things urban by wearing yours with clumpy flat boots, a loose cardigan and a low-slung satchel. Above all, don't let it get too pretty.

The problem with long skirts is the fact that they never seem to be conducive to any sort of fashion nonchalance. It's hard to feel cool in a long skirt, because they carry such strong connotations of forced naivety, of dressing up – of looking a bit like the village idiot, really. They're seen as hyperbolically romantic or overtly gothic, neither of which really marks you out as a Serious Person.

"The long and lean styles have been a surprise hit," says Emma Elwick-Bates, market editor at Vogue. "From Alexander Wang's 'T' line, Acne and River Island, they're an alternative foundation to a cool urban look and are great paired with a military parka or a fisherman's jumper and a no-nonsense flat."

Thankfully, the latest breed is less 'challenging', a word that fashion pundits employ to describe a must-have garment that looks terrible on the vast majority of people. "It can be a tricky trend," adds Elwick-Bates, "but think of it as 'freedom dressing'. Flats keep the look directional and minimise the trip factor." The point is to look effortless, and the key is a mix of streamlined silhouette, muted colour and a relaxed choice of fabric. It's hard to look like you don't care when you're trailing yards of chiffon and have more flounces than a suburban valance.

Catwalk versions of the trend tended toward the gothic, with darkly beautiful offerings from Rick Owens and Gareth Pugh, and the minimal, with subverted basics at Yohji Yamamoto and Ann Demeulemeester. Yves Saint Laurent's wins top prize for cute, with a graphic strawberry motif on ruffled white cotton, but it might be a challenge to pull off down the high street.

Jersey is really the ideal fabric, as it has the requisite heaviness to create a drop which carefully moulds to your figure, without (and it's crucial, this) sticking to every rogue lump. Long skirts need a bit of cling to keep them out of Sienna Miller territory, but they shouldn't be skin-tight: you still need to walk, after all, and tight column skirts tend to make all but the most sylph-like resemble a sausage.

It may seem an unnecessary tautology to also point out that a long skirt needs to be long: that is, covering-the-feet length. Sodden hemlines and a dusty tidemark are rather adolescent, but anything flapping at ankle height is (sorry to be blunt) for squares. Don't confuse the long skirt with the mid-length skirt – which should hit the calf halfway between your knees and your feet – and make sure yours rests on the tops of your shoes.

Keep colours subdued and choose from every variation of grey, from slate via heather to marl, or try navy and black. Black skirts need to be especially slim-fitting to avoid any Camden Market or Elvira overtones. Finally, remember to consider volume when incorporating your new long skirt into your existing wardrobe. The rule should be: the clingier the skirt, the looser the top, and vice versa. Slub cotton T-shirts, oversized shirts and sloppy knits are perfect for this trend; vest tops and low-cut, tight numbers are not.

It may feel like a lot of advice to take in, but you don't want to look like you've tried too hard, do you?

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